Gonzalez walks off a champion, even in loss

ATLANTA -- The sign hanging from Section 116 of the Georgia Dome summed up the feelings of Atlanta Falcons fans throughout the stadium:

"We love you Tony forever."

As Tony Gonzalez exited the field one last time, he blew a kiss toward the crowd, expressing his adoration right back.

The career of the most prolific tight end in NFL history ended with a 21-20 loss to the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers. Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Gonzalez walked away a winner.

"It was great," the 37-year-old Gonzalez said as he reflected on his final NFL appearance. "Honestly, it went exactly as I thought it would go, except the winning part.

"I'm so flattered and so thankful that I've been able to be a part of this organization for the last five years, and obviously the 12 years before that in Kansas City. My career, it's turned out to be something more than I ever thought and more than I ever dreamed. It's been an unbelievable ride. It's amazing."

Gonzalez has been nothing short of spectacular while missing just two games in 17 seasons. He finishes his career fifth all-time with 15,127 receiving yards to go with 1,325 receptions and 111 touchdowns. And with four catches for 56 yards on Sunday, Gonzalez ended his career with a streak of 211 consecutive games with a reception.

"I can't thank Tony Gonzalez enough for what he has brought to the Atlanta Falcons organization," head coach Mike Smith said. "He has been a great teammate, a great player, and a great mentor to a lot of men that are going to play this game moving forward. There are a lot of lessons you can learn from Tony Gonzalez just by watching him. It has been a pleasure and honor to have the opportunity to coach, in my opinion, the greatest tight end to ever play the game."

The Falcons gave Gonzalez a hero's sendoff. He was the last player to be introduced in pregame warm-ups and the only Falcons captain on the field for the coin toss. Video tributes played throughout the day, and team owner Arthur Blank presented Gonzalez with a half-Falcons, half-Chiefs commemorative helmet at halftime.

Gonzalez had about 40 family members and friends who flew into town for the game, including his older brother, Chris, who looks more like Gonzalez's identical twin, as well as three adopted brothers the Gonzalez family took in from broken homes.

As he marveled over the atmosphere surrounding his younger brother's final game, Chris Gonzalez recalled a recent conversation he had with Tony regarding not winning a Super Bowl.

"When we talked about it in-depth several weeks ago, I told him, 'If you're worried about that you didn't win a Super Bowl after all you've been able to accomplish in your career, then you've got your priorities mixed up.' And he agreed," Chris Gonzalez said. "To go down as the best to ever play the position and if unfortunately you didn't win a ring -- shoot, there are worst things going on in life right now. If you put things in perspective, you've been very fortunate to play all these years."

Tony Gonzalez remembered the conversation with his brother and offered his take.

"The Super Bowl obviously wasn't in my cards, and I'm OK with that," he said. "I hope there's no glitch on my record because of that. And if you think that way, I don't think you know what you're talking about. I really don't because this is the ultimate team sport. I've been on some really good teams, but we weren't able to get over the hump. It's offense, defense and special teams, and then the ball has to go your way. We didn't have that this year. It seems like the horseshoe fell out of our butts."

But the Falcons were lucky to have Gonzalez as long as they did. That's why quarterback Matt Ryan said it will be "weird" to move on without his tight end. That's why Roddy White referred to Gonzalez as the ideal role model.

That's why Mike Smith asked Gonzalez to address the team with some inspiring words Saturday night.

"First of all, I was thankful for that," Gonzalez said. "But my message was learn something from this year. There's a lot of growing you can have when you're in adversity, when you're in a losing situation."

Spoken like a true champion.