Antonio Gates featured at Chargers Legends Week

Chargers TE great Antonio Gate
Chargers TE great Antonio Gate

It undoubtedly wasn’t planned that way; after all, assembling the alumni is seldom possible on short notice. But when things aren’t going well in the present, revisiting the past usually works.

Thus, on an afternoon that Justin Herbert suffered a finger injury and the Chargers proceeded to play a stinker of an offensive game — and likely play themselves out of playoff contention — in a 24-7 loss to Denver, “Legends Weekend” featuringAntonio Gates was an effective diversion.

Gates entered the team’s Hall of Fame at halftime, and his No. 85 presumably will be retired at some point as well along with the six numbers the team currently displays at home games: LanceAlworth’s 19, Dan Fouts’ 14, Junior Seau’s 55, LaDainian Tomlinson’s 21, Charlie Joiner’s 18 and Kellen Winslow’s 80.

And maybe Sunday’s ceremony was just a warmup. Gates, in his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, was one of 25 semifinalists announced a week and a half ago. The final selections will be announced Feb. 8, and while the video board’s “Next stop Canton” message might or might not be accurate immediately, it seems a fait accompli

that Gates, who played all 16 of his NFL seasons with this franchise in San Diego and L.A., will eventually don that yellow blazer.

The crazy thing? While all of those accomplishments – five timesAll-Pro, eight visits to the Pro Bowl, NFL tight end records for receiving touchdowns (116), multi-touchdown games (21), touchdown catches on third down (39) and seasons of eight touchdown catches or more (eight out of 16) – put him on Canton’s doorstep, he originally had his eyes on another goal. 

“Some of those guys who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they wanted to be Pro Football Hall of Famers when they was 14 years old,” he said Sunday. “I wanted to go to the NBA.”

Gates was a power forward on a Kent State basketball team that had a higher profile than the school’s football team. In his junior year, after he’d transferred from Eastern Michigan, the Golden Flashes reached the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed, losing to Indiana in a regional final.

But while he averaged 16.5 points and 7.8 rebounds for his college career, 6-foot-3 power forwards don’t translate well to the NBA. NFL scouts, however, were interested.

“I had no interest in football and the NFL,” he said. “But the passion (from the league’s talent evaluators) was so overwhelming ... It just felt like that was the right choice for me. And I didn’t know why. I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Maybe there’s this: Instead of having to battle 6-9 or 6-10 guys on the hardwood, there was the chance to outjump and outreach – and abuse – 6-foot or 5-11 defensive backs. Tim Brewster, now on UNC Charlotte’s staff but then the San Diego Chargers’ tight ends coach, was particularly interested, and after the Chargers signed Gates as an undrafted free agent in 2003, the rest was history. He and Tony Gonzalez, inducted into the Hall in 2019, were in the first vanguard of converted basketball players who revolutionized the tight end position.

“It wasn’t a blueprint” when the NFL scouts came around, Gates said. “It wasn’t like guys were doing it.And I was just like, ‘Man, there’s something about what this (scout’s) making me feel like, I need to give this thing a shot.’And I went back and forth with my father, went back and forth with my close friends, and I was just like, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ I had so much skin in the game with the game of basketball ... it wasn’t my true belief that I couldn’t make the NBA.”

But, he added, “It just felt right.”

As Gates spoke to the crowd at halftime Sunday, surrounded by former teammates – including the quarterback he caught the vast majority of his passes from, Philip Rivers – emotions and memories caught up with him.

“It’s almost like the roles reverse in a crazy kind of way,” he said. “Although you’re the one that’s receiving all the praise and the honor, it feels like it’s your turn to thank the ones who helped you flourish to that level.And that’s kind of how I feel when I see so many guys and they meant so much to me, whether or not they played a role, major or minor.

“Everybody’s talking about me, but I’m like, ‘Wait, I need to think this dude. Oh man, I need to thank this dude over here too.’”

He was asked him if the memories were all in a jumble or if specific occasions stood out .A combination of both, he said.

“You get a chance to think about to the championship moments that we had because we didn’t win a Super Bowl, but it was times where we wereAFC West champions,” he said. “It was times we would be picked to win consistently.And then you think about the times that you had to try, like trial and error, the times you struggle.And I think through it all, you think about how we stayed together.And that’s the whole journey.

“You know, we stayed together in tough times. We stayed together in good times.And I think that’s what (got them to) this day, is that we fought through different times and we stayed together collectively.”

That is a lesson the current Chargers might find important, after Sunday’s loss dropped them to 5-8 and likely out of the playoff picture with four games left.

Gates also felt it was important to salute San Diego, where he played 14 of his 16 seasons, caught 897 of his 955 career receptions and scored 111 of his 116 touchdowns.

“They are the ones who embraced me first at 22 years old,” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here today without the support of the city of San Diego.And I think that’s important to acknowledge the ones who started with you from the beginning.

“One thing I appreciate the most is that whether we won or lost, they still supported number 85 and the Chargers.And ... that’s my second home.”

But there were plenty of 85 jerseys in the announced crowd of 70,240 Sunday at SoFi, and it’s probably safe to say Gates is beloved in two cities.

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