NFL

The moment Chargers’ Antonio Gates knew he belonged in the NFL

Post columnist Steve Serby caught up with veteran Chargers tight end Antonio Gates for some Q&A ahead of Sunday’s divisional playoff clash with the Patriots.

Q: When you entered the league in 2003, what kind of career did you imagine for yourself?
A: For one, I was a basketball player making that transition, so I didn’t really expect to play. I thought that it’s gonna be a process dealing with me, like taking a guy out of high school, learning the plays. … I didn’t surprise myself because I knew I had the ability to do it. You don’t become successful without thinking you can get it done. It doesn’t work that way. My process was expedited due to injuries, people that were around me getting hurt. The opportunity was there, and I took full advantage of it. I came with the idea of: You know what? Let me try and make this team and be on the practice squad. That didn’t happen, I was active. Then once I made the roster, I was like, “OK, you know what? They’re gonna give me time to get ready.” … I hadn’t played since high school. … I look up, I was playing in Week 2. I look up, I was converting third downs in Week 2. By the time Week 5, Week 6 came, I was a big part of the game plan. It happened so fast, man! I remember vividly playing against the Raiders in Week 2, and I was thinking like, “Man, this coach don’t know what he’s doing.” ’Cause we had [wide receiver] David Boston at the time, he was our big-play guy. I remember like it was yesterday, they were calling my number in the huddle, but it was Rod Woodson that was playing safety. Now I remember Rod Woodson from the video game, and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘This ain’t gonna work out. One-on-one against Rod Woodson, they need to be trying to throw the ball to Boston.’ Boom! I converted a third down on him. I had another catch against him, and another catch against him. By the time the game was over with, in my mind I was like, “I belong here. You know what? This guy can’t cover me. I don’t care who it is.”

Q: You could not have possibly imagined 16 years, 116 receiving touchdowns.
A: No. Even to this day, I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it all. When you say those numbers, and I look up and I see where I’m at, in the leaderboard of the all-time greats, I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it because I’m so close to the forest. I’m actually just living and I’m playing one game at a time. I’m not out to set a record, I’m out to be the best Antonio Gates that I can be, and when it’s all said and done, wherever that ends up, is where it ends up. … I never look back. I didn’t come into this year like, “Oh man, I’m the all-time leader in touchdown receptions at the position. I can kind of cruise through this thing.” In my mind, I was like, “You know what? I need to prove that I can make this play still, not only for myself, but for these teammates who want to believe in me.” And that was just my approach throughout the whole season.

Q: How would you explain your longevity?
A: Things go up and down, and you maintain a certain laser focus through it all, through all the trials and tribulations. You maintain the task at hand, you stay focused on whatever it is you’re trying to get done.

Q: Describe your on-field mentality.

A: I’m so different on a Sunday than I am throughout the week. I’m a Gemini, and it’s like split personalities. Like in a game, I’m very competitive, I gotta win. I must win. Throughout the week, I’m more nonchalant, love to show love, love to laugh, sense of humor’s huge, and then boom! I’m like, “What the hell,” excuse my language if you will. I’m like, “Come on! Let’s f—–g go!” I’m like so different in the game. It’s the competitive edge that I’ve always had, just wanting to win. Want to be the best.

Q: What drives you?
A: Different things different years. I think the biggest thing that drives me the most really — this is gonna sound really crazy to you, and it’s probably gonna be something that I will put in bold letters one day if I ever get a chance — is that sometimes I feel like I underachieved in a sense ’cause I couldn’t do what I love. I dreamed to play basketball. So it’s like I want to make everybody pay for it. In a crazy kind of way, it’s like, “Oh you don’t think I can do it at 38? Watch me do it at 38. And matter of fact, I’m coming back next year, I’m gonna do it at 39, too!” … I think that’s just something that you have when you’re a competitor. Every year something different drives me. “He’s too old. We drafted this guy, they shouldn’t throw the ball to him. He ain’t gonna be able to get open.” Every year, it’s been something different. The Chargers decided to let me go, my contract was up. And then boom, when something happened, they called me and said, “We’d like to have you back.” In my mind, I was like, “Well y’all didn’t think I was capable of doing this this year. I’m gonna prove it to you. Not only this year, I’m gonna prove it again …” That is what drives me — “old Gates, old tight end.” The word “old” is always factored in. It ain’t the fact that I’m still getting open and I’m playing and I’m beating guys. Like, “Oh good catch, Antonio Gates, old Gates does it again.” And that drives me (chuckle).

Q: What was it like when they didn’t want you back?
A: It was disheartening. I was heartbroken. I just felt like from what I’ve been to this franchise and how I always had a high standard with how I carry myself in a professional manner, I just felt like I deserve to have an opportunity to play for this franchise to try to win the Super Bowl. I thought I would gracefully walked away when I decided to. I didn’t know they would turn the switch on me and decide they didn’t want me back.

Q: But at least you didn’t have to go to training camp, right?

A: Yeah, that was the best part about it (laugh).

Q: What makes Philip Rivers Philip Rivers?
A: You expect a quarterback to not have a certain fire to him, if you will, not be such a trash talker, but that’s just a part of competition, which we do all the time. And I just think you’re expecting a quarterback to carry himself in a different manner, based on the ones you’ve seen — the Peyton Mannings of the world. At the end of the day, that’s just his personality.

Q: Describe coach Anthony Lynn.
A: Very detailed. Unbelievable leader. He understands how to lead, how to communicate, how to get things across. And not only that, he’s played this game, so he understands how to relate. I think sometimes the problem with head coaches is that they use this thing saying you’re too young to know it all. Sometimes you can be too old to know it all, too. And I think he’s been able to adapt from his playing days, to the new generation, to making it all mesh. To understand that it’s about balancing. You don’t need to go as hard, but yet you need enough.

Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers.
Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers.AP

Q: Who is one defensive back in NFL history you would like to test your skills against?
A: Someone like Deion Sanders would probably be on the list. I’m pretty sure anybody wants to go against the best.

Q: If you could pick the brain of any tight end in NFL history, who would it be?

A: I think Ozzie Newsome, probably, because of his history. When I first got to the league, Marty Schottenheimer would always say, “Have you ever heard of Ozzie Newsome? You remind me of Ozzie Newsome.” At that point, I was oblivious to who he was. Just watching him flourish from playing to then being in a [general manager] role, yeah, probably Ozzie.

Q: What is your most devastating defeat? The 2006 playoffs, when you were 14-2?
A: That’s when the Patriots came to Qualcomm [Stadium in San Diego], I think, if I’m not mistaken. The second round [when the Patriots scored 11 points in the final 4:36 to rally for a 24-21 win].

Q: Describe the AFC Championship loss in New England following the 2007 season.
A: L.T. [LaDainian Tomlinson] was hurt, I had a dislocated toe, Philip had a torn MCL, a whole bunch of guys were hurt. I just remember it was a big deal ’cause L.T. (knee) sat on the sideline with the jacket.

Q: What is your best football moment?
A: The individual one was last year against Miami, when I became the all-time [tight end] leader in touchdowns. To stand on the top of the totem pole in anything you do … I was like, “Wow! I’ve caught more touchdowns than any [tight end] that ever played this game.” I embraced it, and I was like, “Great!” But I was like, “Who we got next week?” I think that’s one thing about me, I’m never too high on things that I do. Once it’s all over with, I start all over again.



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