The paragon of the contemporary tight end is evident at the Atlanta Falcons’ complex. Tony Gonzalez reels in balls thrown before, during and after practice by the assistant coach Andrew Weidinger. The passes arrive at all angles — high, low, wide — as many as a hundred daily.
“He’s got a horrible arm,” Gonzalez said affectionately. “You never know where it’s coming.”
That fits Gonzalez’s desire to simulate game conditions, in which not every pass is a bull’s-eye. The drill has helped him accrue in his career, trailing only , a wide receiver, who had 1,549.
That a tight end in his 15th season ranks second amazes those acquainted with the roots of the position.
“I never, ever imagined one would have that many receptions,” says Ken Herock, a professional tight end for six seasons in the 1960s who has since worked as an N.F.L. scout, coach, personnel director, general manager and predraft tutor.
The position’s transformation was accelerated, if not partly ignited, by pro football’s reinvention as a passing sport. Tight ends are stationed in the slot and at the wing. They are sent in motion, these supersize receivers, and race downfield on post patterns once reserved for lithe wideouts.
“In the prehistoric dinosaur days, they always lined up at the line of scrimmage,” next to a tackle, Herock said while laughingly recalling that a pass was thrown his way about once a game just to make him feel involved.
During the ’90s and early 2000s, Shannon Sharpe was the exception. His 815 career receptions paced tight ends until Gonzalez whizzed past.
“When I got into the league, if a tight end caught 20 passes, he had a good season,” said Sharpe, a Hall of Famer and cast member of “The NFL Today” on CBS who is friendly enough with Gonzalez to exchange barbs about their blocking.
“Now they are so athletic,” added Sharpe, whom Gonzalez considers the quintessential pass-catching tight end. “And they can run. This is the greatest group of tight ends in the history of the game.”
Its ringleader is Gonzalez, who of an interior lineman even though he could bench-press most wideouts. If a laboratory designed the ideal human, he might look like Gonzalez. Body fat is almost imperceptible on his 250-pound frame, and with his handsome features, he could be a stand-in for the actor Dwayne Johnson, the former football player and professional wrestler known as the Rock.
Gonzalez, 35, breaks type for all N.F.L players, not just tight ends.
Once a , he has moved toward the dietary mainstream, but beef — grass-fed, of course — passes his lips no more than monthly. He dispenses nutrition advice to teammates, opponents, Falcons employees — and an assistant coach who has shed 35 pounds.
Gonzalez enjoys his sport but is not captive to it. He surfs and plays intense games of basketball, a sport he mastered in college at California. When he and his original team, the Kansas City Chiefs, were at loggerheads over a new contract in 2001, Gonzalez played on the Miami Heat summer league team and left convinced that the N.B.A. had missed out on the next Charles Barkley.
He supported by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, posing essentially nude with October Gonzalez, whom he considers his wife. (They had a commitment ceremony in 2007.)
Gonzalez does not chase every available dollar. Early in his career, he said, he passed on $200,000 bonuses to stay at his California home with his infant son, eschewing off-season team workouts in Kansas City, Mo.
“Sometimes,” he said, uttering words that would be appropriate on his tombstone, “you’ve got to do what feels right.”
An intellectual curiosity guides Gonzalez, providing stress relief that might explain his football longevity.
“His well-rounded approach to life is something that has truly kept him energized,” Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said.