Standing on the precipice of football immortality, Antonio Gates can’t help but think of a single game from his rookie year.
An unproven tight end who famously traded in the hardwood for the gridiron, Gates lined up against Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. He remembers seeing the legendary safety across from him, thinking there is no way he’d get a single ball thrown his way.
Then he did.
Again and again.
Each time, he made the catch.
It was in this moment that Antonio Gates knew he’d not only play in the NFL, but that he was destined for greatness.
“That’s when I knew,” he said, looking off into the distance. “I had a few third-down conversions on Rod Woodson, and I remember being like, ‘Wow. I do belong here.’ I was thinking to myself I know they aren’t going to throw this ball against Rod Woodson. But then it became second nature. I’d look up and I’d have 100 yards in a game. That’s when I knew I didn’t just belong here.”
While Gates has broken numerous NFL and Chargers records over his career, nothing compares to the milestone on the horizon entering his 15th season. With his next TD catch, he’ll break his tie with Tony Gonzalez for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in NFL history. His 112th career TD snare will also rank sixth among anyone to ever play the game, trailing only Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison.
There’s a lot of talk about how Gates can set the record this week on Monday Night Football.
So how much is that on number 85’s mind?
Gates waits a beat, feeling there is no need to further expand on his answer until prodded to do so.
“I mean, do I know it’s there? Yeah. It’s like I’m at the dance, I might as well go to the party because it’s within reach. But that isn’t my focus at all. It really isn’t on my mind. I don’t think that way. I guess maybe it’s because I haven’t wrapped my head around it all yet. I know it’s happening, and I know it’s a big deal, but it’s not like I’m sitting here every day saying, ‘I need one. I need one.’ But one isn’t the destination for me. The destination is to surpass just one. I have 16 weeks. The destination for me is whenever I’m done playing, then tally them all up and see where I’m at. So that’s what I’m thinking. Now, when the game comes, then yeah probably I’ll think about it a little more. But it really isn’t anything I’m thinking of. I’m not going out there thinking I need to do something extra in the red zone. I’m still myself.”
Just because he isn’t consumed with getting the record doesn’t mean it’s not significant for him. In fact, out of all the records he’s broken, catching the most touchdowns by any tight end in NFL history might be at the very top.
“That’s history. And that’s crazy when you put it like that. But the reality is, it’s funny because I still have a chip on my shoulder of things I wasn’t able to accomplish. It’s one of those things where I didn’t grow up with the dream of playing football. Basketball was my true love, but football was always easy. I had to work hard for basketball, and I think part of me has always taken it out on football. It might be hard to understand. I was just telling Philip (Rivers) that I still have to show them that I am special. People would say, ‘How’d you make the catch?’ But for me it was always like, I’ve always been making catches like that. Why wouldn’t I? So for me it’s like, great, I made that catch, but now we have to go back out there and score again because we have to get the win. That’s my mindset. Because in the end, it’s a Super Bowl title that will mean more than anything.”
While a championship has long been Gates’ ultimate goal, having his name mean something is equally important.
A legacy isn’t something that weighed on Gates much until he dealt with adversity. The tight end suffered a painful foot injury in 2010, forcing him onto the Reserve-Injured list. It was the first time he had to overcome an injury, but he credits it for altering his outlook.
“That was the first time I had to face adversity as a football player. It forced me to buckle down and face what it was going to take to get back to where I was. I had to ask myself, was it worth it? Because it was hard. Rehab, dealing with soreness, countless hours of work; there was a lot of crying because I was in so much pain. But then I realized I was going to prove to everyone that I was here to stay.”
Gates takes a deep breath, and then in a rapid-fire whisper sums up all that’s led to this point.
Having to choose between football and basketball.
Those first few years in the league when he realized he could accomplish something special.
His memorable second year, when he set the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in a single season.
All the times he’d been doubted.
All the times he’s persevered.
“My hope was always just to prove to everyone who Antonio Gates is,” he finally says. “And for my name to mean something.”