New Life for Tony Gonzalez and the Falcons

Tony-Gonzalez ATL 350x350

Sometimes, life just isn’t fair.

That’s what Tony Gonzalez was thinking when the Seattle Seahawks took the lead 28-27 with 31 seconds left in the NFC Divisional Playoff Round. What was once a 27-7 Atlanta Falcons advantage was now decimated. The Falcons looked like they were going to exit the playoffs without a win for a fourth straight year. Gonzalez couldn’t believe that he was about to end his magnificent 16-year career without a single postseason victory.

I was thinking about it,” Gonzalez said to FOX on the field after the game. “I was like, ‘I guess this is it, I’m going to go out with a heartbreaking loss after getting such a big lead.’ I was thinking in my mind, ‘It’s not fair.’”

Matt Ryan and his teammates weren’t going to let that happen though. Two plays and 41 yards later, 19 of which coming on a Gonzalez catch, and the Falcons were in field goal range. A Matt Bryant 49-yard field goal turned Gonzalez’s disbelief into euphoric tears of joy.

“After 16 years, never winning a playoff game, I was … I’ve never cried after a win,” Gonzalez said to FOX. “I was thinking, ‘Here it goes again, I just guess it wasn’t meant to be.’ For us to come back the way we did, I’m so proud of our guys.”

Gonzalez said in training camp that he is 95-percent certain he is going to retire at the conclusion of this season. He owns NFL tight end records for receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), and reception touchdowns (103). Instead of marking those statistics as final, Gonzalez has at least 60 more minutes to add to his gaudy numbers when the Falcons take on the 49ers on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

The 36-year-old tight end spent the first twelve years of his NFL career in Kansas City. In those years, the Chiefs only made the playoffs three times, and came up empty on each trip. Realizing that postseason success would have to come elsewhere, Gonzalez negotiated a trade to the Atlanta Falcons after the 2008 season.

The Falcons though, have the worst postseason history of any NFL team, with only six playoff victories since their inaugural season in 1966. So, why Atlanta?

Gonzalez saw promise in the front office and in the coaches. He also saw the scary potential of the offensive weapons Atlanta possessed.

With Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and now myself, we have the chance to be in the top five in the league in offense every year,” Gonzalez said following the trade. “How could I not be excited to join that team?”

During his four years in Atlanta, the Falcons have racked up 45 victories, which is the third highest total in that span behind only the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. Until Sunday’s win over Seattle, they were 0-2 in the playoffs. They finally got that playoff monkey off their back in large part because Gonzalez isn’t playing like he’s suffered through the wear and tear of 16 taxing NFL seasons.

At age 36, Gonzalez is still an athletic force. He has the soft hands of a wide receiver and the quick feet of a basketball small forward. After over 254 games, he’s barely lost a step.

His secret is a diet based on vegan principles that he adopted six years ago.

It’s clean eating, from a 100% grass-fed source,” Gonzalez said. “You have to put good stuff in your body. Everybody should, but especially athletes. We’re high-performance machines. You wouldn’t put regular gas in a racecar. Jimmie Johnson is going to put the high-octane, good stuff in there. It’s the same thing for football players. You’d be surprised by how many players don’t do it. But I’ve seen the results.”

For breakfast he’ll have oatmeal with blueberries and a fruit smoothie. Lunch is often beans and brown rice. Dinner is either fish or chicken, whole-wheat pasta, and veggies. For dessert Gonzalez will sometimes splurge and dig into fruit sorbet.

“I’ve seen the difference on the field and noticed it after the game,” Gonzalez said. “My recovery is way better. My endurance is better. My focus has improved. Before I drastically changed my eating habits, I was sore. My bones were hurting. But not anymore.”

Gonzalez has become so hooked on his lifestyle change that he even collaborated with nutritionist Mitzi Dulan on a book, The All-Pro Diet.

His interest in healthy eating was sparked on a cross-country flight six years ago, when he sat next to a vegan. He peppered the man with questions after observing his meal, and the conversation led him to read The China Study and ultimately speak to its author, Dr. T. Colin Campbell. From Campbell, Gonzalez learned that a plant-based diet can increase energy and reduce the risks for illness such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

A couple of health scares in 2006 also led to his diet overhaul.

In May of that year Gonzalez was sitting at home when he lost all feeling in his tongue and face and started experiencing a terrible pain in the back of his head and neck. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, which could be fatal if symptoms persist. Luckily, after a month of antibiotics and acupuncture, Gonzalez recovered and hasn’t experienced a setback since.

Unfortunately, his roller coaster of a year wasn’t over yet. After giving blood just before the start of training camp, Falcons trainer David Price told Gonzalez to come see him immediately. He was sent to the hospital where he was told that his white blood cell count was very low and that he might need an emergency blood transfusion.

For the second time in less than a year, Gonzalez not only thought his football career was over, but also feared for his life.

A few hours later doctors discovered that they somehow grabbed a blood sample from someone else and that nothing was in fact wrong with Gonzalez. Although thankful, Gonzalez did not take the incident lightly. A brush with death, real or not, still changed his perspective on life.

“I laugh about it now, but it was one of the scariest moments in my life,” Gonzalez said. “That was the defining moment. You hear all the statistics out there about the mortality rate for football players. Life is too short.”

While nutritious food may prove to prolong Gonzalez’s life off the gridiron, his days on it are limited. The Falcons hope they can extend his career two more games and send the best tight end in NFL history out on top.

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