Antonio Gates’ NFL legacy is as a trailblazer for athletes who never played college football

Antonio Gates didn’t have a single reception as a college football player. He had 955 as a pro.

The former Kent State basketball star ended his NFL career after sitting out the 2019 season. He hung up his cleats after 16 seasons with the Chargers, the club that took a chance on an inexperienced athletic dynamo back in 2003.

Gates’ legacy has a few different shapes. As a star player who failed to make it to even the AFC title game, he embodies the Chargers’ eternally cursed fate. As a tight end, he made more touchdown catches than anyone else at the position in league history. But his truest value may be the example he set for other hardworking hardwood stars looking to reinvent themselves as receivers instead of rebounders.

Gates went from college basketball star to NFL All-Pro in shockingly little time

Antonio Gates was supposed to be a two-sport athlete at Michigan State, but then-coach Nick Saban’s demand he give up basketball and focus on football full time changed his career trajectory. He left East Lansing to start a winding path that detoured through Eastern Michigan University and the College of the Sequoias before landing on the Kent State basketball team. By that point, football was an afterthought.

As a junior, Gates led the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight as a short but effective power forward. As a senior, he finished fourth in the Mid-American Conference in scoring (20.6 points per game), seventh in rebounding (7.7), and sixth in assists (4.1) while leading Kent State to a division title and an NIT berth. There was a problem, however; he was only 6’4. While that may have led to some offers to play overseas, the NBA wasn’t an option for him.

The NFL was.

Gates bet on himself by setting up workouts with NFL teams in the summer of 2003. His first meeting was with San Diego, who didn’t let him leave without a signed contract. An 0-4 Chargers team threw him into the starting lineup in Week 5 of his rookie season and never looked back. Less than a year after leaving basketball behind, he’d torch unassuming NFL defense for 16.2 yards per catch as Drew Brees’ x-factor.

His next three seasons were one of the best stretches any NFL tight end has ever recorded. Gates caught 241 passes for 2,989 yards and a league-best 32 touchdowns. No other tight end had more than 20 in that span. Three straight first-team All-Pro nods followed, and the undersized power forward became an integral cog in the Chargers’ offense alongside Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson.

This was the peak of his career, but he was still extremely good in the aftermath. He’d average 900 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in his age 27-34 seasons, churning along as other tight ends wore down. While he flirted with retirement in his late 30s, he kept showing up once it became clear the Chargers — and old friend Rivers — needed him to box out defensive backs in the end zone.

That ended after he sat out the 2019 season, but Gates still finished his career with five All-Pro honors, eight Pro Bowl selections, nearly 12,000 receiving yards, and an almost certain spot in the Hall of Fame. His influence will be felt in the NFL long after he’s retired.

Gates was the bellwether for a long list of 2000s basketball stars who wanted to roast cornerbacks instead of forwards

Gates wasn’t the first player to go from college basketball player to modern NFL star. Tony Gonzalez — who’d battle with Gates for All-Pro nods and tight end receiving records through an equally amazing career — and Julius Peppers were each two-sport college stars who made the transition with aplomb. But the learning curve was much steeper for Gates to come out of nowhere and turn linebackers into turf scorch marks as a pro. Like Cowboys star Cornell Green before him, he had to do so without playing a snap of college football.

Even though he enrolled at three different Division I schools that could have used his services on the gridiron, his focus didn’t leave the hardwood until he was told his NBA career wasn’t going to work. Then he gave the NFL proof a burly, undersized power forward can be the league’s perfect tight end prototype.

In the years since, scouts have been more receptive to a transition like Gates’. Jimmy Graham is the most famous example.

He joined the University of Miami football team as a senior in the midst of four solid but unspectacular years of Hurricane basketball. He showed enough potential to be selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft despite just 17 NCAA receptions and would go on to become a five-time Pro Bowler — explicitly citing Gates as “paving the way” for his place in the NFL.

Graham isn’t alone. Julius Thomas made a similar career decision as Graham, lacing up his cleats at tight end his senior season at Portland State while playing four years with the school’s basketball team. When it became clear his 6’5 frame wasn’t enough to make it in the NBA, he’d go on to make a pair of Pro Bowls and play in a Super Bowl with the Broncos. He cited Gates as the player he tried to emulate the most on the field.

Darren Fells didn’t play a snap of football at UC-Irvine and spent five years playing in different international basketball leagues before giving football a try in 2013. After bouncing around a few different rosters, he’s since settled in as Deshaun Watson’s top tight end target in the red zone with the Texans.

Rico Gathers went from All-Big 12 basketball honors as a rebound-swallowing center to a spot in the Cowboys’ tight end rotation despite playing zero snaps at Baylor. Demetrius Harris and Mo Alie-Cox each made the leap to the NFL despite attending colleges that didn’t even have varsity football programs (Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Virginia Commonwealth, respectively).

More players will follow, because Gates didn’t just shift from power forward to tight end, he kicked a whole lot of ass in the process. The Chargers legend wasn’t worse off for ditching Saban in East Lansing two decades ago — in fact, that lack of college football mileage may have just cleared the path for an epic 16-year career.

Now he’ll transition into the next part of his life. Fortunately for Gates, he’ll get the chance to relive his amazing journey every time a punishing power forward turns into a steady red zone target in the NFL.

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