For the Falcons, it was the best second-round pick ever spent.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff, looking to add a weapon for the blossoming offense and a promising young quarterback, made a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 to land the already legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons just wanted Gonzalez to play for a couple of seasons, but he ended up playing five and helped the Falcons get within six yards of a trip to the Super Bowl.
Gonzalez, the most prolific tight end of the modern era who played 12 dynamic years with the Chiefs before joining the Falcons, will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
“Tony was such an important part of our organization,” Dimitroff said. “He was the go-to guy. Matt had so much confidence in him.”
In addition to Gonzalez, former UGA star Champ Bailey, safety Ed Reed, center Kevin Mawae and cornerback Ty Law, along with contributors Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt and safety Johnny Robinson, a senior candidate from the AFL era, make up the 2019 hall of fame class.
“I think the hallmark of greatness is consistency,” Gonzalez said on Friday. “That’s one thing that I’m very proud of, that I was able to do over my career.”
Before the trade to the Falcons, Gonzalez’s career already had a hall of fame arc.
He played in 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 reflected on how he move the tight end position forward.
“Probably moving all around,” Gonzalez said. “The thing with Jimmy Raye, but it started with Paul Hackett my rookie year. (Raye and Hackett were offensive coordinators for the Chiefs.) I remember we got to the playoffs and going into the playoffs they split me out wide when we got the red zone. … I jumped up and caught a touchdown, and they built off of that.”
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.
Reed, the former safety for the Ravens, didn’t like guarding Gonzalez.
“Tony was a hassle,” Reed said. “Dealing with Tony was tough. You needed somebody else to help you. (Defensive) line had to hit him. Terrell Suggs, you need to hit Tony before you go rush the quarterback.
“Tony was a big body, too. He was tough to get around. He was crafty. He knows how to use his body and his weight. He’s a basketball guy. I have the utmost respect for Tony Gonzalez.”
The former college basketball and football player at California 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.
“The skill set that Tony Gonzalez has is the standard that most teams are looking for in a tight end,” former Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Ryan and Gonzalez developed a close bond off the field. After games, they often went out for dinner together in Buckhead. Ryan and a host of other players will be on hand for the ceremony.
"He was automatic and one of my best friends that I ever played with and meant so much to me as a person and as a friend,” Ryan said. “He taught me so much about what it means to be a professional…It was a blast to be able to play with him for the amount of years that I did. I’m thankful that I had that opportunity. I’m just so happy for Tony, that he’s recognized as a first-ballot Hall of Famer as he should be.”
Gonzalez also made an impression on Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones over his final three seasons in the NFL.
“Tony, he made me not eat red meat,” Jones said. “Like pork, well beef obviously. I stopped eating pork, things like that. Just eating really healthy to take care of my body. When I came in out of college, I was eating everything.”
Jones picked up more that some good eating habits.
“Just the way that he approached practice every day,” Jones said. “Coming out, doing his box drills, getting his catches in, before any drill. He did that every day, every day, every day, and it showed.”
Gonzalez will join eight other tight ends in the Hall of Fame in Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow. However, Gonzalez is the first tight end to be elected in his first year of eligibility.
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