Tony Gonzalez looks back on his first game

The boyish smile and wide-eyed expression on Tony Gonzalez's face told the story before he uttered a single word.

Never did the Atlanta Falcons tight end imagine footage still existed from his first NFL game. But in front of him, inside the locker room last week, played the full-color satellite feed of his Aug. 31, 1997, regular-season debut with the Kansas City Chiefs at Denver's Mile High Stadium.

"Look at my face mask," Gonzalez said as he pointed and laughed. "That actually looked cool. People make fun of my face mask now because it's so big and long. But there, I had a normal face mask. I don't even remember that.

"And look how big those pads are."

Gonzalez, drafted 13th overall by the Chiefs in 1997, shared the field that afternoon with established NFL stars John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis and Marcus Allen.

"I feel old," Gonzalez said. "Those guys are old.

"It's great because growing up, especially being a Raiders fan and then playing with Marcus, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, that's Marcus Allen' when I first walked in and saw him. And then you see guys like [Chiefs teammate] Andre 'Bad Moon' Rison. It's unbelievable."

Gonzalez, 37, has played for 17 NFL seasons despite a humbling start to his illustrious career. The guy who drew motivation from being labeled a near-bust after a 17-drop second year will witness it all come to an end against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Gonzalez has reiterated his intention to retire despite not winning a Super Bowl ring.

As he approached his 270th and final game, Gonzalez took a few moments to digest the particulars of his very first NFL outing -- a 19-3 loss to the Broncos on the same day Princess Diana died in a car accident.

Gonzalez entered the game four plays into the Chiefs' first series. He was the backup to veteran starter Ted Popson, a blocking tight end who initially played in the World League of American Football.

"I didn't start my whole rookie year," said Gonzalez, who caught a career-low 33 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns in 1997. "Here's what I always tell people: It's a mentality that you have to have in the NFL. It isn't about if you have the athleticism. When they bring you in, you've already shown what you can do athletically.

"But what separates good players from great players or starters from non-starters is a mentality, and I didn't have the right mentality at that time. I just had a lackadaisical approach: just going out to practice and coming in right after practice. I didn't know how to work at that point. Confidence, too. I didn't have the best confidence in the world at that point. I wouldn't have started me, either."

Gonzalez noted that he looked "rather young" sporting his white No. 88 Chiefs road jersey. He wore No. 44 in college and high school.

"When I got to the NFL, they asked me what number I wanted, and I said No. 44, but they told me tight ends are not allowed to have that number," Gonzalez recalled. "So I said, ‘Just double it up for me if you can' and took No. 88. I figured I'd be twice as good as I was."

He turned out even better. The most prolific tight end in league history recently became the fifth player to surpass 15,000 career receiving yards. His first 22 were against the Broncos.

Fast-forwarding through the tape took Gonzalez to the fourth quarter, with two minutes, 18 seconds left in regulation and Denver leading by the final margin. He lined up in an awkward-looking four-point stance on the right side of the line.

"I had a three-point stance all through high school and through the first couple years of college," Gonzalez said. "Then my position coach at Cal, Dan Ferrigno, he came in and changed it to a four-point stance and said it was better for blocking. So I did that for the first two years of my career."

From the stance, Gonzalez had a free release down the seam on second-and-10 from his own 45-yard line. Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac took a five-step drop and fired a back-shoulder pass to Gonzalez, who made a falling, 22-yard grab in front of Broncos All-Pro safety Steve Atwater.

Gonzalez arose from the ground with his teeth sparkling inside his helmet, relishing his first-career catch.

"I smiled because he also was talking trash to me," Gonzalez said of Atwater. "I think he was upset about giving that catch up."

During a break in the action, the NBC broadcast crew of Dick Enberg, Phil Simms, and Paul Maguire discussed how Gonzalez already mastered the art of pushing off.

Gonzalez concurred.

"I think I've always done that, and I still do it," he said. "If you ask any defender in the league, they say I'm the ‘Push-off King,' but it's just creating leverage."

Gonzalez's catch on Atwater was his only reception against the Broncos that day. He played 20 offensive snaps, including 13 in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs would go on to compile the AFC’s best record (13-3) in 1997 before losing in the playoffs to Denver, the eventual Super Bowl champion.

Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Paul Hackett recalled Gonzalez's strengths as a rookie -- and an aspect of his game that needed work.

"I can't tell you what a delight he was to be around from the moment he arrived," Hackett said. "Having been a basketball player, I think his thirst for learning about the ins and outs of playing tight end just captured him.

"We could tell how he could catch the ball immediately. Of course, the blocking became the issue that we were going to have to address."

Gonzalez's first downhill block came against infamous Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski. Gonzalez's first one-on-one pass protection assignment was against six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Neil Smith, and the rookie held his own.

He even doubled as a blocker on the kick-return unit and could be spotted dancing around on the right edge before a fourth-quarter kickoff to teammate Tamarick Vanover.

"I liked special teams back then, honestly," Gonzalez said. "My special-teams coach, believe it or not, called me ‘The Eraser' because whoever they put me on, they never made the play."

Gonzalez impressed his coaches from day one. Hackett talked about how he and head coach Marty Schottenheimer were convinced about their young tight end's unique ability after watching Gonzalez in a Cal-Stanford basketball game before the NFL draft.

"I'm sure they were convinced that I wasn't going to play in the NBA … not the way I played in that game," Gonzalez joked. "They were probably like, ‘At least he's not going to the NBA because he's not very good.'"

There was no doubt about Gonzalez emerging as one of the NFL's greats, at least not in Schottenheimer's eyes.

"I think the thing that was very evident from the start is that you had an outstanding receiver and athlete in a big body," Schottenheimer said last week. "He had great, great hands. And he, of course, had an understanding of the things you had to do subtly to get open."

As he glanced at the video one final time, Gonzalez discussed a regret that has burdened him through the years.

"Marty was great. I loved Marty, and I wish I would have been the player that I have become when I was playing for Marty," Gonzalez said of Schottenheimer. "Marty left after my second year, so he got to see the worst of me. And I always wished I could have played better for him and been the first-round pick they wanted me to be."

The Chiefs may have seen Gonzalez at his "worst" in those first two seasons. But he enters his final game with 1,321 receptions and 111 touchdowns and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. So the NFL saw one of the very best.