It was a Monday night over a decade ago, but a moment Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have talked about often.
In Rivers' first career start to open the 2006 season, number 17 connected with number 85 on a touchdown as they routed the Oakland Raiders.
It wasn't the tight end's first TD as he'd caught 25 over three seasons before that year. However, it was a moment both men reminisce about regularly as they sensed it was the start of something special.
"He and I laugh about our first touchdown," Rivers recalled before the start of the 2016 season. "I only threw 11 passes. He may have only had one or two catches, and one of them was a touchdown. We were on the three-yard line and it was one of those little goal line passes. I was obviously super excited. It wasn't my first touchdown because I had thrown one to Malcom (Floyd) two years before, but it was my first touchdown to Gates and as a starter. It was Monday Night Football, and I was obviously super excited. So I was fired up and ran up to him and said, 'Hey, that's the first of many' and he was like, 'Man, get out of here!' We laugh about that now because it was the first of many, so we look back at how far we've come."
On Sunday, Rivers didn't laugh or say anything. According to Gates, he didn't have to.
After catching the 111th touchdown of his career, tying Tony Gonzalez for the most ever by an NFL tight end, Gates said his quarterback simply looked at him with tears in his eyes. The emotions were too much. No words were needed; the look between both men said it all.
"The only thing I said to him was, 'Don't say anything to me!'" Gates said. "We both were too emotional. Man, we've been through so much together. There is so much love we have for one another, and it was so strong in that moment. I didn't say anything else. He didn't say anything else. But that look said a lot. We were in the moment, and I could see him (welling) up, too."
"All the guys went after him right away, and obviously I gave him a big hug on the field too, but I did get choked up," Rivers added. "Even (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Rick Lyle said, 'Hang in there, 17!' I had to stay away. Goodness, gracious it was special. I was so grateful to be a part of so many of them. It is an incredible accomplishment. After everything settled down before the next drive, I went over there and he kind of swelled up again, too."
The Rivers-to-Gates connection will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest of all time. Not only are their 84 touchdowns the most ever between a quarterback and tight end, but they rank as the third most between a QB and receiver. In fact, they are only one away from tying Steve Young-to-Jerry Rice as the second most prolific combination.
The Bolts entered Week 17 hoping to get Gates the record. Thus, they weren't surprised the Chiefs focused on preventing him from reaching the end zone, bracketing him with three or four defenders at times.
"We were trying, and they knew," Rivers said. "I kind of got an acknowledgement from one of their guys early in the game that they were not going to let him get it if they had anything to do with it. Early, we got it back to back in a goal line run formation then every other time we did the best we could. Then the last touchdown play was for him as well. The cornerback was covering him, the safety was covering him, and the other safety was over there. I just couldn't not throw it to Hunter (Henry) when he was that wide open….(Earlier on Gates' TD) it was a similar play and he was just as wide open, but I told him when you have a guy at 110 at this point in the season, I'm throwing it to the guy who is one away from the all-time record."
Gates has rewritten Chargers and NFL record books over 14 memorable seasons, but even he admitted tying the all-time mark for tight end touchdowns was especially meaningful.
"It's a special accomplishment," he said. "To me, the first thing that comes to mind is the countless hours and dedication that I've put in. The second thing that comes to mind is the people that gave me opportunities. From the Marty Schottenheimers all the way to the Mike McCoys, from the beginning to the end. So many sacrifices were made along the way from different guys, different teammates. Just to be able to get to that milestone is a privilege."
Equally special were the chants of "Gates! Gates! Gates!" that reigned down upon the legendary tight end throughout the season finale.
"It's a blessing. So many guys come and go. Being a part of this organization for 14 years, just seeing how hard it is to stay with one team, just seeing how hard it is to be a contributor to a football team. So many guys come out of college, I see it every year, so many guys are crying because they come out of collegiate sports and they can't make a team. I think it's special. I really do. I'm honored and it's a privilege to be able to hear my name called in an NFL stadium. As a kid that's what you dream about. Fortunately, some of those dreams have come true for myself."