Gonzalez is getting better with age. In his 6½ seasons since turning 30, he's caught 547 passes for the Falcons and the Chiefs. In the 6½ seasons before, playing in Kansas City, he caught 533.
His 46 catches through Sunday were second among NFL tight ends (trailing only Jason Witten's 51), and he had helped Atlanta remain the NFL's only unbeaten team, at 7--0. His 1,195 career receptions are second only to Jerry Rice's 1,549, and he has 380 more than the next tight end on the list, Shannon Sharpe.
"Someday, maybe I'll have a moment of clarity and think about how amazing this all is," Gonzalez says in a rare quiet interlude at home. His two bundle-of-energy children, Malia, 4, and son River, 2, are at school, and his wife, October, is out. "It was all worth it. I never imagined being great."
Gonzalez draws a line in his career at the 10-year mark. That's when he began feeling logy, as if he might fall asleep in meetings. He had a bout of Bell's palsy, partial facial paralysis, in the summer of 2007. (The symptoms lasted three weeks.) And later that summer he had a scary experience when his blood-test results were mixed up with those of a man who had leukemia. Then, during a cross-country flight, after gorging on two dinners and two desserts, he began talking to an adjacent passenger, who explained that he was a vegan.
Gonzalez's first reaction: That's stupid. His second: Maybe I'll read about it. The fellow recommended The China Study, a 2004 tome that details the relationship between the consumption of animal products and chronic diseases such as cancer. And just like that, Gonzalez was sold. He switched to a mostly plant-based diet, starting every day with a smoothie of kale, spinach, bananas, blueberries, carrots, apple juice and water. "I'm dumbfounded when I see guys before a game eating fried chicken," Gonzalez says. "How do you expect to be alive in the fourth quarter?"
Combine that with good genes ("My mom's 64, and she looks like a young Tina Turner," he says), and suddenly the view from the high side of 30 is more promising. "I feel the difference," says Gonzalez. "I feel a lot better than I did earlier in my career."
He also says what men of a certain age in the NFL say: He's better now because nothing in this game surprises him. "I read about great people," he says. "What makes Warren Buffett great? He's prepared for everything. I read about Tiger, Michael Jordan.... Why were they great? They prepared meticulously. The amount of preparation I do is exhausting. I can't turn it off. I'm driving to work in the morning, and I'm playing the game in my head, right down to the color jerseys we're wearing, what the opponent's wearing. I think of everything."
Such preparation came in handy in the Washington game. Gonzalez and Ryan, during one of their skull sessions, had decided that on routes when the tight end is supposed to run up the seam and look for the ball after 13 to 15 yards, he'd cut it short if the defender played him differently. If the defender was fronting him, at whatever point in the route that was, Gonzalez would immediately cut inside.
Back on the field, with the Falcons trailing 17--14 in the fourth quarter and driving, Gonzalez ran 10 yards up the seam, and there was Fletcher, right in the way, backpedaling. If Ryan waited until Gonzalez cut and flashed open, it would be too late; Fletcher could recover and knock it away. So he released just as Gonzalez got to Fletcher on the hashmark, anticipating Gonzalez's improvised cut. The resulting 13-yard gain moved the ball to Washington's 31-yard line, setting up the tying field goal.
"We see things through the same lens," says Ryan. "He saw what I saw, and I trusted him."