Antonio Gates' NFL journey is one of the most inspirational stories out there, and I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to it.
After 16 seasons in the NFL, the Los Angeles Chargers tight end and my friend announced his retirement Tuesday morning via Twitter. We're all aware that Antonio was a standout basketball player in college at Kent State, earning Honorable Mention All-American honors from the Associated Press as a senior. (Seriously, this might have been mentioned by broadcasters every single time he took the field.) But instead of pursuing a career in the NBA, Antonio arranged a workout for NFL scouts -- despite never actually playing football in college. The Chargers jumped on the opportunity, signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and the rest is history.
Antonio and I were teammates for seven seasons (2003-09) on the San Diego Chargers -- a stretch in which our team made the postseason five times and finished as a top-five scoring offense six times. There's no doubt in my mind that Antonio will join me in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Honestly, his eventual induction's a foregone conclusion, so I'll do you one better: He deserves to join me as a first-ballot inductee.
Now, I realize there are a lot of factors in play in the voting process each year, but Gates' resume alone merits a first-ballot nod no matter who else is eligible. He finished his illustrious 16-year NFL career as a three-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, was named to the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team and has the most receiving touchdowns among tight ends in NFL history (116). Antonio also ranks in the top three among tight ends in career receptions (955) and receiving yards (11,841) behind only first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and Dallas Cowboys veteran Jason Witten. All three figures stand atop Chargers franchise leaderboards.
The Chargers are historically at their best when they have a really good tight end. Just look at the Bolts in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Kellen Winslow. The same was true for our team in the 2000s, as Antonio took a ton of pressure off other skill-position players because he had to be accounted for at all times. For me personally, his presence was especially important for several reasons. Often times when a safety comes down, he's loading the box with the intention of stopping the running back (me in this case). But with Antonio, the safety would come down and lock in on him and the run game was an afterthought, which I obviously loved.
And thankfully for me, Antonio was a willing blocker. We were a power offense and he was often asked to handle outside linebackers (guys no one wanted to block) or defensive ends (more guys no one wanted to block). And it's not like he was a big guy (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) -- like Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce -- but he was willing to do it. It helped that he practiced daily against guys like Shawne Merriman and Steve Foley, who were big, strong, physical players coming off the edge. His determination to become a great blocker benefited me and the run game. All he had to do was hold a block for a few seconds -- which he often did -- and I could hit the open lane. No matter who he was tasked to block, he was always willing to do it. There were a lot of tight ends who weren't willing to do the dirty work. And there still are players who aren't.
One of the reasons Antonio was so successful as a receiver was because of his first step and ability to separate. To me, he has the quickest first step of any tight end in history and it was because he used his skills from the basketball court. Just like when he'd be in the post and shake free from the defender, he'd do the same thing on the gridiron. When defenders tried to jam him at the line of scrimmage, Antonio do this little shake and get the defender on his hip. Once he did that, it was over because Antonio knew how to use his body so well. I don't think he gets enough credit for his ability to separate of the line, and it's also partly why he was able to have success as he got older.
There are some players in the league today, specifically Jordan Reed and George Kittle, who remind me of Antonio and the way he used to play. Reed, who has a similar basketball background, has natural athletic ability, body control and the skills to shield a defender and still make a contested catch. With Kittle, it's all about his release off the line of scrimmage and ability to separate and get wide open. Antonio used to get wide open at times, and I remember thinking, How is the defense letting an All-Pro get WIDE open? It's because of his ability to shake and separate, and the same goes with Kittle, who's built similarly to Antonio.
On a more serious note, Antonio was always someone I could depend on and not just on the football field. He was so well-respected in the locker room and around the league, and he held everyone accountable (himself included) with his quiet leadership qualities. I can't think of a time when he stood in front of everyone and addressed the team. He instead would do it in his own way, often approaching guys one-on-one to offer advice or keep guys on track, and there were no exceptions when it came to who he would approach. There were times during games where he would come over to me on the bench and say, "Hey, I know the run's not working right now, but don't get frustrated," and tell me to stay the course. He had a way of getting through to his teammates, and we were all better for it.
Antonio truly was a complete tight end and he worked hard at it, going from college basketball star to undrafted NFL free agent to one of the best to ever play the position. It won't be long before he gets sized for his gold jacket. I just think he hears the knock on the door in his first year of eligibility.