ATLANTA – Matt Ryan was in only his second season in 2009 when he kept hearing newly acquired tight end Tony Gonzalez insist he was open on plays.
"I would go back and watch the film and he was like completely covered," Ryan said.
Covered? The Atlanta Falcons quarterback saw play after play where Gonzalez was surrounded by two or three defenders.
"I was like, 'What are you talking about, man?'" Ryan said. "And he was like, 'Nah, if you just put it in this one spot, it'll be perfect.' It took me a while to develop that trust to let it rip and throw it to this spot, but he was right. He was open, and if you could deliver the ball in a spot that he could make a play, he didn't let you down."
It was the ability of Gonzalez to make those tough catches, especially on third down and in the red zone, that helped make him a first-ballot pick who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Gonzalez became the most productive tight end in NFL history in his career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Falcons. He was elected to the Chiefs' Hall of Fame in 2018 and says he's grateful to fan bases in Kansas City and Atlanta.
"Chiefs fans know how I feel about them and so do the Atlanta Falcons fans," he said.
Said Chiefs president Mark Donovan: "We'll always think of Tony as a Chief."
"We have a great relationship with Tony," Donovan said. "I think one of the things that gets lost in this, if you played for a bunch of teams you're in a tough spot. You have to take care of all the fans. Tony is a Chief and we appreciate everything he did for the organization."
Gonzalez's mark on the game was about more than his 1,325 receptions, second only to Jerry Rice in league history.
A six-time All-Pro and member of the NFL All-Decade Teams of the 2000s, Gonzalez played a lead role in revolutionizing the tight end position. Instead of just coming out of a blocking stance to catch passes like old-school tight ends, Gonzalez lined up all over the field, forcing mismatches with slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs.
"What made me so different is they would use me all over the place instead of the traditional tight end where you're taking off right next to the left tackle or right tackle," Gonzalez told The Associated Press. "They would split me out wide and put everybody on the other side and throw me jump balls, they'd throw slants. They'd put me one on one and it was all about matchups. No one had really done that before."
The 6-foot-5 Gonzalez played football and basketball in college at California. His size, strong hands, leaping ability and perhaps unprecedented commitment to health science helped him maintain a high level of production through 17 seasons. He had at least 50 catches in each of his last 16 seasons, including 14 seasons with at least 70. But he never got to a Super Bowl.
A first-round draft pick by Kansas City in 1997, Gonzalez was 33 when traded to Atlanta in 2009. By then, he already held NFL records for catches and yards receiving by a tight end.
"I pretty much knew when he came to us that he was going to the Hall of Fame," Ryan said, adding his five seasons with Gonzalez were "just the icing on the cake" for the tight end's first-ballot credentials.
"To just be a small part of it, that was fun," Ryan said.
It will be a big week for the Falcons, who open their preseason by playing the Denver Broncos in the Hall of Fame game on Thursday in Canton, Ohio.
It wasn't easy for Ryan to adjust to playing without Gonzalez.
"I love our other guys, but Tony was different," Ryan said. "That's not a slight on anybody. I mean, this is a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
It also wasn't easy for Gonzalez to walk away from the game. Thanks to his excellent physical condition, which he credits to his all-natural, vegan-based diet, which was eventually tweaked by adding one meat per week, Gonzalez delayed his retirement at least twice before finally walking away following an 83-catch season in 2013.
Gonzalez, 43, has stayed close to the game through his work as a Fox TV analyst. Asked if was ever tempted to come out of retirement, like Dallas tight end Jason Witten this season following one year away from the game, Gonzalez laughed and said, "No, not even close."
"My first year out I had a couple teams call me, some really good teams, and even then it was no," he said.
He acknowledged, "I still have that dream."
"I had a dream last week that I signed back with the Falcons," he said in late June. "Well, I don't know what team it was, but I signed back with a team. And I was scared and thinking in the dream, what am I doing? I can't believe I'm doing this in the shape I'm in now. The point is I still think about it. It's still on my mind. It's always going to be a part of me, I think."
Gonzalez said he understands why some former players struggle to replace the adrenaline rush they found on the field.
"I miss the fears. I miss that," he said. "I miss going over the middle and not knowing if I'm going to make that play. I think that's the part of the game you miss the most, that excitement of it. Then you think of the physical part as a retired player and I'm like, 'hell no.'"
He will be introduced by his cousin, Dennis Allen, at the induction ceremony.
"I'm not going to hold back," Gonzalez said of his planned speech. "Usually I try to restrain myself a little bit if I get a little emotional, but I'm just going to let it hang and try to speak from my heart."