When he first realized Super Bowl LIII would be here, in the same year he’d be eligible for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Gonzalez had one thought.
“How great would that be?” Gonzalez recalled Saturday, Atlanta being where he spent the final five seasons of his 17-year career.
Now, go back two weeks, when Kansas City was facing New England in the AFC title game. Gonzalez played his first 12 seasons with the Chiefs.
“When Kansas City was a step from getting here, I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Gonzalez said. “ ‘This could be Kansas City, in Atlanta and I might go to the Hall of Fame.’ So I was super excited about it.”
The Chiefs, of course, didn’t make it, losing to the Patriots in overtime.
But Gonzalez did make it as one of three first-ballot selections, joining defensive backs Ed Reed and Champ Bailey.
Also elected Saturday were defensive back Ty Law, center Kevin Mawae, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, long-time personnel evaluator Gil Brandt and Johnny Robinson, the lone senior finalist nominated.
All of the honorees were present during the NFL’s honors celebration at the downtown Fox Theater except for Bowlen.
Members of his family, on hearing of his selection, video chatted with Bowlen, who remained in Colorado. He suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and stepped away from the franchise’s day-to-day operations in 2014.
The Board of Selectors met for 7½ hours Saturday ahead of Super Bowl LIII. Among the finalists not picked was the late Don Coryell, who coached the Chargers for nine seasons beginning in 1978.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be Aug. 3, in Canton, Ohio.
“I knew I had a good chance, I’m not going to lie about that,” said Gonzalez, 42, who was born in Torrance and attended Huntington Beach High. “Still, when you hear the knock [on your hotel door], your heart drops.”
A first-round pick out of California by the Chiefs in 1997, Gonzalez missed only two games in his career, finishing with 1,325 receptions — second all time to Jerry Rice — and 15,127 yards, the most ever for a tight end.
From 1999 through 2013, he missed the Pro Bowl only once, in 2009, his first season with the Falcons.
“Just to be here all week, walking around the streets, seeing familiar faces and getting love from the fans has been great,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t have picked a better place. I could have picked an equal place and that’s Kansas City.”
The Chiefs inducted Gonzalez into the franchise’s Ring of Honor in December during a game against the Chargers.
He is generally credited with redefining the limits of the tight end position by expanding it into a dual-threat role.
Gonzalez’s play helped pave the way for players such as Rob Gronkowski and longtime Charger Antonio Gates, both of whom could be future Hall of Famers.
“The fans in Kansas City … everybody in Kansas City is nuts for football,” Gonzalez said. “The support they have for their team is unparalleled, I believe. Every time I go back to Kansas City … it’s a city but it’s a small-town feel. You love being supported by them.”
Like Gonzalez, Reed and Bailey were widely considered to be shoo-ins Saturday.
Reed, who spent most of his career with Baltimore, was named to nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro first teams. He finished with 64 interceptions, seven of which he returned for touchdowns.
Bailey made the Pro Bowl 12 times, the most for a cornerback, and was a first-team All-Pro in three consecutive seasons. He had 52 interceptions while playing for Washington and later Denver.