FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - A longtime fan of kung fu movies, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has noticed something over the years about their storylines.
"You watch them and see the guy with the long beard," he said late last week at the team's practice facility. "The tough fighter is not usually the young guy. It's the old guy who's been around for a long time. I figure I'm like that."
As the Falcons take the Georgia Dome turf for this afternoon's NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers (3 p.m., Fox), the 36-year-old Gonzalez won't look anything like an old guy.
"I know Tony's 36, but he doesn't play like it," said 30-year-old Falcons running back Michael Turner. "He plays like he's about 26."
Gonzalez's numbers certainly back that up. His team-high 93 catches were the fourth most of his career and set a Falcons record for tight ends, as did his 930 receiving yards in the regular season. His eight TD grabs tied Alge Crumpler for the second-most in franchise history.
Added to his career totals, Gonzo will take the Dome turf this afternoon with NFL records for a tight end in TD catches (103), total yards (14,268) and receptions (1,242).
Another perspective: As his 16th professional season draws to a close, the University of California product trails only Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice in total receptions -- 1,549 to 1,242 (and counting).
"In my estimation," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said late Thursday, "he's the greatest tight end to ever play the game."
But holding to his season-long statement that "I'm 95 percent certain I'm going to retire at the end of the year," Gonzalez still intends to end his certain Hall of Fame career whenever the Falcons' storybook season ends -- be it today or in the Super Bowl two weeks from now in New Orleans.
"There's no doubt I could play this game another three years if I wanted to," Gonzalez said. "And at a high level, too. [But] the only reason I played the last couple of years was for an opportunity like this."
To better understand this opportunity for the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Gonzalez to reach the Super Bowl, it's important to note that until last week's NFC divisional win over Seattle, he had never experienced a playoff win in five previous chances at Kansas City (0-3) and Atlanta.
Not that Smith believes that should ever be viewed as the 13-time Pro Bowler's fault.
"That doesn't mean you're not a great player," said Smith, who also won his first playoff game in four tries as a head coach last week. "It's a team sport. All that means (no playoff wins) is that you haven't been on great teams."
That's one reason why the fifth-year Falcons coach believes "everybody in our locker room would like to see him go out the right way."
But that's far from the only reason.
"He's the ultimate pro," said Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas. "He's probably the greatest tight end ever, but he's as hard a worker as we have on this team. He always does it the right way."
Always, agreed Smith.
"Tony is a mentor to so many players in our locker room," the coach said. "He's not a guy of many words, but when he comes to work, he comes to work. We always tell the new guys, 'See that guy over there? Mimic what he's doing.'"
If the rest of the Falcons can mimic their tight end's effort against Seattle in that last-second win, Atlanta might become 95 percent certain to reach the Super Bowl.
Gonzalez scored the first touchdown of the game on one of those acrobatic catches in the back of the end zone -- his lead foot no more than a millimeter or two from the back line -- that has long separated him from most who have played his position.
Four or more catches totaling 31 yards helped keep Falcons drives alive, but his best moment may have come seconds before Matt Bryant booted the winning field goal from 49 yards out.
Squaring up in the middle of the field as quarterback Matt Ryan avoided being sacked, Gonzalez wrapped his mitts around a 19-yard completion to the Seattle 31 that set up Bryant's boot.
"Mr. Reliable," Ryan said of his tight end. "He's so consistent."
Befitting a guy of few words, Gonzalez let his tears do the talking.
"I was on the ground," he said, "sobbing like a baby."
Much of this seemed destined to happen since he wasn't much bigger than a baby in his native Southern California, where his mother worked two jobs to keep her children fed, clothed and sheltered.
So gifted an athlete was Gonzalez in football, basketball and baseball that he shared Orange County high school athlete of the year honors with Tiger Woods.
By the time he left Cal after his junior year he had become a star for the Bears in both football and basketball, but his future seemed brightest in football, where he somewhat redefined the position.
Even now, 16 years later, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, the ex-Ole Miss great, said of Gonzo: "He's still playing at a high level. He's still making plays. He may not be as fast as he used to be, but he's really crafty and he knows how to get open."
Those skills haven't been developed by accident or luck.
"I'm a big believer in routine," Gonzalez said. "It started after my second year. I had a pretty good rookie season. My second year, I dropped 17 balls. I started reading books about the guys who are special -- Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Tiger Woods.
"I couldn't believe how much work those guys put in. I realized if I was ever going to become good at this, I had to do the same."
But it's not just his football skills that separate Gonzalez from many in the sports world.
"You always want to make sure you have a good name," he said. "You don't get respect by being a jerk. That's why I always tell the younger guys, 'Don't surround yourself with "yes" people. Surround yourself with "no" people, people who'll tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear.'"
What the Falcons want to hear from Gonzalez whenever the season ends is probably quite different from what they expect to hear. Not that they're giving up without a fight.
As Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud was wrapping up a pregame interview with Fox a couple of days ago, he looked into the TV camera and pleaded, "Tony, don't leave us! Please ... don't ... leave ... us!"
At least not until the old guy has helped them win a Super Bowl.