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'So Many Touchdowns': Antonio Gates Ranks His 5 Favorite Touchdown Catches

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Antonio Gates put up a plethora of prolific numbers in his NFL career.

The iconic Chargers tight end tallied 955 receptions for 11,841 yards — both totals that rank first in Chargers history.

But it is Gates' touchdown figures that stand out among the rest, as his 116 touchdown receptions are the most ever by a tight end in NFL history and the seventh-most touchdown catches by any player ever.

With Gates' induction into the Chargers Hall of Fame on the horizon this weekend, Chargers.com chatted with the Bolts legend ahead of his big day.

The mission? Have Gates pick out his five favorite touchdown catches of his career.

It wasn't an easy task.

"Just because I had so freaking many of them," Gates said with a laugh. "All of them were special and so many of them meant so much to me in so many different ways."

But Gates was able to whittle his list down to five. Without further ado, here they are:

Touchdown Catch No. 1

Week 10 in 2003 against the Vikings

You never forget your first.

Especially when you take the path less traveled that Gates did to get to the NFL.

Gates was a star athlete in college, but not on the gridiron. Instead, he was a dominant basketball player who helped Kent State go on a magical run to the Elite 8 in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

But when his NBA dreams didn't work out, Gates opted to try his hand at the NFL. The Chargers pounced after Gates' first workout and ultimately ended up signing one of the greatest undrafted free agents in league history.

Gates made the team as a rookie but was a third stringer on the depth chart. Slowly but surely, Gates pushed for a bigger role and landed his first start in Week 5.

A little more than a month later, Gates found the end zone for the first time in his career on a 4-yard pass from Doug Flutie. The score came just before halftime as the Bolts rolled to a 42-28 win over the Vikings.

Chargers TE Antonio Gates 116 career touchdown receptions ranks No. 1 all-time among tight ends, with the Bolts holding a 53-39 record when Gates found the endzone. Take a look back at each score from his legendary career.

Gates said his rookie season was a combination of being both a blur and a surreal experience.

"My very first catch was one thing," Gates said. "But my first touchdown was like, 'OK, I can play in this league.'

"But at that point, I was more inching towards being a starter than being a star," Gates added.

Gates caught touchdown passes from four different players in his career, with Doug Flutie tossing him his first two.

"He was such a mentor because Doug had played at a high level for so long," Gates said. "Doug was a fan favorite and everybody loved him."

Gates ended his rookie season with 24 catches for 389 yards and two scores.

That was a decent stat line for a tight end back then. It was even more impressive considering Gates had been out of football since high school.

But Gates didn't have to wait long to start making a real impact. His touchdown total was about to skyrocket.

Touchdown Catch No. 14

Week 15 in 2004 against the Browns

By the time the 2004 season was underway, Gates was entrenched as the Bolts starter at tight end.

Both the second-year player — and the Chargers — were thriving.

Entering a Week 15 road clash with the Browns, Gates had racked up 11 touchdown catches. That stretch included a trio of multi-score games, including a three-touchdown performance against the Saints in Week 9.

And with the Chargers sitting at 10-3, they rolled into Cleveland looking for a win that would give them their first division title since 1994.

But with the temperature at 18 degrees and the wind gusting at 30 miles per hour, the wind chill in Cleveland at kickoff felt like minus-10. And we haven't mentioned the snow that covered the field.

Gates joked that he wondered if he could brave the elements.

"The Chargers hadn't won the AFC West in 10 years," Gates said of his motivation. "But it was so cold and my hands were so numb. I was a basketball player, man. That weather was ridiculous."

Gates' response? Only the longest touchdown reception of his entire career.

With the Bolts up 7-0 late in the second quarter, Gates actually lined up at fullback behind the left side of Drew Brees, who faked a handoff.

Gates ran a wheel route up the left sideline and was all alone as Brees found him for a 72-yard touchdown catch in the snow globe conditions.

It might have been the fastest anyone had seen Gates run.

"I was running so fast to get back to the heaters," Gates said with a chuckle.

Gates' touchdown helped the Chargers to a 21-0 victory and that AFC West crown.

The Bolts finished 12-4, their best record since the 1979 season.

"2004, man, that was just a fun time," Gates said.

Gates finished with double-digit touchdown totals in 2004 and 2005, noting that playing with Brees was one of the highlights of his career.

"Drew was unbelievable," Gates said. "That's someone who epitomizes the [quarterback] position and the ability to lead.

"I had my best years with Drew," Gates added. "Even all those phenomenal years I had with Philip [Rivers], my best years of my career were with Drew."

Touchdown Catch No. 15

Week 16 in 2004 against the Colts

Gates' touchdown catch against Cleveland gave him a dozen in 2004, tying him for the single-season record for tight ends.

Another score meant the record would belong to Gates in only his second NFL season.

Sure enough, caught his 13th touchdown the very next week on the road against the Colts in the third quarter. It came on a shovel pass up the middle as Gates once again lined up as a fullback.

Gates recalled the whirlwind of emotions he felt almost 20 years ago.

"That was my second year and I became the all-time [single-season] leader. That's crazy," Gates said.

He later added: "None of that stuff ever even registered to me. I was just playing. I was a college basketball player, and that's what makes this thing so unique, but I was also a competitor, right? You don't get to these levels without believing you're the best. But I didn't even know how many touchdowns a tight end had [in a single season]."

Up until that point, the record of 12 touchdowns by a tight end was shared by multiple players including Mike Ditka, who first set the mark back in 1961.

Gates said he had to learn some football history on the fly.

"I didn't even know Mike Ditka played tight end," Gates said. "I just thought he was the old coach of the Bears. That's all I knew."

The Los Angeles Chargers surprise Antonio Gates as their 2023 Chargers Hall of Fame inductee on Monday, August 14, 2023 at Hoag Performance Center.

Gates' record of 13 scores stood alone until 2009 when Vernon Davis matched him. And their shared record tumbled in 2011 when Rob Gronkowski caught a whopping 18 touchdown passes, a single-season mark for a tight end that still stands today.

Gates is just fine with the fact that others tied, and eventually surpassed, his single-season record.

He also knows that he helped transform how the modern tight end impacts the game, something that is much more common now — two decades after Gates initially came into the NFL.

"When I did it, it was so different," Gates said. "Now, tight ends get all these stats. But back then, tight ends were going to the Pro Bowl only averaging four or five touchdowns.

"Respectfully, I revolutionized the position in terms of scoring," Gates added.

Touchdown Catch No. 95

Week 8 in 2014 against the Broncos

This one is more about a specific game rather than a touchdown.

Either way, it involved Gates once again etching his name in the record books.

By this point in his career, Gates was an eight-time Pro Bowler who had also earned First-Team All-Pro honors three times. There were also three Second-Team All-Pro accolades on his resumé.

Gates was closing in on 100 career touchdowns midway through the 2014 season, but was also staring down Lance Alworth's franchise receiving yards record. He began the year less than 400 yards from passing the legendary wide receiver.

And by the time Week 8 rolled around, Gates was less than 30 yards away. He passed Alworth with an acrobatic stumbling catch down the middle for 31 yards late in the second quarter.

"It felt important to represent someone of that magnitude the right way," Gates said of Alworth. "He always set the standard on how you carry yourself as a person and as a player.

"To move up as the all-time leader for a franchise, you can't really script those things," Gates added. "You just know there were a whole bunch of good players that come through the league and that franchise, and it just makes you thankful that it happened."

True to form, however, Gates tacked on a pair of touchdowns — Nos. 95 and 96 — of his career.

That performance was one of 16 multi-score games between Rivers and Gates, a duo that ranks third all-time (including second among quarterbacks and tight ends) with 89 touchdown connections.

"Philip was my guy. We were locker neighbors for over a decade," Gates said. "Playing with him, it was a brotherhood, but he was my brother from another mother.

"We were so different, but we wanted the same thing out of the game of football," Gates added. "We had the same passion about winning and doing our best to change the franchise."

Touchdown Catch No. 112

Week 2 in 2017 against the Dolphins

You knew Gates wasn't going to leave this one off.

Not when it solidified him as arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.

Before we get into this historic touchdown, however, let's go back a bit.

Gates caught his 111th career touchdown in the second quarter of Week 17 during the 2016 season. That's score tied him with Tony Gonzalez for the most ever by a tight end.

And try and try as the Bolts might, they couldn't get Gates into the end zone (and the record books) against Kansas City.

Gates said his career likely would have been finished if he had caught No. 112 against the Chiefs at home in the 2016 season finale.

"We were trying to get it that game. And then I probably would have just retired and been done," Gates said. "But I needed one touchdown and I was like, 'You can't retire!' It was just one touchdown."

So, Gates returned for the 2017 season with his sights set on Gonzalez's mark.

And in Week 2, on second-and-goal from the 7 in the third quarter, Gates etched his name into the record books against Miami.

The play, Gates remembered, called for him to run a quick double move. Instead, he dug way back into his basketball tool kit and simply boxed out a defender while going up for Rivers' pinpoint pass.

"I stuttered based on the coverage. It was an out-and-up [route], but there was no point in me running out," Gates said. "I just said, 'Let me get to this area.' I couldn't even draw that up if I wanted to, I just drew it up on my own."

Take a look through the top photos of Antonio Gates' record breaking 112th touchdown. He now holds the record for most TDs all-time by a TE (passing Tony Gonzalez). 

Gates lay on the ground in the end zone with his hands raised to the sky. Keenan Allen was the first teammate to greet him, ultimately starting the dogpile on Gates.

Others followed as Gates was mobbed the whole way back to the sideline, including a long embrace from Rivers.

"I was tearing up," Gates said. "And never in a million years did I think I would ever cry about anything related to football, especially in the middle of the game.

"It was just bottled up," Gates added. "That was such a big moment with my teammates celebrating and jumping all over me."

Gates would go on to add four more touchdown catches over the next two seasons to bring his illustrious total to 116.

That touchdown total helped Gates be an easy choice for the Chargers Hall of Fame.

And it's a record that will also give him a gold jacket in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at some point, too.

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