Antonio Gates downplays looming touchdown record

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Antonio Gates took the field for the Chargers' first practice of training camp on Sunday just as he always has. Fans screamed his name, and he flashed them a smile and a quick wave. Then he slipped his helmet on and trotted to the middle of the field.

Gates is no stranger to the energy involved in training camp. He's set to begin his 15th season with the franchise. Only this year, Gates faces a set of foreign circumstances. For the first time in his lengthy career, he's starting a new season in a new city.

That's something every player on the Chargers has to face as the organization is still in the midst of a total team relocation from San Diego to Los Angeles. Gates said he didn't know how the team would be received by fans ahead of training camp, but over 5,000 supporters at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa quickly answered that concern.

"This is great," Gates said. "Seeing people here supporting and being active in our practice, it gives us the extra energy -- the boost we need to try and win football games."

Winning football games has always been Gates' goal. Through his own effort and persistence over the years, another goal has popped up on Gates' radar. His next touchdown breaks the NFL record for all-time scores by a tight end, a record he currently shares with retired Chiefs and Falcons legend Tony Gonzalez.

"Obviously when you come into a season, you have your individual goals and you have your team goals," Gates said. "That's obviously one of my individual goals. I'd never let that get in the way of what we want to accomplish collectively. I would love to get it out of the way and move past it and just start focusing on winning a championship."

The season is still over a month away, but the 36-year-old isn't as excited as you'd think a player who stands on the edge of history would be. His quarterback and teammate of 14 seasons, Philip Rivers, said Gates' attitude toward the milestone speaks to the sort of character he has.

"He's a great competitor," Rivers told me after practice Sunday. "He's back playing because he loves to play and he knows we have a chance to win."

Last year, the Chargers didn't have much to play for as they stumbled to a 5-11 record. Rivers said the Week 17 matchup against the Chiefs was garnered toward getting Gates the ball.

"We were all trying to draw up everything we could to get him in the endzone," Rivers said.

Gates got in the endzone once that day, catching his 111th career touchdown late in the first quarter on a goal line out-route. Though he didn't know it at the time (the Chargers announced their plan to move a week and a half after Week 17), Gates had three quarters to secure the record outright in front of the fans at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

He didn't do it.

Now, his shot at history has been masked to a degree by the Chargers' transition to L.A. Gates addressed the media after Sunday's practice, and not until the very last question -- as Chargers media relations personnel were calling for Gates to step away from the microphones -- did Gates answer a question about the looming landmark. He quickly reminded reporters that he's primarily concerned about winning, not the record.

When the time comes for Gates to lock in on the achievement, he's bound to answer numerous inquiries on what it would mean to him. For the time being, Gates has shifted the feat to the back of his mind as he prepares to help his team win in what could be his last season as a Charger.

Though Gates would not yet elaborate on the matter, his teammates would. Gates' understudy, blossoming 22-year-old tight end Hunter Henry, said he hopes to be on the field with Gates if he were to break the record.

"He's an unbelievable guy, unbelievable player," Henry said in a one-on-one interview. "He's earned everything he's gotten and he deserves more. People don't really talk about him the way they should because that dude is one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He's going to go down in the Hall of Fame for sure, but he needs to be in that conversation. I'm with him every single day, so I see his work ethic. I see what he's about. It's pretty cool."

Wide receiver Keenan Allen said that just the day before practice started he and a few teammates were talking about Gates breaking the record. While Gates himself downplayed the impending undertaking, his teammates certainly didn't.

"It's going to be amazing," Allen said. "He's going to be a Hall of Famer one day, and just to have him as one of my teammates and close friends and stuff, it's definitely going to be amazing."

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