Though he never made it to the Super Bowl, Tony Gonzalez established himself as perhaps the greatest tight end ever during a 17-year career with the Chiefs and the Falcons: He holds the NFL alltime record for receptions, yards and touchdowns at his position. As the 38-year-old Gonzalez completes year one of retirement and finishes up his first season talking X's and O's on CBS's NFL Today, the future Hall of Famer (class of 2019, count on it) went deep on the pain of losing, the Seahawks' defense and life after football.
When did you start playing football?
TG: My older brother, Chris, would grab me by the hand and make me go across the street to the park [in Huntington Beach, Calif.]. He introduced me to Pop Warner, which was a disaster. I was horrible—the worst kid on the team. I actually quit my first year because I wasn't playing. I'd come home from games just as clean as when I'd left the house. I didn't like the contact. I was good on the playground, but as soon as I put on the pads I became timid. It didn't click until high school. Football is an attitude, and I wasn't really an aggressive kid.
What position were you playing back then?
TG: Running back and safety. But I wasn't playing anything really. I was a tackling dummy. I got my butt kicked.
And then you revolutionized tight end. The position is still evolving—it's more dynamic than when you came into the league. This is a much more passing-friendly NFL.
TG: I think about that all the time. I'm like, Maybe I should go back out and play again. If I could have played with a Hall of Fame quarterback, with the rules today, I think I would have averaged 100 catches a year. I had Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen throwing to me. [Laughs.]
When you played, you were known for your almost maniacal daily routine. Has that transferred over to your gig as a broadcaster?
TG: Absolutely. It's obsessive-compulsive. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday—right up until showtime, I'm practicing what I'm going to say. I plan it all out, then practice it out loud in front of the mirror. But the real practice for me is when I'm sitting here talking to you, or when I'm talking to my wife, or especially strangers. The way I'm speaking now is the way I want to talk when I'm in front of the camera. I want it to be completely natural.
Does this new job replicate that sense of teamwork and camaraderie you get in an NFL locker room?
TG: I don't think there's really anything that can compare to a locker room. This [job is more] like a boys' club, watching the games together. The only thing missing is beer, maybe some chicken wings.... Well, I'd rather have some guacamole.
Your ethnic background is pretty complex. Can you break it down?
TG: My grandfather was born in Portugal and went to Argentina when he was five. He lived in Buenos Aires until he came to the States when he was 23. So out of respect for my grandfather, I always say I'm Argentinean. My grandmother is Jamaican-Scottish. And my mother is black, white and a little bit Native American. I did a swab test recently, and the results said there was 12% East Asian in there. Nobody knows where that came from.
What has the playoff experience been for you in your first year on TV? Have you enjoyed the games?
TG: I have, because I've had nothing to do with it. It doesn't hurt my feelings anymore. When you work so hard and you don't make it, which happened to me quite a bit in my career, it makes it tough. I've enjoyed watching because now I have to study it.
Where does Seattle's NFC championship game comeback rank?
TG: That goes down as one of the best playoff games in history. I liked seeing Russell Wilson battle through that adversity. As great as he is, people still have questions because the Seahawks have such a good defense. I think he answered a lot of those questions. He did not play the way we are accustomed to seeing, but in overtime he was 3 for 3 to go down and win the game. Just a fantastic game, fun to watch.
You had a heartbreaking loss to the 49ers in the 2013 NFC championship, when the Falcons had a big lead late and then blew it. Can you describe that feeling?
TG: It's devastation. The only time I've felt worse is when someone close to me passed away. Honestly, it was a lot of pain. Especially for me at that point in my career. You don't get over it like you do other games. The season is over. I didn't even watch the Super Bowl. I couldn't stomach it. It still pops up in my brain, how close we were. That's what [Packers coach] Mike McCarthy is going to do. He'll keep replaying that in his mind. I should have made this call. I should have made that call. There are so many things that could have happened and the Packers would have won the game.
A Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. Thoughts on the matchup?
TG: I hope Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman are healthy. What that Seattle defense has been able to do over the last 10 weeks has been something approaching legendary. It's right there with the 2000 Ravens and the '85 Bears. They are showing that they are one of the best defenses ever. The Patriots look like the most complete team in the NFL. Seattle is going to have to run the ball a lot. Marshawn Lynch is going to have to have a big game, and Wilson is going to have to make plays with his legs. New England has to keep going to [Rob] Gronkowski. This offense runs through him. When they are able to get him the ball, the offense starts flowing. I think it's going to be a close game. If Sherman and Thomas are healthy, I have to give the edge to Seattle.
Here's a hypothetical: Gronkowski or Seattle tight end Luke Willson go down before the Super Bowl and you get a call asking you to play, what do you say?
TG: No. [Laughs.] I wouldn't play. I'm a purist when it comes to that. That's something that even if I went there and won it and I had a ring, I wouldn't wear it. I wouldn't feel like I had anything to do with it. I don't think it would define my career. I am content.
"The only time I've felt worse is when someone close to me passed away."
JOHN P. FILO/CBS
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED