For 15 seasons, Antonio Gates defined what it meant to be a Charger.
From undrafted rookie free agent to a first-ballot lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, everything in between is the stuff of legend.
Thus, it's been an emotional few days as the team expressed deep gratitude for all his contributions on and off the field following the news that he would not return in 2018.
"Antonio is not only one of the best Chargers of all-time, but he's one of the best football players in the history of our game," said General Manager Tom Telesco Friday night after the conclusion of Day 2 of the NFL Draft. "He has meant so much to this organization – both on the field, off the field, in San Diego, in Los Angeles – and we can't say enough about the type of person he is, and player. These decisions are really, really difficult…There aren't many guys like him that come along, and I've been doing this for 20 years and have had a chance to be around some special players – some special Hall of Fame players – but nobody greater than what he did at his position."
"Antonio's contributions to our organization over the past 15 years cannot be overstated, and I want to thank him for what he has meant throughout his career to our family, his teammates, our staff and Chargers fans everywhere," said Controlling Owner and Chairman of the Board Dean Spanos. "He's the consummate professional. Humble. Kind. Giving. Thoughtful. A pillar of the community who has been a true role model to so many – both on the field and off. And while we know his story includes a trip to Canton, no matter what the next chapter holds, Antonio will always be a beloved and important member of the Chargers family. We look forward to honoring him at the appropriate time."
A once-in-a-generation talent, Gates redefined the tight end position. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time All-Pro pick, number 85 is the Chargers' all-time leader in receptions (927), receiving yards (11,508) and touchdowns (114).
His 114 TD receptions are the most by a tight end in NFL history. The number also ranks sixth all-time behind only Jerry Rice (197), Randy Moss (156), Terrell Owens (153), Cris Carter (130) and Marvin Harrison (128). Gates' rapport with Philip Rivers ranks as the second-most prolific in league history as their 87 TD connections trail only Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison (112). Meanwhile, his 927 receptions are the 20th-most in NFL history while his 11,508 receiving yards rank 30th. Those numbers are the third-most of any tight end behind only Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.
Gates' path to the NFL is almost as iconic as his accomplishments on the field.
The tight end signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003 after not playing a single down of college football. In fact, he last took to the gridiron at Detroit's Central High School. Instead, Gates played basketball, including his final two seasons at Kent State where he led the Golden Flashes to a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
Despite being away from the game for a number of years, Gates not only defied the odds to make the Chargers, but impressed right out of the chute with 24 catches for 389 yards and two scores. However, it was his second year where he truly broke out. Number 85 caught 81 passes for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. A year later, he posted his first 1,000-yard season (1,101) while setting what would be a career-high with 89 catches. A touchdown machine, when all was said and done, he recorded four seasons with 10-digit touchdowns and six with at least 70 receptions.
Gates' legacy will also be defined by his charitable efforts off the field. He was a spokesperson for the NFL's "No More" campaign to stop domestic violence. He hosted an annual Shop with a Charger event each Christmas, treating homeless, neglected and abused children to a special holiday season spending spree. Gates remains an active supporter of the Huntington's Disease Society, and worked closely with Promises2Kids, which is an organization dedicated to supporting the foster youth community. Most recently, he was one of eight finalists for the 2017 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, which recognizes players around the league who exemplify outstanding sportsmanship on the field.
Check out the top 85 photos from the first 15 seasons of Gates' career.