For Tony Gonzalez, being a two-sport athlete at Cal wasn't enough.

The Golden Bears were preparing to play in the 1996 Aloha Bowl when a couple of linebackers were hurt in a car accident. Gonzalez, the team's junior tight end, had a solution.

"He came up to me and said, 'Coach, let me play both ways,' " recalled then-Cal coach Steve Mariucci. "That's the kind of kid he was. He'd do anything to help the team win. If you had a handful of Tony Gonzalezes, you'd never lose."

Jump forward to 2013, and Gonzalez is doing plenty of winning with the Atlanta Falcons. He's one of the key components standing in the way of the 49ers' Super Bowl quest. The teams tangle for the NFC championship Sunday in Atlanta.

Now 36, Gonzalez has said he is 95 percent certain this will be his final season. His eye-popping accomplishments in his 16 NFL seasons include -- as a tight end -- ranking as the No. 2 pass-catcher in NFL history behind only Jerry Rice. He was named All-Pro for the sixth time and won his first NFL playoff game last weekend.

His Hall of Fame future got a great liftoff at Cal, where he was a scholarship football player who could not resist the lure of the basketball court.

For years, he told reporters and teammates basketball was his favorite sport. When Gonzalez and Villanova star freshman Tim Thomas -- future NFL and NBA first-round draft picks -- dueled in the 1997 NCAA basketball tournament, Gonzalez turned it into a mismatch.

"I remember telling people, 'That guy's not going to be able to do anything against Gonzalez,' " said Shareef Abdur-Rahim, an NBA rookie at the time who played the year before at Cal. "People thought I was crazy, but I said, 'Gonzalez is going to dominate him.'

"I knew because I had faced him every day in practice. He was so much stronger than me, there was nothing I could do."

At 6-foot-5, Gonzalez outmuscled the 6-10 Thomas, outscored him 23-11 and led Cal into the Sweet 16. It was the last chapter of his legendary Cal career.

"I tell my kids I played with Tony in college, and they tell me I'm lying," said Oakland native Tarik Glenn, who played offensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts for 10 seasons.

Gonzalez already had a larger-than-life image when he arrived at Cal in the fall of 1994.

Quarterback Pat Barnes said Gonzalez had a sharper focus than other freshmen. "He didn't need to be the center of attention. He wasn't out running the streets," Barnes said. "He was all about his business. He had long-term goals he was set on achieving."

East Bay native Jeremy Newberry, who went on to play 11 years on the offensive line in the NFL, nine of them with the 49ers, recalled, "He came in as a freshman and looked like a senior."

Dan Ferrigno, who came onboard in '96 as part of Mariucci's staff, said he jokingly tells friends he was the greatest tight ends coach in the nation that year. In a 38-year career, he said Gonzalez is the most talented athlete he's coached.

"The combination of quickness and speed at 250 pounds was really amazing. The ability to get open, to pivot, to get off of people. The way he worked the zones. The way he caught the ball," said Ferrigno, now on the staff at Michigan.

"You could name any attribute a tight end is supposed to have and he did them better than anybody else."

Off the field, Gonzalez was just as disciplined. Newberry said Gonzalez was obsessed with good nutrition. "The rest of us were drinking beer, but he cared what he put in his body."

By the end of his junior season, Gonzalez approached Ferrigno about possibly entering the NFL draft. He told him he wasn't sure because he enjoyed Cal and he loved playing basketball.

"I said to him, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, but I'll tell you this: You're good enough to play in the NFL,' " Ferrigno said. "I'm thinking he probably could have played two years ago."

Mariucci said he tried convincing Gonzalez to stay another year, but when the 49ers hired away Mariucci as their coach, he planned to take Gonzalez in the draft.

"The darn Chiefs traded up and got him," Mariucci said of Kansas City's selecting Gonzalez 13th overall in the 1997 draft.

In the meantime, Gonzalez played one more basketball season. After Pac-10 Player of the Year Ed Gray broke his foot late in the 1996-97 season, Gonzalez was moved into the starting lineup and scored double digits five of the final six games.

The grip basketball held didn't go away easily. A year into their NFL careers, Glenn recalled, "He told me he was thinking about trying to pull a Deion Sanders or a Bo Jackson and play two sports."

Said Newberry, "I honestly believe if he'd made up his mind, he could have played in any case."

For more on Cal sports, see the Bear Talk blog at ibabuzz.com/beartalk. Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/CalBearsBANG.