San Francisco 49ers

Matthew Barrows: Falcons’ Gonzalez recalls life-saving knockout at Candlestick

Go back into the official NFL game book, and it seems like an ordinary play: “E. Grbac pass to T. Gonzalez pushed ob at SF 16 for 12 yards (W.Tubbs).”

But for one man, the play became a life-altering experience; for the other, it was affirmation of a higher authority.

The “T. Gonzalez” is Tony Gonzalez, the tight end for the Atlanta Falcons. Since Gonzalez spent most of his 17-year career in Kansas City, he has played at Candlestick Park only three times.

Gonzalez, whose Falcons visit San Francisco on Monday, was given the perfunctory question Thursday that has been asked of nearly every player involved in the upcoming game, the final regular-season contest at Candlestick Park.

“Hey, Tony, are there any memories that jump out about the place?”

Yes, there was one, Gonzalez said: “The strangest thing that ever happened to me in football happened to me at Candlestick.”

It was on Nov. 12, 2000, when Candlestick Park was known as 3Com Park and the Chiefs were in town. Early in the third quarter, Gonzalez was flung out of bounds – “a total late hit,” he said – and crashed into freelance photographer Mickey Pfleger, 51. Cameras went flying, and Pfleger was knocked onto his back.

Gonzalez looked down.

“His eyes were in the back of his head,” he said. “He was knocked out, unconscious. I tried to help him up, but people were like, ‘Hey, get back in the huddle.’ ”

“He was just shoved right into my dad,” said Tai Pfleger, who was 21 at the time and also photographing the game. “And I saw my dad’s shoes sticking out of the crowd that had gathered around him. And I was just, ‘Oh, my God.’ My stomach just dropped, and I ran over.”

“He just got drilled,” said Brad Mangin, a friend of Mickey Pfleger’s who was taking photos from the other side of the field. “And then it just unfolded into this crazy story.”

Pfleger woke up two minutes later, just in time to give a thumb’s up to the crowd as he was placed in an ambulance.

At the hospital, however, a CT scan showed a dark mass the size of a racquetball on his brain stem. It was a large tumor – a shock to Pfleger and his family, considering he’d never had any symptoms, not even a headache.

Six months later, he had brain surgery and doctors removed most – but not all – of the tumor. Pfleger – whose photos have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Time and even on a postage stamp – worked another five years and lived another 10. He died three years ago at an acute care facility in Carmichael.

Tai Pfleger, however, said no one knows how long his father would have lived if the tumor not been discovered. He said his dad lived long enough to meet his first grandchild, born three months before Pfleger died.

Pfleger also became friends with Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was worried about the photographer he left crumpled and unconscious on the sideline, so he had his sister call the hospital while he and the Chiefs traveled back to Kansas City. He sent a signed football and a bouquet of flowers with a message: “Sorry about the hit” – Tony Gonzalez.

They exchanged phone calls and met up whenever Gonzalez, who played the Raiders annually, was in the Bay Area.

“It’s just strange how the universe works,” Gonzalez said. “I believe in a higher power. Some people out there don’t. But I definitely think something was at work there – a late hit and then running into this guy and being able to find that tumor in him? That’s something that stands out as the strangest thing that ever happened to me in football. It’s a great story.”

Tai Pfleger said his father had the same take on the Candlestick encounter.

Mickey Pfleger always said the collision didn’t leave a single bruise. His expensive camera equipment was unharmed, not a lens scratched.

“My dad was in the firm belief that he was supposed to find out about that tumor,” Pfleger said. “... I agree with that. It was supposed to happen. And I’m glad I got another 10 years of his life.”