Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Atlanta Falcon's Tony Gonzalez fights for extra yards after a reception in the game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Tony Gonzalez refuses to boast about himself as he moves closer to becoming the NFL's No. 2 career leader in receptions.
The 35-year-old Gonzalez has 10 Pro Bowl bids and already owns most of the meaningful league records by a tight end. He was the first to reach 1,000 catches and 12,000 yards receiving.
But as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to visit Detroit on Sunday, Gonzalez is ready to acknowledge another accomplishment within his reach: He needs four catches to move past Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison with 1,103 catches.
"Yeah, it's a big deal," Gonzalez said Thursday. "Obviously, during the game, whenever that time comes, I'll know when I catch that fourth one. I hold my own clock inside, but it's one of those things, in the heat of the battle, you can't worry about that. I'll probably relish on it after the game."
Gonzalez continues to defy the odds for longevity and production at his position. Though there's little chance he could play another few seasons and catch Jerry Rice for the No. 1 NFL spot with 1,549 catches, Gonzalez is relatively content with the path of his career.
He still lacks that elusive Super Bowl appearance after 12 seasons in Kansas City and two-plus with the Falcons. But considering that he never liked youth football and wanted to concentrate solely on a basketball career that included an impressive college stint at California, Gonzalez still can't believe the production he's had in the NFL.
"I never thought this moment would come when I first got into the league a long time ago in '97," he said. "It's just been really a dream come true, and there's no way in the world I could take all the credit for that."
Sitting at his locker, Gonzalez nodded at quarterback Matt Ryan a few feet away to acknowledge how many teammates have helped him succeed.
"I've been blessed to be around some pretty good quarterbacks, and have continued to play with another toward the end of my career, to get the ball like that," he said. "Offensive coordinators, my family, my brothers -- lots of people have believed in me."
Gonzalez likewise earned the trust of teammates and coaches by having a firm grip on the football. He hasn't fumbled since Week 16 of 2006 and hasn't lost a fumble since 1999 -- a span of 192 straight games and 950 receptions.
That kind of consistency doesn't come without countless reps and steady preparation, and Gonzalez's practice routine has served him well.
Each day during the season, he catches 100 passes before leaving the field, and ball security is big part of his mindset.
"You have to understand that's what the defense is trying to do," he said. "They're going for ball, especially the little guys on me. They know they're going to have it tough maybe bringing me down, so they're going to go for the ball. As soon as I catch the ball, it's just my natural reaction to clutch and tuck it in."
Falcons wideout Roddy White marvels at Gonzalez's work ethic and eagerness to push himself to run precise routes and properly finish each snap in practice.
"On one hand, I'm like, 'How does it feel to be a Hall of Famer and you're still playing?' " White said with a smile. "He laughs it off and stuff like that, but the guy is a professional all-pro. He's shown a lot of the young guys around here how to steer themselves in the right direction and help everyone get better."
Quarterback Matt Ryan can't imagine excelling at tight end for 15 years and continuing to amass NFL records. No player at his position has more touchdown catches, 100-yard receiving games or 1,000-yard season than Gonzalez.
"It's an unbelievable accomplishment," Ryan said. "It's a testament to how good of a player he is, how hard he has worked for a long time and how talented he is. It's just fun to a part of those types of things as a player, especially for such a good person off the field too."
Appropriately, it seems, another lofty mark is at hand.
If Gonzalez gets 5 yards receiving when Atlanta (3-3) plays the Lions (5-1), he will move past Irving Fryar for 13th place on the career list with 12,786 yards receiving.
"It was kind of humble beginnings for me in football," Gonzalez said. "I quit the first year played, but my brother made me get back out there, so for me to say I thought this could ever happen is something I never imagined. It makes it that much sweeter to know that my family and my teammates have been there to help me along the way."