NFL players routinely are excused from practice to address serious personal matters, but it’s very rare for them to get big blocks of time away from the team for non-emergencies.
Gonzalez, though, had plenty of leverage with the Falcons after helping them advance to the NFC title game last season and earning his 13th Pro Bowl invitation.
So the two sides struck an accord to suit them both.
Gonzalez, 37, agreed in March to put off his retirement to return for a fifth year in Atlanta and 17th overall. In turn, the team agreed to let him miss parts of training camp so he could spend extra time with family and watch his 12-year-old son, Nikko, practice football in California.
“Right now, I’m here, but there were some obligations I made to my family, more specifically to my son last year around this time, because I was going to retire,” he said. “I wasn’t joking about that last season.”
On the first day of training camp last year, Gonzalez told reporters that he was 95 percent that 2012 would be his last season.
But after Atlanta fell 10 yards shy of winning the NFC title, Gonzalez told himself the Falcons were too talented — and that he was still playing at such an elite level — that he might regret not trying one last time to reach the Super Bowl.
After all, it took 16 years for him to finally win a playoff game. Now he has a chance to help Atlanta, which earned a No. 1 playoff seed in 2010 and ’12, win the Lombardi Trophy.
“This is my last season, and I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “This is going to be fun — just being with the guys that are on this team and with the fan support — the sky’s the limit on what we can do, but we have to work hard. We know we’re a long way away from where we were last year, and it starts with that first game in New Orleans.”
Neither Gonzalez nor coach Mike Smith said how many days the player will miss, but both added there’s no cause for concern. Both insist the absences won’t affect his job performance.
“There’ll be some time that he’ll be here in training camp, and some time where he won’t,” Smith said. “I think those decisions were made prior to him deciding whether he was going to play again. We’re glad he’s here. He’s going to be here for a while, and then he’s going to be gone. Then he’ll be back.”
Added Gonzalez, “I’ll join the team early. I’m not going to be showing up the week before the game. I’ll be out here a lot earlier than that, but I’ll be ready to go, too. You can bet the house on that.”
In past years, Gonzalez never tried to hide his disdain for training camp. Too much work that caused too many bodies to wear down during in the season, he often said, but the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement limited the number of workouts and how much players had to wear pads.
It helped further that Smith routinely gives players in his “over-30 club” extra time off during the season, and Gonzalez appreciated that the Falcons had allowed him in past years to miss all of the offseason workouts.
Quarterback Matt Ryan said Friday that he flew to Southern California recently to spend a couple of days on the field with Gonzalez and make sure their timing on routes stays sharp.
“He and I have a great rapport,” Ryan said. “I think that with that time and then over the last couple of days out here, it’s going to be fine when he comes back. It’s not an issue at all.”
Another influence on his decision to put off retirement this year was the offseason support from Atlanta fans. He was delighted that the Fox Theatre downtown scrolled “Tony Gonzalez Is Coming Back!!!” across its marquee.
“My wife is big on social media, and she told me how they had a fan page and people were signing petitions to try to get me back,” Gonzalez said. “That’s cool stuff right there to know that the city is behind you, and I know it’s not just me. It’s behind what we have here as a team, and they know that I’m just a part of that puzzle.”
NOTES: The Falcons announced they’ve sold out all home games for this season. Single-game tickets were gone after one day on sale this week, but some club seats and suites are still available. Team president Rich McKay said the Falcons set a franchise high in season ticket sales earlier this year. Atlanta went 8-1 at the Georgia Dome last season before losing the NFC championship game. ... For the second straight day, rookie CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, the first- and second-round draft picks, took turns with the first-team defense. Neither is having much luck in defending Pro Bowl WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White, but Ryan praised the rookies’ perseverance. “Trufant came up with a pick on me earlier,” Ryan said. “He made a great break on the ball, and Alford contested probably three or four passes. I’ve been impressed with those guys. They’ve got good swagger, and I think they’re really going to help our football team.”