Monday, October 13, 2008

Monday Mourning: If He Goes...

The way we're wired, being sports fans defines us. We love baseball because it's in our blood, our childhoods, our memory banks. Debates regarding the game today is a many-headed beast, arguments that will never see a winner or loser. Some of us bleed a passion for soccer, while even fewer remain dedicated to hockey. Our common thread, however, will always be American football. We want competition, we want toughness, we want our clubs to be positively represented, and most of all, we want championships. With tomorrow's NFL trade deadline looming, a certainty swells in my brain telling me that as of Wednesday morning, October 15, Tony Gonzalez will no longer be a Kansas City Chief.

When I sat down to write this morning, it felt impossible to grasp the right angle of this piece. I wrestled with many urges to compile the most compelling list of personal and professional statistics to paint the ultimate picture of #88. I decided against it, mostly because this visceral knot has very little to do with the record books. Any fan of football knows that records are made to be broken, and the fact that Tony Gonzalez currently holds the NFL records for yards, catches, and touchdowns by a tight end is just that -- current. Maybe in five years Antonio Gates will close in on, if not eclipse one or more of those marks. Maybe some other guy will come along in 10 years or so, and shatter them all. And maybe they'll be Gonzalez's records for eternity. The more pressing point of this sentiment, though, is that Tony Gonzalez embodies the model of what I want my teams' rosters to be full of, both in personal and professional regards.

In the spring of 1997, when the Chiefs selected Gonzalez with the 13th overall pick of the NFL draft, I was clueless to it. It's possible that I didn't even know the draft happened in April back then, and I certainly was not aware of Gonzalez until the season was underway. The world of sports -- hell, the world in general -- was a lot different 11 years ago. Gore's InterWebs were like a Model-T; I was barely able to wrap my head around the concept of e-mail; and I was inching my way through my junior year at THE Fort Lewis College, which was a great experience, albeit a little too deep in BroncoCountry for my taste, but whatever.

This era, of course was the beginning of the aftermath of the ultimate Carl Peterson debacle, known (sort of) as Gannon-GrbacGate. With Rich Gannon being relegated to the bench in favor of Grbac, the Chiefs' chances at getting a then-rookie Gonzalez a taste of playoff victory looked good. That was about as good as they'd ever look. Gonzalez caught a touchdown pass in that game, and had an earlier end-zone catch ruled out of bounds. He would spend the next couple of seasons being Grbac's favorite (and perhaps only other than Derrick Alexander) target, before Trent Green took over as signal caller. It would be six long years before the Chiefs had another shot.

On January 11, 2004, the Chiefs were eliminated from post-season contention by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, a contest marking the second of three consecutive Chief playoff losses to Indy. In this game, Gonzalez had another touchdown catch negated by officiating. Three years later, in the third game of those defeats to the Colts, Gonzalez found the end zone on consecutive plays, a third-quarter touchdown catch, followed by a reception for the two-point conversion, Kansas City's only points in the contest. Many argued, and have since continued, that the best option for that day would've been the then-hot Damon Huard as the starting quarterback, but KC went with the recently-recovered Green, who led a lifeless offense to defeat.

Since then the Chiefs have gone 5-16 with combinations of Huard, Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen throwing to Gonzalez, and things have never looked bleaker in 88's storied career. The troops have been rallied, the wagons have circled, and all suggestions lean toward trading Gonzalez as the right thing to do. Reporters have claimed that Peterson and Gonzalez are very close, that the Chiefs' General Manager worked hard to get Green landed with another club, that perhaps he'll work harder to do the same for Gonzalez. With the Green trade, sides in the tiers of fandom were at odds. Some thought it to be a mistake to let Green go with only the aged Huard and the unproven youth in Croyle as the only signal-calling options.

Now, with Gonzalez, it would appear that unanimity abides; place the man in a situation he deserves, with a team that has a chance to compete. My House of Georges colleagues and I have oft-argued many a Gonzalez-related topic: How can you call him the best when he's never won a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl? When Arrowhead Addict ran its famous COAT (greatest Chief Of All Time) series, I steadfastly supported Gonzalez, and stand by that claim today.

Gonzalez has almost never missed a game. He has for more than 10 years been a dedicated off-season trainer, and been ultra-competitive in every game in which he's played. He's made a tremendous impact with the United Way, the Boys and Girls Club, and with Shadow Buddies, The Tony Gonzalez Foundation. He's never been in the presses for domestic abuse, he's never been nabbed for driving while under the influence, and he's always had some sense of tact with reporters in regard to expressing his post-loss frustrations (Editor's Note: And obviously, there have been many.). And frankly, a fan can't ask for more in his/her professional athlete.

Therefore, when it comes down to the nits and grits of this inevitable transaction, yes -- I want the most the Chiefs can get for Tony Gonzalez. But no -- I do not think the trigger should remain unpulled if Peterson's desires are not sated in compensatory terms. My colleagues would likely say that no man "deserves" a championship, and I would suspect that they would agree with me that, from time to time, a player comes along that does in fact deserve a shot at competing for one. Tony Gonzalez is that player, bar none. So it is with sadness, shame and acceptance that I, as a member of ChiefsNation face this trade deadline. I'm sad to see Tony go; he is in fact my favorite player to ever don the red and gold. I'm ashamed that Peterson's efforts and attempts to bring this club a championship have failed, and in that shame, the majority of it goes hand-in-hand with Gonzalez's career, the smaller end being my personal fandom, as Kansas City will continue trying to earn that trophy after Tony's time in the league has lapsed.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly is the final ingredient of acceptance. I know that Gonzalez must go. I've accepted the fact that the game will have passed him before the Chiefs will even sniff legitimate contention again. And it will be with truth and conviction that I root for whatever team that signs him, as I look forward to the days in which Gonzalez earns a ring, (hopefully) retires as a Chief, and sees his name etched onto the walls of Arrowhead Stadium.

For 11 incredible seasons, for forever existing as the lone glimmer of hope (even when it was false), and for being one of so very few positive role models both within and outside of the hash marks, I thank you, Tony Gonzalez, for being the best -- and here I quote Old No. 7 -- "September-to-December, non-championship-winning, tight end to ever play the game of football."

Since 1997, and for many years to come, remember that I told y'all: the tight end's the sleeper.

(Note: Those interested in Tony Gonzalez stats can find many lines of eye-torturing letters and numbers here, here, and yes -- even here.)