For Tony Gonzalez, this is it. He’s absolutely certain this time.
Gonzalez has peace of mind and clarity as he’s set to enter the 17th and final season of his storied career in the NFL.
It’s a slight departure from last season, where he left a sliver of hope when he stated repeatedly that he was 95 percent sure, not 100 percent, he would retire after the season.
After nearly reaching the Super Bowl, Gonzalez, 37, found it too hard to walk off into the football sunset. The Falcons found that prospect even more difficult and chased him.
Now, he’s set to run out of the tunnel at the Superdome at 1 p.m. Sunday to face the rival New Orleans Saints and start one more season.
The Falcons and Gonzalez worked out a lucrative two-year, $14 million deal and a creative work arrangement that led to his return. The second year was for salary-cap accounting purposes.
He’s certain, though, that this is it.
“The question that we get sometimes is ‘if you knew the day you could die, would you want to know?’” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know how I would answer that question. But I know I can answer (the retirement question because) this is my last year coming up. You kind of don’t take things for granted, and you enjoy every moment that you can.”
Gonzalez started making plans for life after football. One of those plans was to help his son, Nikko, in his first year of football. The Falcons excused him from three weeks of training camp so that he could fulfill that promise.
With the aid of technology, he stayed connected to his team and on top of the installation of the 2013 playbook.
He returned for the third exhibition game and has regularly caught balls at practice, per his normal routine.
Last season, Gonzalez had a stellar season. He caught 107 passes for 1,069 yards and 10 touchdowns passes over 18 games. He made one of the big catches that helped the Falcons get into field-goal range for their game-winning kick against Seattle in the NFC divisional playoff win.
Over his career, Gonzalez has redefined the position.
He has more career receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), touchdown catches (103), Pro Bowl appearances (12) and 1,000-yard seasons (four) than any other tight end in NFL history.
He plans to enjoy the same journey again.
“I’m going to take that same attitude because I had such a great time last year knowing that it was my last year,” he said. “I kind of had things slow down for me last year. Especially during the games, you just soak it up and you really enjoy your teammates.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan is perhaps his closest teammate. They regularly grab postgame dinner in Buckhead after home games.
“He’s just Tony,” Ryan said. “He’s just an unbelievable player.”
Since Gonzalez’s return they’ve continued to hang out off the field.
“We’ve been to multiple dinners,” Ryan said. “The check goes back and forth. I’m excited.”
Not, everyone around the league was happy to hear about Gonzalez’s “un-retirement party.” Saints safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, whose lockers are adjacent to each other in a corner of the team’s locker room, had a playful chat about Gonzalez last week.
Jenkins said, “I remember when we played that dude last time, he told me as we were walking off the field, ‘it’s been a pleasure playing against you, this might be my last hurrah.’”
In the background Harper interjected, “He’s a liar …” meaning Gonzalez.
Jenkins continues: “So in my mind, I’m like, ‘yes!’ I didn’t know he was going to go Brett Favre on us. (Laughter from both players.) But it’s always a fun matchup.”
But, once they stop joking, the respect they have for Gonzalez was apparent.
“He’s allowed to change his mind,” Harper said. “I know he’s just trying to win himself a championship. He’s the best of all time. Period. … It’s been very challenging. It’s been a headache at times. …He’s the best for a reason.”
Now, it’s time for the Gonzalez and the Falcons to get back to the football.
“As far as our mentality, every time that we have the ball, we think that we should score,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody knows that about us. We have the type of players to go out there and have that type of attitude.”
With his work in previous four seasons, Gonzalez is beloved for his play, pleasant attitude and work ethic in two cities, Kansas City and Atlanta.
The only thing left for him to accomplish is to help the Falcons land the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
“I’m still trying to make my impact as a player here,” Gonzalez said. “I always wanted to be sure that the second-round draft pick was worth it. … I’ve certainly enjoyed my time here. I enjoyed my time in Kansas City.
“I’ve been lucky. Especially here in Atlanta, to play for such a good football team that has, knock on wood, we haven’t had a losing record yet and went to the playoffs three out of the four years I’ve been here. Hopefully, we can continue that trend, make it a good one and go out on top.”