FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Tony Gonzalez is the Zen master of tight ends, a guy with Hall of Fame credentials still seeking ultimate perfection.
"It's all about the mind," he said Wednesday, standing in front of his locker at the Atlanta Falcons' training complex. "I love studying the mind, the hidden determinant in human behavior, that type of thing."
If that doesn't sound like your typical football player, well, it doesn't take long to realize Gonzalez isn't just another guy in helmet and shoulder pads.
He's revolutionized the tight end position, a large man with hands as soft as the tiniest of receivers. He caught 102 passes one season, more than 90 three other times. He's been to the Pro Bowl every year for the past decade, and there's surely a spot reserved for him in Canton at the end of his career.
But even at age 33, Gonzalez shows no signs of slowing down. Last week, in his debut with the Falcons after spending a dozen years with the Kansas City Chiefs, he led the way with five catches for 73 yards in a 19-7 victory over Miami. His biggest play came late in the third quarter, when he hauled in a short pass from quarterback Matt Ryan, cut to the inside to shake off safety Yeremiah Bell, then picked up a block that finished off a 20-yard touchdown.
For Gonzalez, that was a play where the mind played a bigger role than the body.
"If I was younger, I probably would have just caught the ball and tried to turn it upfield right away," he said. "But I know the blitz is coming. I know (Bell) is probably coming at an angle. I know I don't want to turn up field right away so he has a better angle. I want to stop and see where he's coming from and hopefully get off him. I got lucky. He's a sure tackler. He usually doesn't miss those tackles."
Still, no amount of visualization can substitute for the ultimate prize — a Super Bowl ring. Gonzalez never made it to the big game in Kansas City. When it became apparent the Chiefs were years away from contending for a championship, he asked to be traded by the only team he'd ever played for in the NFL.
Which is how he ended up in Atlanta.
"That the only reason I wanted out of Kansas City. The only reason," he repeated, with emphasis. "The window is closing. I'm not going to play too much longer. I just want a shot at it. If I don't get it, will it make or break my career? No. But I definitely want to at least have a chance at it."
The Falcons made a surprising run to the playoffs in 2008, and they gladly gave up a second-round draft pick to add Gonzalez to an offense led by Ryan, running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White.
Gonzalez needed all of one game to show what he brings to the mix. The Dolphins stacked the line to stop Turner, the second-leading rusher in the NFL last season, and they did a good job shutting off the long passing game. A year ago, that would have been enough. Not now, not with Gonzalez.
"Guys have to account for him all over the football field," third receiver Brian Finneran said. "Unless you've got a big cornerback or a real athletic safety, you're really going to have a mismatch every time he's on the football field."
Gonzalez's single-minded pursuit of a championship and his rookie-like passion each time he steps on a field have already worn off on a young team that seems to sense it might be poised to do something special.
"He wants to win," Finneran said. "You can see that in the way he works and applies himself. You see that in between plays, or in between series when he's catching balls on the sideline. He's always working on getting better. He's the consummate pro."
Gonzalez feels that many aspects of his game are better than they've ever been. His concentration. His focus. His understanding. Even his blocking, never a strong point but at least respectable.
Of course, the Falcons didn't trade for Gonzalez to clear a path for others. They were more interested in those velvety hands, the ones that have hauled in 921 passes for 11,013 yards — two figures unsurpassed by any tight end in NFL history.
"Tony makes it pretty easy for a quarterback," Ryan said. "I just try to put the ball in a spot where he can make a play on it, and he always seems to do that."
For Gonzalez, it all makes sense in his unique view of the world.
"I've read a lot of books about Zen and the Zen masters, and those guys always seem to get better as they get older," he said. "Even watching all those karate films when I was younger, the older guys were usually the tougher guys. It was always the guys with the long, gray beards who won, because they had been around."