- Shaun Powell, ESPNNewYork.com
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Tony Gonzalez hasn't won a playoff game in his 15-year, headed-to-Canton-on-the-first-train career. Think about that. In the history of face-slaps in all of mankind, this might sting the most.
Really, what other human being who happens to be the best ever at what they do never managed to reap such a minor but necessary benefit? And remember, we're not talking about winning a Super Bowl -- plenty of greats haven't. We're talking playoffs, man. A morsel. A piece of confetti from the parade. A stick of bubble gum from the pack of trading cards.
The best director (Welles?) has an Oscar. So does the best actor (Hanks?). The best pop singer (Michael?) a slew of Grammys. The best builder (Trump?) a ton of renters. And so on. These very talented people put in the hard work and the training and got everything they wanted and much, much more.
Well, the best tight end in NFL history, the receptions, yards and touchdowns leader at the position, can catch everything thrown his way except a break. And not because he drops them. They just don't find him in January.
"When I first came into the league," said Gonzalez, "we went 13-3 with a first-round bye, and I said, `OK, this is how the NFL goes. This is cake. I'll have a Super Bowl trip every couple of years.' That's what I thought."
Well, the Kansas City Chiefs lost on a frigid field to John Elway and the Denver Broncos and an annoying trend was born. After that, Gonzalez played on some awful Chiefs teams, caught passes from some average quarterbacks and spent much of his winters watching playoff football from his sofa. And then when the Chiefs did put together a winning team, they were shot down by Peyton Manning twice.
"I accept the cards that were dealt to me," Gonzalez said.
Most would say Gonzalez simply stayed in Kansas City too long, but the Chiefs paid well and he was loved. Finally, he signed with the Falcons two years ago because of Matt Ryan, although he did place a call to the New York Giants. He dreamed of hooking up with Eli Manning, who was on the verge of losing Jeremy Shockey.
"I was pushing for that," Gonzalez said about signing with the Giants. "It didn't happen. I guess they thought I was old back then."
He is now 35, with 12 Pro Bowls and 1,149 catches in his rear view and the Giants of all teams staring him in the face, threatening to deliver another slap in this wild-card game. Yet, if Gonzalez is scarred by his playoff drought, he does a terrific job of hiding it.
"I would never look back and say 'woe is me' and if I ever did, I'd kick myself in my own a--," he said. "I'm not going to go down that road.
"I've seen guys retire and then say they don't feel their career was complete without a Super Bowl. They play that woulda-coulda game in their heads. Not me. I have soaked this league up for everything it's worth. I've had fun. Made some great relationships. I don't regret anything. Don't regret being in Kansas City. It's all been very good to me. So why would I take that approach? There will be no pity party thrown here."
But there will be a party thrown in the visitor's locker room at Met Life Stadium if the Falcons win. Gonzalez carries considerable weight on the Falcons, not only for his stellar career, but for what he's still doing: catching balls. His teammates also applaud his professionalism and all-around good-guy-ness.
"He's a pro's pro," said Falcons receiver Roddy White. "He does everything the right way."
While Gonzalez dreamed about catching balls from Manning, he doesn't re-think his decision to join the Falcons. Ryan is one of the better quarterbacks around. Plus, Gonzalez doesn't have to pull all the weight, as he did for many years in Kansas City. The Falcons are bringing White, a former league receptions leader, and Julio Jones, a speedy rookie with a knack for finding the open field. With so many weapons, Gonzalez is able to see single coverage and also extend his career. He just signed on for another year in Atlanta.
"I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think I could still contribute in a big way," he said. "I see the window closing on my career, but I have to perform at a high level. I'm not going to be 'that guy' they have to cut. Nothing against Jerry Rice or Joe Namath, guys who played til the wheels fell off. That's not going to be me. I don't think I could handle it mentally. I couldn't be a second-string guy. I couldn't be in that role."
Of all the people on the field in Falcons-Giants, one player will have nothing to prove yet something to gain. That player will be a tight end with mitts for hands who, you might imagine, will not be denied if a playoff win his thrown in his general direction. Gonzalez won't drop it.
"It would mean a lot to me," Gonzalez said. "I won't lie. But if you want to know how I'll feel, don't ask me after that game. Ask me after the Super Bowl."
Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
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