There will be no last-second change of heart this time around. Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez officially walked away from the NFL in the team's 21-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 29, capping off arguably the greatest career for anyone at that position.
The Falcons held a halftime ceremony in Gonzalez's honor in their final game of the season. During the tribute, the team presented Gonzalez with a helmet split down the middle with Falcons colors on one side and the Kansas City Chiefs' logo on the other. Jay Adams, the Falcons' digital content manager, sent out a picture of the helmet:
Gonzalez spent the first 12 years of his career in Kansas City, where he helped usher in a new era for tight ends as offensive weapons. He spent the last five in Atlanta, becoming synonymous with a franchise that looked like a short-term stop when he signed in 2009. But despite still being productive on the field, Gonzalez indicated it's time to start focusing off of it, per the Falcons' official website.
My family is here and football is right there next to it, for better or for worse. That’s just the way my mentality worked. I was obsessed with football and I was OCD about it...I need to put that emphasis on my family and on to the next part of my life. This is like graduating to me.
Gonzalez flirted with retirement following the 2012 season but was persuaded by the Falcons (and his son) to come back. Viewed as a last-ditch effort to finally capture his elusive Super Bowl ring, Gonzalez's 2013 campaign was instead like many of his others—stuck being a bright spot on a bad team.
Gonzalez is unquestionably the most decorated pass-catching tight end in league history. He holds the NFL's all-time record for receptions, yards and touchdowns among tight ends, and he's among the all-time leaders for any pass-catcher. His 1,325 receptions rank second to only Jerry Rice on the all-time list, and he's fifth in yards and sixth in touchdowns.
A 13-time Pro Bowler, Gonzalez was honored as an alternate for this year's team. It's unclear whether he will participate if asked. He was also a 10-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s.
The Falcons finished a disappointing 4-12 a season after nearly making the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to injuries to Roddy White and Julio Jones and a shoddy defense. Gonzalez managed to play in all 16 games despite his own bumps and bruises, though, turning in a 83-catch, 859-yard campaign.
Throughout the season, there was speculation that Gonzalez would again have a change of heart. He signed a two-year deal with Atlanta that assured he'd stay with the team should he want to play in 2014, and the Falcons' lost season was certainly not the way anyone envisioned him going out. Even after his final game, teammates like Harry Douglas made sure to honor their departing teammate:
Despite the obvious camaraderie with teammates and the opportunity to return should he choose to do so, Gonzalez felt this was the right time.
"I know I could come back and play a couple of more years if I wanted to, but it's time for me to go," Gonzalez said, via the team's website. "It's time for me to get back to my family, get back to California, where I'm from and explore that next chapter of my life. I'm going to have fun with it."
It's unknown what the future holds for Gonzalez, though it seems likely that television work is in his future.
Three different networks reached out to the 37-year-old to gauge his interest last offseason, and it's likely those same phones will be ringing soon—if they already haven't been. It was clear in Week 17 that he has a strong footprint not only with the Falcons organization and teammates, but also with fans due to his work off the field.
Even if Gonzalez chooses to merely bask in his NFL career and spend time with his family, it would be hard to blame him. After 17 years of frustrating defenses, all that's left for Gonzalez is a trip to Canton.
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