Gonzalez content behind CBS desk

Tony Gonzalez is not coming through that tunnel Thursday night.

Although wouldn’t that be a goose-flesh moment, out of nowhere the all-time tight end just appears amid the smoke and noise of the pregame introduction, back in a Falcons uniform for a surprise encore? The Bucs might just pack up right then and go back to Tampa.

But his reaction to such suggestions is consistent: “Are you kidding me? Football hurts.”

If there is a single fiber of Gonzalez that misses playing, it has yet to show itself. He has discovered the alternate football universe where the game is abstract, where Monday mornings don’t mean getting out of bed in segments and where, yes, a man is going to put on a little makeup before going out under the bright lights.

That noise he made earlier in the year about being open to coming back, at age 38, if he got a call from some team that was 10-0, maybe making a last reach for that elusive Super Bowl? “I was just talking trash. I’m not coming back,” he said.

He did come back to Atlanta this week, and even visited the Falcons Flowery Branch training camp Wednesday. My, how things do change in a year. He punched in his old code to open the front gate at camp, and it didn’t work anymore. And rather than game-planning with Matt Ryan, Gonzalez was interviewing him.

Mostly, he’s a Sunday guy, but will be brought in to work the pregame of four CBS Thursday night games this year. No better one to start with than this one, featuring one of his two former teams, the Falcons, versus Tampa Bay. It will be Gonzalez’s first time back in the Georgia Dome since calling it a career on the low note of 2013’s 12th loss.

Yeah, after 17 years in the league, catching more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than any tight end ever, he just doesn’t know what to do with himself these days now that he’s not playing.

If you don’t count the immersion Spanish class he took, attempting to reconnect with his grandfather’s heritage.

Or the guest appearances on just about every daytime show this side of Judge Judy. The Talk. The View. He’ll be on with Rachael Ray Thursday.

Crossing over, he has one scene on an upcoming NCIS in which he is Special Agent Tony Francis, who, of course, incurs the steely wrath of agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. “I had a good time with it, but (acting) is not a goal of mine,” he said.

Once upon a time, maybe it was a camera crew from ESPN who would come into town and have a sit down with Gonzalez, asking him mundane football questions. Now, as was the case Wednesday, it might be one from “Entertainment Tonight,” who, among other things, wanted to know how he felt being referred to “as the hot one” on the CBS set. Man, is Bill Cowher going be steamed.

Since retiring, rather than packing on idle pounds, he has lost 15. It was natural he said, once he stopped lifting weights for bulk and packing on the calories in order to keep himself stout enough to survive a season. “My body is starting to feel a little better. Stepping away from the game is a different lifestyle and it’s a good one,” he said.

Where is the longing for the singular excitement of game day, you ask? Where are the regrets that come with the realization he’ll never again do what he has done better than, arguably, anyone? He is just not going to wander there.

Not playing even has been liberating in a way. “I always did have an opinion, I just kept it to myself,” he said.

If that means he talk about the Falcons deficiencies, well, hallelujah.

“That was the biggest question about me (as an analyst) because I was so vanilla when I played,” Gonzalez said. “Every athlete does (safe talk), every smart athlete does it. You can’t go out there and call people out.

“If I was playing, I couldn’t say, ‘Yeah, they got to get sacks, it’s inexcusable. If you don’t get pressure we’re going to lose.’ Then I’m blaming the defensive line. But part of it is, yes, they need to get sacks for this team to be good.”

His first week on the job, the NFL suddenly became a societal petri dish, where the issues of domestic abuse and child abuse came under intense observation. Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, then later Adrian Peterson, all diverted the conversation from the line of scrimmage. Gonzalez did not exactly sign up to be case worker. And he remains a believer that the NFL is “a league of really good guys, good husbands, good parents, good in the community.” But…

“It is what it is and you have to react,” he said.

“I’m going to do the best I can to help the process, try to give answers, try to give clarity to people out there who have those questions. I’m going to give my opinion and hopefully it’s a good one.”

It’s not like these issues aren’t important, or they don’t touch millions. Almost on cue, just as he was about to get into the troubles that accompanied the opening of this season, Gonzalez received a text from home. Back in California, his four-year-old son had just gotten into a little trouble and was kicked out of school for the day.

“He’s going be in big trouble,” he said.

There was a brief pause, as the parallels to the Peterson case revealed themselves.

“Am I going to beat him with a switch? Noooo.”