KAPOLEI, Hawaii — Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez thought he was done playing football a few weeks ago. Now, he says he’s getting an ideal finish to his career with his 14th Pro Bowl.
Gonzalez said after practicing Friday that it’s now up to players to put on an entertaining game to create a higher quality Pro Bowl.
“It hasn’t been where it could be and where I think it’s going to be this year,” Gonzalez said. “It’s up to us to go out there and put on a performance.”
Players have to balance the game’s demands while limiting health risks for their own teams and fans in a sport with lots of injuries, Gonzalez said.
“The thing people have to understand ... you just want to be healthy,” he said. “We can’t go out there and give 100 percent effort, because it’s not worth it.”
Gonzalez has a Pro Bowl record 49 receptions. He finished his NFL career with 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns, all of which are records for tight ends. He also had a tight end record of 31 games with at least 100 receiving yards.
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten says he’s learned a lot from Gonzalez over his nine selections to the all-star game. He says Gonzalez has changed the way tight ends are used around the league.
“We’ve had discussions and played together seven or eight times in this game, and he’s somebody I respect,” Witten said.
Gonzalez and Witten are the two most veteran Pro Bowlers set to play Sunday in a game that’s become partly about age, depending on who’s asked.
NFL great Deion Sanders said going into the two-day draft used to select the teams that he didn’t want any all-stars with more than four Pro Bowls on his resume. Sanders picked one team, Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice picked the other under the game’s new “unconferenced” format.
The approach sparked spirited jabs from Rice and others, including Indianapolis linebacker Robert Mathis, on the value of picking veterans for the game. Rice wondered before the draft whether it was just a ploy by Sanders to motivate players or disguise a different strategy.
But Sanders followed through on his promise. The 44 players on his team boast an average 2.3 Pro Bowl selections, while Rice’s players average 2.8 Pro Bowl selections each. Additionally, Sanders has 30 players playing in their first or second Pro Bowl, compared with 26 for Rice.
Rice says the ages don’t matter — that the game is in the hands of the players.
“I have a great group of guys that’s going to go out there and bring that old tradition back to Hawaii and I think they’re ready to go,” Rice said after a practice in which he played catch with San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers and mingled with players and coaches.
“I wouldn’t say I have a more veteran team. I think I have a mixture of everything and I think it’s the same thing with Deion,” he said.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas casinos say the game is essentially a tossup, with some casinos making Rice’s team a small favorite.