Tony Gonzalez hasn’t been a stranger to Kansas City since being traded to the Falcons more than three years ago. Family ties, as well as the tight end’s many off-field exploits, have led him back to the heartland since his departure.
Gonzalez still has plenty of friends in the area after spending his first 12 NFL seasons playing for the Chiefs. His brother is married and raising a family in the city. His cousin took over Gonzalez’s local business venture, Xtreme Clean 88.
Up until last year, Gonzalez still owned his Kansas City condo.
“My ties are more in the community and to the people than inside the organization,” Gonzalez said. “Just the fans and the memories, being down on the Plaza and going to the new Power and Light District for that year it was open, but really the Plaza since that’s where I did all of my damage while I was out there in Kansas City.”
One landmark Gonzalez hasn’t visited recently is Arrowhead Stadium. A lot has changed since his final home game as a Chief against the Dolphins on December 21, 2008. Gonzalez went out with seven catches for 64 yards and a touchdown in a frigid farewell to the Chiefs crowd.
“It’s going to be a little weird being in a different locker room and coming out of that tunnel when we first come in, ,” Gonzalez said of Sunday’s season opener against the Chiefs. “It’s going to be a little weird, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Gonzalez left Kansas City as the franchise’s all-time leader in every major receiving category with 916 catches for 10,940 yards and 73 touchdowns. No one comes close to threatening any of those marks.
Statistically the best receiving tight end in the history of the game, Gonzalez is heading to Canton on the first train available. He’ll eventually have a locker dedicated to his Chiefs career inside the team’s Hall of Honor and will forever be remembered at Arrowhead Stadium.
Those honors are nearing. Gonzalez says that this season, his 16th since joining the Chiefs as the 13th overall pick in 1997, is his last.
Sunday’s regular season opener is a chance to go out in front of a home crowd even though he’ll be wearing an opposing jersey.
“I know this is the last time that I’ll ever get to play in Kansas City and that stadium,” Gonzalez said. “That’s a beautiful thing to me. I’m going to go out there and enjoy the hell out of it because it’s my last time.”
Unlike most players who request and are granted a trade, the majority of Chiefs fans don’t blame Gonzalez for wanting to leave following the 2008 season. Gonzalez was about to enter the twilight years of his career and the Chiefs were preparing to rebuild under new football leadership.
It was a natural time for both Gonzalez and the Chiefs to move in opposite directions.
New Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli traded Gonzalez to former Patriots colleague Thomas Dimitroff for Atlanta’s second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Pioli would ultimately use the selection, 50th overall that season, on cornerback
“The way (the fans) accepted me and the way they stuck with me throughout the years and the appreciation that they showed to me, I want to give it right back to them,” Gonzalez said. “They made my time in Kansas City a wonderful experience. In fact, that’s what I miss most about Kansas City.
“The fan support, no doubt, was number one and the best in the league while I was there. Even when we were losing they were packing the house. To look up and see the number 88 jerseys was always a special thing to me and they are truly the best in the business as far as I’m concerned.”
There won’t be any shortage of No. 88 Chiefs jerseys in the stands on Sunday. Gonzalez’s number remains the gameday attire of choice many fans and even more are likely to dig into their closets for a final tribute to one of the all-time greats in franchise history.
Sunday’s game is the beginning of the end for “Tony G.” It marks the first of 16 opportunities to make the playoffs and achieve the ultimate goal of playing in a Super Bowl.
Gonzalez has played in 238 regular season games, but never tasted postseason victory.
With the Chiefs he suffered playoff defeat as a rookie to John Elway, was upset by the Colts in 2003’s “no punt” divisional game and was topped by Indianapolis again in 2006. Gonzalez’s postseason career now sits at 0-5 following two consecutive one-and-done seasons with the Falcons.
Gonzalez swears he hasn’t lost a step at 36 years old. He says the people around him confirm he still plays at a high level. It doesn’t matter either way; he has nothing left to prove.
This year is all about ending the playoff drought. It’s the primary reason he signed a one-year extension with the Falcons in January. Gonzalez feels Atlanta’s roster is filled with playoff-winning talent.
“That’s my ‘why’ for this year,” Gonzalez said. “We have a really good football team, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s not just false chatter. We have a really good football team from top to bottom both offensively and defensively. I realize we have an opportunity to go to the playoffs, win a playoff game, and that’s what I want.
“I’ve been playing my whole career for a chance to go to the Super Bowl and I feel we have as good a chance as anybody.”
For Gonzalez, Sunday’s visit to Arrowhead represents the beginning of the end.