When Antonio Gates inked a two-year deal prior to the 2016 season, there was no guarantee he would return for the final season of his new contract.
After all, 2017 would mark his 15th season at the age of 37.
With rumors swirling whether or not Sunday would mark his final game in the NFL, Gates announced his intention to return for another year donning the lightning bolt. Only one touchdown catch from tying Tony Gonzalez for the most by a tight end in NFL history, number 85 said he plans to play in 2017 regardless if he achieves the record or not in the Week 17 finale.
There are many factors that go into knowing when it’s time to walk into the sunset. For Gates, this decision has been an easy one.
“I have tons of guys (I know) retired so I have a lot of resources,” he said. “It’s a certain feeling that you have when (you know) it’s time. When you stop having fun and you’re not able to compete the way you want to compete, to me when your desire kind of goes away (it’s time). That’s not the case really for me at this point. I’m still having fun. I still love to complete. The desire to win and play football is still there. As of right now, and things can change (because) that’s a long time from now), I’m definitely planning on coming back.”
The Chargers dismal 2016 campaign is also playing a factor into his decision. After 14 years in the NFL, hanging up his cleats on a sour note is not how he wants to go out.
“It’s hard to leave like this the way things have been, and the adversity we’ve had to overcome this year. I feel great physically. This is not the way I expected to be done. I’m leaning toward coming back.”
Just like Philip Rivers explained the day before, Gates sees a bright future for the Bolts in 2017 despite the team’s current struggles. He believes the Bolts are close to a championship level, and is buoyed at the prospects of getting Keenan Allen, Jason Verrett, Brandon Mebane and other injured stars back into the fold.
“At the end of the day I still want to have a decent run at a championship,” he explained. “When I came back last time a year ago, I felt like we had an opportunity and I still feel that way. But due to injuries and things of that nature, it limited us in what we were able to do. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to be…. I believe that when healthy, we have a ton of guys that can make a ton of plays. It gives us the best opportunity. I didn’t envision my last year going out like this. I feel great. I’m still having fun, which is more important than anything. I love the guys in the locker room. To me, that’s a staple of whether or not I would return.”
His intention to be back is music to his teammates’ ears. On Monday, Rivers expressed his hope to have his legendary teammate back in the fold in 2017.
“I would love for him to be back,” he said. “I think he knows what a chance we are going to have (to be really good). I know we keep saying that, (and) it is a matter of doing it, but you just feel like we are about to have this window of another chance to do something special…. I think he probably feels as good as he has felt in Week 17 in a while because he doesn’t have the play count that he has had maybe 3-5 years ago. I still think he is a big contributor; he has (six) touchdowns now. A lot of guys have touchdowns, but he still has an effect out there, no question.”
Meanwhile, Gates has been an invaluable mentor to rookie Hunter Henry, who has taken the league by storm, tied for the most touchdowns by a tight end this season with seven.
“It’s awesome! I’ve been telling him, I want you back! I don’t think people realize that at 36 years old, and 14 years into the league, the things that he can still do are special. He’s helped me so much become a better player that it’s crazy. Just being out there with him is a lot of fun. I don’t think you understand how great he truly is until you watch him on the field in person. Even on TV, it doesn’t do him justice.”