FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez’s phone blew up as soon as the NFL schedule came out.
There it was, for everyone to see — the very first game of what he expects will be his final season.
Gonzo is going home.
The likely Hall of Famer, one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, spent the first 12 years of his record-breaking career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Come Sunday, Gonzalez will be lining up at Arrowhead Stadium as an opponent, trying to lead his current team, the Atlanta Falcons, to a victory over the franchise where he made his name.
But there will always be a big part of him in Kansas City.
“I guess it all worked out,” Gonzalez said.
Indeed, there’s a symmetry to the schedule. He’s already said this, his 16th season, will likely be his last. It’s only appropriate that Gonzalez gets a proper send-off from those who cheered him for so long but didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye when he was dealt to the Falcons in 2009.
“Obviously, I’ve been thinking about it,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “When the schedule first came out, obviously, it popped out. Right then and there, my phone lit up with everybody calling me: my family, people that I’m still friends with from the organization, and the friends I made while I was up in Kansas City. It’s going to be special.”
And, he conceded, “a little weird.” Those guys in the home locker room are now the ones he’s trying to beat. He’ll be the one wearing a visiting uniform.
Gonzalez has admittedly spent a lot of time reminiscing about his time with the Chiefs, focusing on the good times. He remembered his first coach, Marty Schottenheimer. He thought about the explosive 2003 team, coached by Dick Vermeil, which won the AFC West and scored more points than any team in the league.
“I’ve been lucky enough to accumulate a bunch of really, really good memories,” Gonzalez said. “It’s funny, because these are the things you actually think about, things I thought about when I saw the schedule, and just looking back on my career there, it was all really memorable. Obviously, the losing seasons, you try to forget about those. But winning, that’s what really popped out to me. It was just a great experience out there.”
The only thing missing from Gonzalez’s record is a playoff victory. Not even one. That’s largely the reason he was traded by the Chiefs, who were about to go through another major rebuilding job when they agreed to deal their most notable player to a franchise on the way up.
Still, even though the Falcons have made the playoffs the last two years, Gonzalez’s postseason drought has carried on. Atlanta was one-and-done both times, adding an extra bit of urgency to this season. He decided to come back for one more try.
“That was another reason that went into me coming back for this year,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the goal. That’s my ‘why’ for this year. That’s the reason you go out there and put it all on the line.”
He truly believes this is the team that can give him not only his first playoff win, but a Super Bowl ring to end his career on.
“We’ve got a really good football team, there’s no doubt about that,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not just false chatter. We’ve got a really, really good team from top to bottom, offensively and defensively. I realize that we have an opportunity to go to the playoffs, win a playoff game, and that’s what I want. That’s why I’ve been playing this game my whole career, to hopefully get a chance at that Super Bowl. I feel like we’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”
The Falcons realize this is a special game for Gonzalez, but they know he shares their bigger goal. They expect all the sentimentality to fade away as soon as the ball is kicked off.
“One thing I’ve noticed about Tony in the time he’s been with us is he’s extremely consistent,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Week in and week out, he brings his best game. I expect the same from him. I expect what he normally brings to the game. This guy has a pretty level head. I’m sure it will be different for him going back there. But once we get out there, I’m sure he’ll let all those things go to the side and just focus on doing his job and trying to play his position the best he can.”
There’s hardly anyone left from Gonzalez’s time in Kansas City. Most of the roster has turned over. Romeo Crennel is heading into his first full season as the coach. But that doesn’t lessen anyone’s appreciation of what Gonzalez accomplished with the Chiefs.
“He probably was the leading edge of that transition to pass-catching tight ends and being able to flex them out and use them almost like a wide receiver,” Crennel said. “To do that, you’ve got to have that ability. You’ve got to have that tremendous ability: hand-eye coordination, great hands, that savvy about reading coverages and knowing how to get open.
“Tony has all of that.”
Gonzalez kept his home in Kansas City for a while, perhaps thinking deep down he might return someday. He finally sold it last year.
Even so, he still has deep ties to the community. His brother, Vince, lives in Kansas City. So does his cousin, Dennis, who took over a cleaning business the player once owned.
“My ties are just the people,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously, there aren’t too many people on the team or in the front office because they came in there and cleaned house after I left.”
Arrowhead can be one of the league’s most imposing stadiums for a road team.
Gonzalez has tried to prepare the Falcons for what they’ll face.
“Be prepared,” he told them. “You’re going to hear the coolest national anthem you’ve ever heard at the end of it, when instead of yelling ‘Home of the Brave’ they yell ‘Home of the Chiefs.’ After every first down they yell ‘That’s another Chiefs first down’ and the whole crowd yells it. They’re going to be crazy.”
He’s also got a message for the people of Kansas City.
“I would first of all say ‘thank you,’” Gonzalez said. “The way they accepted me, the way they stuck with me throughout the years, the appreciation that they’ve shown me. I want to give it right back to them. They made my time in Kansas City a wonderful experience.”
Crennel hopes the return won’t be quite as wonderful.
Jokingly, he said the Chiefs hope to prevent the 6-foot-5 Gonzalez, who played basketball in college, from doing one of his signature moves after a touchdown — dunking the ball over the crossbar.
Ryan perked up when he heard that.
“I do want to see it!”