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Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta's 36-year-old tight end, woke up sore, just after dawn, on Oct. 8. The previous afternoon had been a rousing success for both the Falcons and Gonzalez. Seventeen fourth-quarter points capped a 24--17 comeback win over the Redskins, and the 12-time Pro Bowler had the second-best receiving day of his 245-game NFL career: 13 catches—out of 14 targets by Matt Ryan—for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Now, as Gonzalez shook out the cobwebs in his leased suburban home, he took stock of his body, the way he had the morning after every other game. His left arm was swollen from a collision. And his right thumb throbbed, though he wasn't sure why. He just knew that when he tried to tie his daughter Malia's shoe, the thumb wouldn't function.
The physical stuff he could take. But something nagged at him: that lone missed connection. The ball that got away.
It happened in the first quarter. As he battled to get open, 13 yards past the line of scrimmage, up the seam, Gonzalez jousted with another NFL senior citizen, 37-year-old linebacker London Fletcher. With Fletcher in tight coverage Ryan threw a high ball, and Gonzalez got his right hand up, his left arm still engaged by the defender. The pass caromed off Gonzalez's fingers.
Had he made the grab, it would have been the catch of the day; the ball wasn't even in the palm of his hand. But that wasn't good enough for Gonzalez. He felt he should have corralled it.
"That's the way it goes with me," he says, sitting in the same kitchen where the play had tormented him two weeks earlier. "I beat myself up because I've made that catch before, and the way I'm wired, that's a ball I catch."
It's a reflection of his reputation that Atlanta tight ends coach Chris Scelfo dropped Gonzalez's postgame grade because of the miss. "I hold him to that high a standard," says Scelfo, "because I've seen him make that catch."
He has let it go now, but he hasn't forgotten it. "My big fear," he says, "is someone telling me, 'You ain't got it anymore.' I will never get called into a coach's office and hear that. If something like what happened to Alex Rodriguez"—being benched by the Yankees for not hitting in the playoffs—"ever happened to me, I'd quit. I'd have to. It'd be too embarrassing."
The game used to kick 36-year-old tight ends like Gonzalez to the curb. There was no place for 37-year-old linebackers like Fletcher, or 37-year-old defensive backs like Ronde Barber, or 37-year-old centers like Jeff Saturday. Time to do your life's work now. And yet this off-season the Skins went hard after Fletcher, their own free agent; new Bucs coach Greg Schiano recruited Barber to stay as the keystone of his secondary; and the Packers zeroed in on Saturday, a longtime Colt, to anchor their O-line. Come March it will be the Falcons begging Gonzalez to return in 2013. This is a new era in the NFL, with maniacally prepared players thriving in what used to be their NFL dotage.
To suggest that there's any one reason that Gonzalez is better in his 30s than in his 20s would be a disservice to all the other reasons. He's a nut about what he puts into his body, so much so that the junk-food eaters in Atlanta's locker room call him the Food Police. At practice every day he gets a p.r. aide to throw him 40 extra balls before drills commence, plus another 40 during mid-practice lulls and 20 after practice. He loathes the JUGS machine because of its predictability and tells his real-life passer, "Don't throw it at me. Give me some tough ones." He and Ryan hold chemistry sessions, where the QB learns exactly what mid-route adjustments Gonzalez is going to make. And because Gonzalez noticed last year that he was getting a few balls knocked out of his grasp by whacks on the arms, he started to work with 50-pound kettle bells, straight-jerking with both arms to strengthen the muscles that once allowed a ball to be chopped loose.