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Antonio Gates: Defying Father Time

LaDainian Tomlinson just entered the Hall of Fame shortly after turning 38 years old.

At 37, Antonio Gates just started his 15th training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

He's also shown no signs of letting up.

In fact, his seven touchdowns a year ago were the second highest total by a tight end in the league. His TD in the season finale moved him into a tie with Tony Gonzalez for the most touchdown catches by a tight end (111) in NFL history.  It's also tied for the sixth most of any player in NFL history.

Meanwhile, the Philip Rivers - Antonio Gates combo is one of the most lethal the game has ever seen.  Their 84 TD strikes are not only the most ever by a QB-TE duo, but third most of any quarterback and receiver in NFL history.  They are one away from tying Steve Young and Jerry Rice for second place, while Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112) hold the top spot.

Rewriting records is nothing new for number 85.  He owns virtually every pass-catching record in Chargers history, including career receptions (897), receiving yards (11,192) and TD catches (111).

"As an athlete, there are certain goals you want to accomplish," Gates said when asked how he's still able to dominate in a league where he's the oldest skilled player.  "Longevity plays a role in some of those goals you want to accomplish individually.  First of all, I don't take anything for granted.  Being able to play this long is a privilege, and I know that I'm pretty blessed."

Longevity has long been a goal for the tight end, even when his NFL dreams seemed like a long shot.

By now, everyone knows his unique path to the NFL. A basketball star at Kent State, where he led the 10th seed Golden Flashes on a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight of the 2002 NCAA Tournament, he cashed in his hoop dreams for the gridiron despite having not played football since his senior year of high school.

It didn't take long after the Bolts signed him as an undrafted free agent to learn they unearthed a gem.  Still, even they couldn't have acknowledged the big-bodied tight end was about to embark on a Hall of Fame worthy career.

Motivation always played a crucial role for Gates.  Nowadays, it's the challenge of proving he's still the same player he was in his prime.

"When I look at the truly great ones, it's what they've done to sustain that level for a long time that impresses me," he explained.  "That's what drives me.  Seeing what they've been able to do throughout their career for the duration of time; it's special.  That's kind of where I get a chip on my shoulder from.  It shows you it can be done, and it gives me the extra push and motivation to accomplish as much as I can accomplish while I'm lucky enough to play this game."

Still, Gates can't help but laugh these days when he takes a look around the locker room.  After all, he's surrounded by players who were in elementary school when he was making a name for himself in the NFL.  They know they are in the presence of a living legend.

Take Melvin Gordon for example, who is 13 years younger than Gates.    

"(Gates) is the Greatest of All Time," Gordon said.  "He is the GOAT! That man is worldwide! I tell him that all the time.  His name carries weight around the whole world. Everybody knows who Antonio Gates is.  Not everybody knows Melvin Gordon. Not everybody knows who Melvin Ingram or Keenan Allen are.  But Antonio Gates; man, I knew about him when I was little and didn't even know football that well.  You just know Antonio Gates.  He's someone who (transcends) the game. That's Antonio Gates.  Chargers.  Tight End.  Baller.  Legend."

Gordon is exactly right – the name Antonio Gates means something.  It will continue to mean something decades from now long after he's hung up his cleats.

Still, despite all his accomplishments, there is one thing he hopes people think of when they hear the name Antonio Gates.

That mindset is the reason Gates remains a dominating force at an age when most great NFL players have long since retired.

"I want people to know that I was somebody that they could depend on," he said matter-of-factly. "Ultimately, that's what means most to me.  That my teammates know that no matter what, they can depend on me.  When they think of me, that people think of that. Guys that have the opportunity to go into the Hall of Fame, I think that dependability is something that sticks out more than anything.  No matter what time of day it was, no matter what it was or who it was, that I was the guy they could depend on to be there and compete.  That's what I live for.  That's what a legacy is for.  Someone that they could trust."

No one knows just how dependable Gates has been than Rivers.  There's also no one that knows what makes Gates tick quite like his quarterback, either.

The two have shared countless memories in the locker room and on the field side by side, and have an intimate knowledge of what drives one another.  That's why Rivers isn't shocked to see Gates continue to produce at a high caliber.  He learned long ago never to count him out for one very good reason.

"What speaks to Antonio, among his talent and all those things, is his competitiveness.  The man competes in everything.  In his mind, he's always thinking of how he's going to win at something.  It doesn't matter where he is or what it is. That's what drives him, and that's what I appreciate.  I think that's what brings him back each year.  He wants to compete.  He wants to be the all-time touchdown leader.  And, he thinks we're going to win.  He really believes in this team, and he wants to go out a winner."

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