When the 2012 season began, most Falcons fans were holding onto the hope that future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez would change his mind and not make that season his last, despite what he said when training camp began.
Gonzalez said he was 95 percent sure 2012 would be the final year of his 16-season career and he continued to say that throughout the season. When the Falcons season ended in a loss in the NFC Championship game, emotions ran high for Gonzalez as he dressed after the game and made his way out of the Georgia Dome and football for what, at the time, seemed to be his last time.
You can count Falcons head coach Mike Smith among the legion that saw hope in the five percent that Gonzalez would return, even after that loss and emotional exit. The tight end would eventually reverse course and announced his return for one more season earlier in the offseason and last week at the Falcons' State of the Franchise event, Smith shed some light on how the decision went down.
In relaying the story, Smith began with the five-percent door that Gonzalez left open. He shared a conversation Gonzalez had with Smith and other members of Atlanta's organization just prior to publicly saying he was 95 percent sure. Smith said he would continue to hope for the other five percent, but would honor Gonzalez' decision and wouldn't speak about it again for the remainder of the season.
"I told Tony, 'I'm not going to talk about it after this day. I'm just hoping for that five percent, but I'm not going to address it through the season and nor should you' and he didn't," Smith said. "He went through the rest of the season. The season ended, not quite what we wanted to get accomplished, and Tony was still intent on not playing anymore."
As the offseason progressed many of Gonzalez' teammates turned to text messages, phone calls and Twitter to encourage one of the all-time greats to return for one more run. Smith wasn't part of that welcome-back committee, but he did reach a point when he reached out to Gonzalez to find out if that final five percent was a possibility.
Always the player's coach, Smith first spoke with Gonzalez on the phone and then decided to fly to Gonzalez' home in California to discuss any possibility of a return.
"I said 'Tony, I'll tell you what, I don't want to do this on the phone. Let me hop on a plane, come out and have dinner with you and let's really talk about this,' " Smith said. "So we went out and had dinner and had an opportunity to talk. The chances of him playing were kind of bending a little bit."
Smith didn't share his opinion regarding how much that visit swayed Gonzalez' decision, but it demonstrates the kind of respect the head coach has for each of his players by flying out to meet with Gonzalez face-to-face. Smith said when that five percent turned into a 100 percent guarantee of a return he was very excited to have Gonzalez back on his roster, as were Falcons fans everywhere.
"We're a better football team with Tony Gonzalez," Smith said to end his story on how five percent became 100 percent.