Editorial: An exemplary athlete

Tony Gonzalez displayed upstanding qualities on and off playing field

There are certain unwritten rules of construction in journalism – elsewhere known unaffectionately as “clichés” – that one must abide by in order to be part of the thundering herd. They are pairings of words that, in every instance in which they apply, must be mindlessly and dutifully applied.

Back in the first Gulf War for instance, it was, for all appearances, illegal in American journalism to refer to Saddam Hussein’s crack troops as his “Republican Guard.” Nope. It was his elite Republican Guard.

We all know how that one ended.

Likewise, one cannot make reference to retiring Atlanta Falcon Tony Gonzalez without preceding his name with “Future Hall of Famer.”

In this case, however, the shoe definitely fits – although the phrase is soon to be sunsetted: In five years, in his first year of eligibility for the Hall, you will have to take the “Future” off. He will then be “Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.”

It’s a lock, and for good reason. We live in an era in which athletes’ and other celebrities’ attributes are exceedingly overblown, but few athletes in our time have been as universally respected – or so worthy of that respect. He is arguably the best tight end ever, and is second all-time in receptions only to Jerry Rice – widely considered the best National Football League player in history.

We were blessed at this editorial department to have met Mr. Gonzalez after a preseason game in his rookie year, and we left the encounter wondering if we hadn’t been in on the ground floor of greatness. It was clear to us he had marquee talent, Elvis looks and charm beyond his years and far beyond the gridiron.

Yet, that’s just potential. It’s what he did with it that counts.

He simply worked his tail off, on and off the field, treating his body as a temple, his profession as a privilege and his life as a blessing. And, on and off the field, he honored his sport, his teammates, his employers and his family with all-American moves that should be a model for youths.

So respected by his peers is he that they often talked of getting Tony a championship ring, a playoff win and, Sunday, what might have been a career-ending victory.

It didn’t happen that way. But if this really was the popular Falcon’s swan song, he went out a winner nonetheless.

And while he spent the bulk of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Falcons fans were lucky enough to be there for his last few seasons. And last year the Falcons got him what Kansas City never could – a playoff victory.

They presented him with a half-Falcons/half-Chiefs helmet at halftime Sunday. Truly, though, as an artisan, an athlete and a role model, Tony Gonzalez belongs to the sport, not to any particular team. He’s a future Hall-of-Famer.

He redefined the position of tight end. But more importantly, he reminded us what a life of honor and duty looks like.

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