Tony Gonzalez signs autographs for fans during a Pro Bowl practice this week. Today’s Pro Bowl will be the end of Gonzalez’s Hall of Fame career. (Reuters)
HONOLULU, Hawaii — With the 13th pick of the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Tony Gonzalez.
With the 44th pick of the 2014 Pro Bowl Draft, Team Rice selected Gonzalez.
In between, the Hall of Famer in waiting reinvented the tight end position, breaking record after record while establishing himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
A pro career that began with an Aug. 31, 1997, game at Denver ends today in Hawaii as Gonzalez — an Atlanta Falcon for the past five seasons — makes his 14th appearance in the Pro Bowl.
“I’m so happy I was able to have this opportunity to be in the NFL for all these years,” Gonzalez said.
“I never thought that far ahead (about retiring). When I first got in there I played with guys like Derrick Thomas and Marcus Allen and I was just doing the best I could to help out that team.
“I set my goals for the year but never looked beyond that.”
Gonzalez leaves the game as the NFL’s career leader among tight ends in receptions (1,321), receiving yards (15,071) and touchdown catches (111).
In his final year in Atlanta, the University of California graduate led the team in catches with 79 for 803 yards and eight scores.
It was also a season that saw him join Jerry Rice as the only players in league history to catch at least one pass in 200 consecutive games. Rice did it 274 times and Gonzalez, 210.
This year’s Pro Bowl featured a “draft” by Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders in a format that saw players selected without regard to conference. It seems fitting that Gonzalez, a replacement for San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, was chosen by Rice.
“Being able to go out on your own terms is a luxury,” Gonzalez said. “I could come back and play a couple of years if I wanted to but it’s time for me to go. It’s time to be with my family and go back to California where I’m from. Whatever I do next, I’ll be passionate about it.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith had hoped to help send Gonzalez out with a title, but Atlanta struggled to a 4-12 record this season.
Still, Smith realizes he got to coach one of the greats.
“Tony’s had a great career,” Smith said. “He’s such a good leader that guys have been mentored by him not only by his words, but by his actions.”
Gonzalez says he has no regrets.
While he exits pro football with no Super Bowl ring or any championships beyond division crowns, he made a positive impact during an illustrious career.
“The fans have been great, the city of Atlanta this was more than I ever thought it could be,” Gonzalez said. “It was far more than I ever thought I could do when I got to Atlanta and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.
“The things I’ve accomplished in my career are more than anybody deserves. The places I’ve been able to go because of football — it’s been a dream come true for me. If you work hard, good things will happen.”
The Pro Bowl lasted two days with Rice and Sanders alternating picks, starting with Rice’s top selections New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn.
The second day of the two-day Pro Bowl draft was completed on Wednesday night, and for the most part it managed to avoid the uncomfortable situation of NFL teammates opposing each other in Sunday’s Pro Bowl.
Sanders made Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck the first pick on the second day of the Pro Bowl draft. Rice followed by making New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham his top pick of the day.
Sanders and Rice selected 30 players apiece Wednesday to fill out their 44-man rosters.
The very last player selected was Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith as four quarterbacks were the final players drafted.
The draft is part of a format change decided upon last July in an attempt to revitalize the NFL’s annual all-star game. Unlike previous years, there will be no NFC or AFC squads.
It left open the possibility that teammates might end up on opposing sides in the Pro Bowl, and while a number of teammates were split up, potentially troubling matchups were avoided.
Brees noted on Tuesday after he was chosen as a captain for Team Rice that his Saints teammate, defensive end Cameron Jordan, could wind up on Team Sanders, with his mission being to sack Brees in the Pro Bowl.
However, Jordan wound up on Team Rice as well. The only defensive lineman who might be forced to apply a pass rush on a teammate is Kansas City defensive tackle Donari Poe, who is on Team Sanders while Chiefs quarterback Smith is on Rice’s squad.
The squads are fairly evenly split between AFC and NFC players. Team Rice has 24 NFC players and 20 from the AFC, while Team Sanders has 25 AFC players and 19 from the NFC.
Rice and Sanders had selected 14 players each on Tuesday’s first day of the Pro Bowl draft, and skill-position players were chosen on Wednesday.
After taking Luck, Sanders chose another quarterback, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, while Rice made Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy his second pick of the day.