Tony Gonzalez has more than enough accolades to go around.
He's a future Hall of Famer and by most accounts the greatest tight end to every play the game, but a recent article by Jeff Darlington on NFL.com credits Gonzalez with being the original game-changer at a position long utilized as only a sixth offensive lineman.
Tight ends have been getting a lot of love in recent seasons with the emergence of young players like New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley and New England's Rob Gronkowski, but Darlington points out that Gonzalez started the transformation of the position when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1997.
"When I first got to Kansas City, the tight end (Keith Cash) had caught 14 balls the year before," Gonzalez said in the article. "I thought I was just going to follow suit, catch maybe 25 or 30 per year. But once they started giving us nods, spreading us out, using us like wide receivers, that started to change."
As a high school player in the early 90's in Huntington Beach, Ca., Gonzalez' coaches tried him at numerous positions including running back, fullback and linebacker before putting the young and quick Gonzalez at tight end.
"They figured I was a fast, bigger guy," Gonzalez told Darlington. "So they said, 'We're just going to throw it up in the air, and we'll have you run corner routes and stuff like that.' That's where it all started."
Fast forward two decades and that's exactly how tight ends are beginning to be used in the NFL. With their height and size advantage, tight ends like Gonzalez and Gronkowski create big targets for their quarterbacks and their strength allows them to make plays after the catch in ways receivers can't always accomplish.
While players like Graham and Gronkowski are receiving a lot of attention for the heights they're playing at so early in their career, Gonzalez deserves the credit for being the grandfather of the modern tight end and he's still playing on a level equal with his younger counterparts.
The Falcons tight end earned his 12th Pro Bowl selection this season, behind Graham who was named the starter. Gonzalez will return to Atlanta for at least one more season in his history-setting career and he'll be given yet another chance to show why he's one of the all-time greats at his position and otherwise.
Players like Graham recognize Gonzalez' contributions to the game and the position and understand that were it not for him, their professional sports careers may have been rooted in basketball instead of football.
"I told Tony that in a couple years, I'm going to owe him quite a bit," Graham said. "I'll take him on vacation somewhere, all expenses paid, for paving the way for me. He's really been one of the key pieces in the evolution of the tight end."