- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tony Gonzalez had every excuse to shut it down, considering the pain throbbing in his toe this past Sunday.
Instead, the veteran tight end set an example for the younger Atlanta Falcons: A player who loves football can play through pain, no matter the score.
The Falcons staff asked Gonzalez in the third quarter if he wanted to come out of Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, since the Buccaneers held a commanding lead. He refused. Gonzalez played 48 of 71 offensive snaps (68 percent) and was on the field deep into the fourth quarter.
"The game was kind of over by then, but it's like `Nah, I'm going to go out there.' I could have shut it down easily,'' Gonzalez said. "First of all this is football because we want to play.
"I see my teammates still out there. I see Roddy [White] still out there and Harry [Douglas] is still out there. I'm going to go out there and play because I love this game, too. And I know I only have [six] games left, so it's sacred to me. Every chance I have an opportunity to be out there on that field, I'm going to take it.''
Gonzalez, 37, is set to retire at the end of the season following a 17-year career. The future Hall of Famer won't get a chance to win a Super Bowl ring and has no regrets about returning this season, despite the team's 2-8 record. He previously dismissed talk of wanting to be traded to a contender before the trade deadline.
Now, Gonzalez has a chance to extend some personal streaks over his final six games, including his consecutive games with a catch that stands at 205. He hasn't missed a game since the 2006 season.
More importantly from the Falcons' standpoint, Gonzalez can continue to be a leader in the locker room and show guys, such as rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, how to approach the job.
"One thing these young guys need to know is it can be taken away from you at any moment,'' Gonzalez said. "I've been lucky to play this long. But it comes and it goes quick. I can't believe I'm at 17 years. I've only got six games left now. I'm going to tell those guys, like I tell them all the time, 'Every play, play like it's your last play.'
"We've got to step up. I know we can play better.''
Gonzalez pointed at himself in making the aforementioned statement.
"We've got to make the play when the ball is in the air, and that's me included,'' he said. "I dropped two balls [Sunday]. I haven't done that all year.''
White, who has dealt with nagging injuries of his own, appreciates how Gonzalez is willing to play through pain, accept blame and set an example for the rest of the Falcons to follow.
"No matter what it is, no matter what the circumstances are, Tony Gonzalez is a football player,'' White said. "He's willing to go out there with his soldiers no matter what the situation or whatever happens. You can count on that guy to always been out there ready to make plays for you.
"It tells the young guys that you don't ever rest on anything that you do. You always try to get better. And you always go out there to work and compete. No matter if you're 2-8 or 8-2, you've got to prepare every week the same.''