A couple of players with Georgia ties were feeling kind of golden Saturday.
Former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, a pillar on the 2012 team that reached the NFC Championship game, and Champ Bailey, a former Georgia Bulldog, were selected Saturday to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
They are set to receive their gold jackets in August in Canton, Ohio.
Gonzalez was elated.
“I figure if I was lucky enough to be first-ballot it was going to be in Atlanta,” Gonzalez said. “How great would that be. When Kansas City was playing to get here, I was like ‘oh my God. It’s about to be Kansas City playing in Atlanta.’ I was super excited about it.”
Bailey recognized his roots in the state.
“Growing up, all we had was football,” Bailey said. “That’s at least what I thought. There was nothing else that interested me more….It means a lot that I can do it here…I’m proud to say I’m a Bulldog. ”
In addition to Gonzalez and Bailey, safety Ed Reed, center Kevin Mawae and cornerback Ty Law also were selected, along with contributors Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt. Safety Johnny Robinson, a senior candidate from the AFL era, was selected.
The annual Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee meeting was held in downtown Atlanta. The 48-person selection committee met to elect the newest class the day before Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To be elected, a finalist must receive a minimum positive vote of 80 percent during the annual selection meeting.
Defensive lineman Richard Seymour, a former Georgia player, was a finalist, but was not selected.
Gonzalez was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round (13th overall) of the 1997 draft. The Falcons acquired Gonzalez in a 2009 trade with the Chiefs for a well-spent second-round pick.
“There was no doubt in my mind when we traded for Tony that he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Saturday. “The credentials he had at that point in his career were already those of an all-time great.”
Before the trade, he likely was already bound for Canton, Ohio, as Dimitroff implied. He played 190 games and had 916 catches for 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns for the Chiefs. In five seasons with the Falcons he added 80 games, 409 catches, 4,187 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Gonzalez’s 1,325 catches rank second to Jerry Rice (1,549) on the all-time receptions list. He was voted to 14 Pro Bowls.
“I am thrilled for Tony to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “He is unquestionably the greatest tight end to ever play the game and we were very fortunate to see him reach a number of milestones as a member of the Falcons. This is a great honor and I couldn’t be happier for Tony and his family.”
Gonzalez made one of the greatest catches in Falcons’ history. The Falcons blew a 27-7 lead against Seattle in the NFC divisional playoff game in the 2012 season. The Seahawks with three fourth-quarter touchdowns surged ahead 28-27 with 31 seconds to play.
Jacquizz Rodgers had a 34-yard kickoff return from six yards deep in the end zone to get the ball out to the 28. Wide receiver Harry Douglas got open for a 22-yard gain to the 50-yard line with only 19 seconds left.
On the next play, Gonzalez got down the field, put an outside move on and then broke back inside and caught the ball. He broke through a tackle attempt by Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner and rumbled for a 19-yard gain. Gonzalez’s play set up Matt Bryant for a 49-yard field goal to win the game 30-28.
The Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship game, but were defeated 28-24 by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, one step away from the Super Bowl.
Before that victory, Gonzalez had never won a playoff game.
“Trading for him was one of the first bold moves we made and what he did in his time here in Atlanta was incredible, from a player and leadership perspective,” Dimitroff said. “This honor is incredibly well-deserved, and I look forward to seeing him enshrined in Canton.”
A former college basketball player at California, Gonzalez also started a trend of dunking the ball over the goal posts after he scored a touchdown. That celebration was banned by the NFL in 2014.
In addition to being productive, Gonzalez taught his teammates several valuable lessons. They’ve all watched him tirelessly work before, during and after practice.
When he was ready to retire, Gonzalez looked back on his career in 2013.
“I want people to remember (my consistency),” Gonzalez said. “That is my routine and the way I approached it. That’s what makes you great. The numbers and everything else is a byproduct of your routine.”
Gonzalez will become the ninth inductee with Falcons ties in the Hall of Fame, joining wide receiver Tommy McDonald (1967), kicker Morten Andersen (1995-2000 and 2006-07), running back Eric Dickerson (1993, 4 games), cornerback Deion Sanders (1989-93), defensive end Claude Humphrey (1968-1978), defensive end Chris Doleman (1994-95), quarterback Brett Favre (1991, four games) and general manager Bobby Beathard (scout 1968-71 and senior adviser 2002).
Bailey, considered the top cornerback of his era, played in 215 games over 15 seasons with Washington (1999-2003) and Denver (2004-13).
Bailey, after starring at Charlton County, played at Georgia from 1996-98. In the NFL, he was a 12-time Pro Bowl player and a five-time All-Pro selection.
He had 10 interceptions to lead the league in 2006. He finished his career with 52 interceptions. He was named to Denver’s 50th anniversary team.
It was noted that Bailey played for 11 defensive coordinators and made the transition from the heavy contact era to the current one where defenders can barely breathe on receivers. He is considered one of the last shutdown cornerbacks.
Law was in his fifth year of eligibility and has been a finalist for three years. He played for Patriots (1995-2004), New York Jets (2005, 2008), Kansas City (2006-07) and Broncos (2009).
Law had more interceptions (53) than Bailey and played on three Super Bowl-winning teams. He led the league in interceptions twice (1998 and 2005).
The last cornerback enshrined was Aeneas Williams in 2014. Deion Sanders was the last cornerback to be selected in his first year of eligibility, in 2011.
Seymour, a 6-foot-6, 317-pound defensive tackle, played for New England (2001-12) and Oakland (2009-12). He played in 164 games over 12 seasons. He was voted to seven Pro Bowls.
He played at Georgia from 1997-2000.
The other modern-era finalists were safety Steve Atwater, tackle Tony Boselli, wide receiver Isaac Bruce, coach Don Coryell, offensive lineman Alan Faneca, coach Tom Flores, offensive guard Steve Hutchinson, running back Edgerrin James and safety John Lynch.
Gonzalez will become the ninth modern-era tight end to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He will join David Casper, Mike Dikta, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow.
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