“It’s somewhat bittersweet,” said Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. “I love Kansas City. I grew up in Kansas City. The city means a lot to me.
I got there when I turned 21. It will be sad to leave a city I love. But I’m looking forward to making a Super Bowl run in Atlanta every year for the next three or four years.”
That was what Tony Gonzalez said on April 23, 2009, as he prepared to depart Arrowhead Stadium for the last time after being traded to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2010 second-round draft pick. Gonzalez had become disillusioned during his last couple of years with the Chiefs, feeling that under then-head coach Herm Edwards, the Chiefs had no realistic chance to win a Super Bowl.
Gonzalez had asked to be traded the previous October, but at the time, Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson was quoted as saying that none of the teams for which Gonzalez was willing to play had made an acceptable offer.
But as we learned only about six weeks ago, that wasn’t exactly true. Peterson had actually made deals-in-principle with both the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles (yes, while Andy Reid was the head coach), and it was just up to Gonzalez to decide where he wanted to play. But with minutes to go before the trading deadline, Peterson pulled out of both deals — which infuriated Gonzalez.
So the stage was set for the trade that actually did go through six months later under new Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli.
Many Chiefs fans were incensed that Gonzalez would even consider leaving the team for which he had played so well for a dozen seasons. Others understood his desire to have a legitimate chance to win a championship.
But time heals all wounds. It’s likely that tonight — as the Chiefs face the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead in a game that will probably decide the AFC West Championship — Tony Gonzalez will receive a standing ovation as he is inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame.
A two-sport star at California, Gonzalez was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of the NFL draft in 1997. But he didn’t make an immediate impact; he didn’t start a single game that season under head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
“I think the thing that was very evident from the start is that you had an outstanding receiver and athlete in a big body,” Schottenheimer said when Gonzalez retired from football in 2013. “He had great, great hands. And he, of course, had an understanding of the things you had to do subtly to get open.”
But at the start, Gonzalez wasn’t so great — as he told ESPN in 2013.
“What separates good players from great players or starters from non-starters is a mentality, and I didn’t have the right mentality at that time,” he said. “I just had a lackadaisical approach: just going out to practice and coming in right after practice. I didn’t know how to work at that point. Confidence, too. I didn’t have the best confidence in the world at that point. I wouldn’t have started me, either.”
But after a disastrous second season in which he had 17 dropped passes, Gonzalez figured it out. He became one of the hardest-working players on the roster, spending countless extra hours catching passes — eventually learning to always catch the ball with his hands away from his body.
Then Gonzalez became a star. He was named an All-Pro in 1999 — the first of five career appearances on that roster. He later regretted he hadn’t become a better player for his first head coach.
“Marty was great. I loved Marty, and I wish I would have been the player that I have become when I was playing for Marty,” Gonzalez said of Schottenheimer. “Marty left after my second year, so he got to see the worst of me. And I always wished I could have played better for him and been the first-round pick they wanted me to be.”
One of Gonzalez’ regrets from those first two seasons would undoubtedly be the 1997 divisional playoff between the Chiefs and the Denver Broncos. Gonzalez caught the pass that would prove to be the only touchdown scored by the Chiefs that day, but it is the one that didn’t count that still rankles Chiefs fans today.
Officials ruled Gonzalez out of bounds on a 3-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the second half. The Chiefs settled for a field goal on that drive and eventually lost the game 14-10. Their final drive that was filled with questionable coaching decisions that kept the Chiefs from scoring a touchdown, but still got the Chiefs close enough to kick a field goal to win the game — provided Gonzalez had caught the earlier touchdown pass in bounds.
And yes... I remember. The officials got it wrong. But let’s be honest: if TG had his feet better positioned, maybe they wouldn’t have.
It wasn’t the only time Gonzalez was involved in a contested play in a playoff game, either. In the infamous No-Punt Game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2004, a 30-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez in the second quarter that would have cut the Colts’ lead to 21-17 was called back when Gonzalez was called for offensive pass interference — another call that Chiefs fans still grumble about today.
The Chiefs’ Morton Anderson missed a 30-yard field goal to end the half, and the Chiefs lost 38-31 — ruining yet another splendid 13-3 season.
And yes... I remember. Priest Holmes fumbled after a 48-yard gain in that game, too — another chance the Chiefs squandered in the game. I know that it wasn’t all TG’s fault.
It seems wrong to focus on those moments, but as fans of a franchise that hasn’t been in a championship game in generations, it’s just too easy to remember the bad things that happened along the way. But Tony Gonzalez was the key component in all three of the Chiefs playoff seasons during his career in Kansas City. For all intents and purposes, he was the Kansas City Chiefs during those years.
Eventually — thanks to those who will be coaching and playing in tonight’s game, the Chiefs will give us the opportunity to forget the bad things that happened, and remember Tony for what he always was: one of the greatest to ever play the game — for the Chiefs or anyone else.
“We were very blessed to have him in a Chiefs uniform for 12 seasons,” said Chiefs owner Clark Hunt when Gonzalez retired in 2013. “And his contributions on and off the field were extraordinary and will never be forgotten.”
After tonight, Anthony David Gonzalez’ name will be where we always knew it would be: in the Chiefs Ring of Honor. Few Chiefs have deserved the honor more.