On Dec. 29, 2013, a historic and prolific football career came to a close. Tony Gonzalez — the best tight end to ever play the game — took the field for one final time when the Falcons met the Panthers at the Georgia Dome that day. From the moment he set foot in the Georgia Dome gold parking deck to the time he walked out, with his illustrious football career behind him, AtlantaFalcons.com was there with unprecedented access.
It's four hours before kickoff. The Falcons equipment staff has been in the locker room for three hours already, preparing for the game, when equipment manager Kenny Osuwah decides it's time to get Gonzalez's pads ready. He's done it for most of Gonzalez's career in Atlanta, but this final time, there was one more thing that had to be done. NFL Films would be mic'ing Gonzalez up for the first time in his career. Once the NFL Films tech got the microphone on Gonzalez's shoulder pads, Osuwah says to himself, "All right, let's do it," and began the process of taping Gonzalez's jersey to his shoulder pads one more time.
A white SUV pulls into the gold parking deck of the Georgia Dome and Tony Gonzalez is behind the wheel. He had just come from a hotel where the Falcons stay the night before home games. He steps out of the SUV, grabs his bag and walks toward the player entrance, where he greets fans with some autographs and makes his way to the locker room with NFL Films' mikes and cameras in tow.
Dressed in a black Falcons long-sleeved shirt and black mesh shorts, Gonzalez made his way to the training room, where he was greeted by Director of Sports and Medicine Marty Lauzon. He hopped up on a training table and chatted with Lauzon for a few moments while his ankles were being taped. When Lauzon finished, Gonzalez returned to his locker and put on his lowers and walked through a hallway that led to a room normally reserved for postgame press conferences to begin loosening up with Head Strength and Conditioning Coach AJ Neibel.
All week leading up to Sunday’s game, Gonzalez explained that he wouldn’t change anything about how he prepares for a game, regardless of the Falcons’ record and his final 60 minutes of football standing ahead of him. He left his locker and exited the locker room, turning left then quickly right through the tunnel to the field where he met running backs coach Gerald Brown, who always throws Gonzalez passes two hours before a game. Gonzalez focuses on the precision of his routes — the starts, the stops, the head fakes — during this time.
Gonzalez's usual drills are interrupted by a welcomed guest, legendary quarterback Joe Theismann. Gonzalez walked over to greet him with a big hug and the two chatted for a few minutes on the sideline before Gonzalez continued his preparation and headed off the field to put his shoulder pads on for the final time. But first, he made time for the fans.
Equipment Manager Brian Boigner waits in the training room next to the Falcons locker room with the shoulder pads and jersey that Gonzalez will wear that day. Gonzalez enters the locker room and makes his way toward the training room when he spots a familiar face sitting a few lockers away from his. It’s been a while since Julio Jones has been in the Falcons locker room on gameday as he has spent much of the fall and early winter rehabbing from foot surgery, but there’s no way he’d miss Tony’s final game. Gonzalez greets Jones with a smile and a handshake as he heads off to get padded up one last time.
Tight ends coach Chris Scelfo stands in a hallway near the training room, leaning against a wall with a cup of coffee in his hand. Always quick with a verbal poke, he fires one at Gonzalez as he walks by and it sets off an entire back-and-forth between coach and player as the two kid around before it's time to head out for warmups.
The final piece hung on a hook at the top of his locker. The pads had gone on. The cleats were laced and tied. The cap was placed on his head. Gonzalez reached up and pushed his helmet, hung by the facemask, off the hook and looked at it while deep in thought. He smirked as he stared, silently savoring the moment before heading back out to the field.
The call was made in the locker room. "Secondary, linebackers, tight ends to the field!" They all lined up single file as they left the locker room, Gonzalez in tow. The younger players ahead of him jogged out to the corner of the end zone as Gonzalez walked out, enjoying each step to that point. He circled the small group up and spoke to them. "Last chance! Last chance to be great! You play with your heart. You play with passion. Hit 'em in the... mouth!" They responded with enthusiasm.
Matt Ryan started throwing passes and Gonzalez took his turn as it came. He spotted his family standing next to the Falcons bench — his wife, October, and his sons, Nikko and River, and his daughter, Malia. He smiled when he saw them and waved as October tried to get the kids to wave back. The team broke into its stretching lines and Gonzalez went to his usual spot near the sideline at about the 30-yard line. Sensing a brief break, he ran over to his family and handed out kisses to Malia, River, Nikko and October before getting back to the business of readying himself for his final game.
Outside the locker room, right at the players’ entrance to the field, Gonzalez waits. The Georgia Dome crowd is being presented with the introduction highlight video as the tension begins to built toward kickoff. Teammates approach Gonzalez with hugs and handshakes. The glassy, opening riff to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” begins to play as it builds into a heavy crescendo as guitars go from clean to distorted. The team bursts from the tunnel, smoke flying, flames bursting. The offensive starters are being announced and they line up in order. As the line gets toward the end, Roddy White takes his place in front of Gonzalez, and Matt Ryan gets into the last position. This is how it’s always been, but it’s just a clever ruse.
Falcons Football Communications Coordinator Brian Cearns approaches Gonzalez and informs him that he’ll be going last. Gonzalez balks. White and Ryan step in and force Gonzalez to the final spot in the lineup as they laugh and joke with the tight end. Smoke and fire count down to Gonzalez’s entrance and Ryan exits the tunnel, the Dome crowd going crazy. Gonzalez is told to wait. It would be a moment before he would head out.
A message begins to play on the video board, flashing Gonzalez’s career stats and ending with a thank-you message. Gonzalez is humbled by the moment. When the time comes, he flashes a thumbs up to the NFL Films camera and emerges from the smoke, pointing to the fans surrounding him with a deafening ovation.
The crowd settles after Gonzalez's energetic and powerful introduction. It's time for the coin toss as several Panthers make their way to midfield. On the Falcons' side, only Tony Gonzalez walks out to the logo on the 50. The Falcons are one of two NFL teams that decide on their team captains at the end of each season, utilizing different captains for each game during the year. Gonzalez was the natural choice to represent the Falcons this day.
60:00... 59:59... 59:58 — The clock starts moving as Tony Gonzalez's career starts closing. The Falcons start with the ball, putting Gonzalez on the field after a touchback to open the game. Lined up to Matt Ryan's left on the very first play, Gonzalez fakes forward and steps back. It's a screen pass — the first play of his final game is drawn up just for him. He gets both hands on the pass and moves upfield. It's a 5-yard gain. 59:32... 59:31... 59:30...
The final ceremony of the day honoring Tony Gonzalez was the most important. Gonzalez left the locker room five minutes early and made his way to the field, chatting the whole way with Director of Player Engagement Kevin Winston, who led him to a red carpet where Falcons Owner and Chairman Arthur Blank waited. In his hands was a helmet that had been mounted to a stand, half Falcons, half Chiefs — all Tony. It was signed by Blank, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Gonzalez’s family looked on in front of the stage as a tribute video played. A hand to the sky, Gonzalez thanked the Georgia Dome crowd for the ovation, left the stage, hugged his family and got right back to the business of trying to win a football game.
There are 30 minutes left in Gonzalez's career and the Falcons are down 14-10 to Carolina. Gonzalez is the team's leading receiver on the day after the first half with three catches for 47 yards. He would catch only one more this day as he watched the team he had grown to love so much battle until the very end to fall one point short of sending him out with a win.
He enters the locker room and the pads come off. It's over now. Gonzalez listens as Blank addresses the team about the year, then head coach Mike Smith gives his speech. Smith turns to Gonzalez and asks him to break the team down. Gonzalez holds up his hand as the team crowds around him. He shares a few words with them and breaks them down. Turning back toward his locker, Gonzalez takes a seat and reflects for a moment.
Blank approaches Gonzalez at his locker and embraces him before departing. Then Smith took his turn, come up behind Gonzalez to share a few words with him.
Gonzalez usually speaks at his locker after games, but with nearly 100 media members wanting to speak with him, he gets the podium this day. “Wow, this is what Matt does after every game?” Gonzalez asks the media rhetorically as he steps to the microphone. He answers questions he’s heard before, asked in past tense this time, and answers them with the thoughtfulness and charisma the media have come to expect from him. He speaks about his family and the important place football holds in his life, putting two hands in front of him to gesture where family and football lie for him. But it’s time to let the football become a distant second to the family that has supported him so wholeheartedly this day and all the ones that came before.
A room across the hall from the family waiting area beneath the Georgia Dome is decked out in the number 88. It’s everywhere, and inside the room waits Gonzalez’s family and friends who number around 40. A private reception has been set up for him, where Gonzalez will have a chance to visit with his special guests after a whirlwind of a day. Head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff stop by to greet the family and say some final words to Gonzalez. They would meet again Monday, but Sunday’s departure was symbolic. It was goodbye for now.
The group of about 40 friends, family and guests shared some private moments before packing up and heading for the doors. Another reception for family and teammates awaited at an Atlanta restaurant. Gonzalez walks out the door and takes his first steps toward the parking lot when he’s met by a large contingent of fans who have been waiting an hour or more to get close to Gonzalez and offer their thanks for what he's brought to Atlanta in five seasons.
Gonzalez finishes with the fans and turns toward the white SUV that brought him that day. He faded into the evening as the SUV pulled out of the parking lot, destined for the next celebration of his career. Seventeen years of football history was now behind him, and a whole new life dedicated to his family was at his front.