Gonzalez ready to return for another playoff try

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Todd Bozeman, who was Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez's basketball coach at California, is not surprised that his undersized power forward will likely go down in NFL lore as the best tight end ever to play the game.

Bozeman shared a conversation he had with Keith Gilbertson, who was then Cal's football coach, in the early 1990s.

"He said, ‘Man listen, we've been trying to get that kid on the phone,' " Bozeman recalled. " ‘My dad has been coaching football for over 40 years. He went to see him play and said he's the best football player that he's seen in 44 years.' That was back then."

Gonzalez, of course, went on to star for the Golden Bears in football and basketball but Bozeman stilll believes that he could have starred in the NBA, if he had only grown taller than 6-foot-5.

"If he was 6-8, he would given that football up and played basketball," said Bozeman, currently coaching at Morgan State. "Arizona and Lute Olson really recruited him. It wasn't like an afterthought. He was a good basketball player."

Gonzalez, who is merely producing in the best season by a tight end in Falcons history, still wonders about those three extra inches.

"I would be in the NBA. It's true," Gonzalez said. "But the thing is, I didn't have enough time to practice. Just my approach to football, if I took that approach to basketball, I'd been getting 1,000 shots a day and working on my handle. I would have spent five to six hours a day in the gym."

Gonzalez, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds over Cal career,  notes that when he became a starter, he averaged 16 points and had a career-high 29 points against Washington State. He still enjoys recalling his role in helping the Bears beat Villanova in the 1997 NCAA tournament -- he went for 23 -- to advance to the Sweet 16.

But the Kansas City Chiefs and now the Falcons are more than happy that Gonzalez is not wearing shorts and sneakers anymore.

When Gonzalez, 33, was traded to the Falcons last spring after 12 seasons with the Chiefs, he arrived with the specific hopes of winning a Super Bowl. He's done his part, catching 78 passes for 820 yards and six touchdowns, including the game-winner against the New York Jets last Sunday. But in the same weekend, the Falcons (7-7) were eliminated from the playoffs.

Gonzalez needs just six more catches to reach 1,000 for his career. He's under contract for next season and plans to return. But how much longer will he play?

"It's depends on what day of the week you ask me," Gonzalez said. "I think that's true of all old guys in the league. Next year, I'm coming back for sure. I'm never going to say I'm 100 percent done after next year."

Don't mention the "R" word around Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

"I see a guy that's got the body of a 25-year old," Smith said. "I think he could play seven or eight more years. He's got the genetic makeup to play for a long, long time."

There are only seven tight ends in the Hall of Fame. Only two of them – Ozzie Newsome and Jackie Smith – played past age 33. Gonzalez will turn 34 in February. Newsome played until he was 34, Smith until he was 38.

More recently, Shannon Sharpe played until he was 35. He was a first-time Hall of Fame finalist last year and made the cut from 17 to 10, before failing to make the final six. Gonzalez's statistics, by comparison, dwarf Sharpe's.

Normally, before the Falcons even take the field, Gonzalez is out catching passes from a designated thrower.  He is invariably one of the last to leave.

Wide receiver Roddy White doesn't see Gonzalez walking away after next season.

"Unless he just wants to give it up, he could go for another four or five years," White said. "He's always open. He catches a lot of balls. He's un-guardable, no matter how old he is."

Even the Falcons defensive backs try to learn from Gonzalez.

"There are not too many tight ends in the league who know how to get open," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "For me as a safety, in practice you are guarding a tight end who knows how to get open."

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan credits Gonzalez with helping his development this season.

"He's been huge for me," Ryan said. "He's got such a good feel for everything that goes along with being successful in this league. He's been a really good guide for me since he's been here."

If next year is Gonzalez' last, Ryan doesn't want to think about it.

"He can play as long as he wants because he's certainly out there making plays throughout the entire game," Ryan said. "My hope is that he has about 10 years left in him. That's wishful thinking, but I'll take it if he could do it."

Gonzalez won't be going to the Super Bowl this season as he'd envisioned, but he's ready to close out first season in Atlanta was a flourish.

"I feel good mentally and physically," Gonzalez said. "I love playing this game. I still think I can do it at a high, high level."

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