Antonio Gates was the NBA’s loss and one of the NFL’s greatest gains.
Gates, a standout basketball player for the Kent State Golden Flashes, aspired to become an NBA player in his college days.
However, fate had bigger plans for the Detroit, MI native.
Gates signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He eventually embarked on a 16-year pro football career that made some experts consider him one of the greatest tight ends in league history along with Anthony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Sr., and Rob Gronkowski.
Gates paired up with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers for a combined 89 touchdowns from 2006 to 2018. The duo helped the Chargers become perennial Super Bowl contenders during the memorable Norv Turner era in San Diego.
Gates racked up eight Pro Bowl selections, three First-Team All-Pro selections, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections when he played for the Chargers from 2003 to 2018.
When Gates hung up his cleats in early 2020, his 116 touchdowns were the most among tight ends in NFL history.
This is Antonio Gates’ inspiring and memorable football story.
Antonio Ethan Gates, Sr. was born in Detroit, MI on June 18, 1980.
Gates grew up in a rough and seedy part of the Motor City. He told STACK.com in 2011 that he and his friends had a choice: they could either play sports or hang out with the wrong crowd.
Fortunately, Antonio Gates chose the high road and became an athlete.
Gates attended Central High School in his hometown of Detroit, MI. He played football and basketball for the Central Trailblazers.
Gates learned one valuable life lesson during his high school days—surrounding himself with the right people boded well for his aspirations to become a professional athlete.
“I wanted to go to college and become a professional athlete,” Gates told STACK in 2011. “That’s where the transition occurred for me: changing friends, changing my surroundings, and putting myself around people who wanted the same things out of life that I wanted.”
Although Gates had natural, God-given abilities on the gridiron, playing hoops built his character and helped him gain recognition as his athletics career progressed.
Gates told STACK.com that he and several other outstanding players barnstormed the country playing AAU basketball back in high school.
Antonio Gates led Detroit Central High to a basketball state title in 1998. He also played football there. He hooped in college at Eastern Michigan and Kent State, after Nick Saban only wanted him to play football at MSU. He carved out a great HOF career in the NFL at tight end. pic.twitter.com/R22BSLDvWj
— Detroit Griot (@JustCallmeBHunt) March 22, 2018
Gates’s incredible athleticism on the basketball court earned rave reviews from renowned athletics programs such as the Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
However, those major college programs dangled football scholarships—not basketball scholarships—to Antonio. He also received feelers from various mid-major basketball programs.
“Football letters always had more power. A mid-major would send me a basketball letter, and then Michigan would send me a football letter,” Gates told STACK.com.
All of a sudden, the Michigan State Spartans wanted Gates to play both basketball and football for their school. It seemed like a dream come true for Antonio.
Spartans head football coach Nick Saban reached out to Gates. The former told him he envisioned him suiting up as a tight end or linebacker for his program.
Saban also told Gates that he had the potential to become a first-round draft choice in the National Football League, per STACK.com.
Gates’s visit to the Michigan State campus in East Lansing, MI served as the proverbial icing on the cake.
Antonio’s mom was so strict that she forbade her son from answering phone calls until he was in the eleventh grade.
However, when he arrived in East Lansing, he saw the freedom many college students enjoyed—the kind of freedom he wanted.
That, plus the opportunity to play for Saban and Spartans head basketball coach Tom Izzo, made Gates commit to Michigan State in his senior season in 1997.
Gates’ commitment to the Spartans came on the heels of the Trailblazers winning the Class A state basketball championship that year.
It seemed like Antonio Gates was in good hands with the Michigan State Spartans. However, an unexpected turn of events led to Gates blossoming into an NBA-caliber player with the Kent State Golden Flashes during his college days in the early 2000s.
College Days with the Kent State Golden Flashes
Before Antonio Gates excelled in basketball for the Kent State Golden Flashes, the reality of college life blindsided him when he set foot on the Michigan State University Campus in the summer of 1998.
Gates redshirted his true freshman season with the Spartans. Consequently, he kept his nose to the grindstone and hit the books hard. Studying hard while playing no sports was a major adjustment for Antonio.
Gates encountered a stumbling block in his college athletics career—Michigan State Spartans head football coach Nick Saban wanted him to focus solely on the gridiron. Basketball was out of the question.
Gates, who had little idea about how the recruiting process worked, signed a national letter of intent to play football for Michigan State. Saban’s actions were justified after all.
The awkward situation made Antonio feel uncomfortable. Before long, he wanted to leave East Lansing, MI.
“I found myself in an uncomfortable position, which led me to leaving,” Gates told STACK.com some 12 years later.
Antonio Gates transferred to Eastern Michigan University in late 1998. The Eastern Michigan Eagles were hot on his trail toward the end of his high school days with the Central Trailblazers. They wanted him to suit up for their basketball program as a power forward.
Regrettably, the situation at EMU was the exact opposite of what transpired at Michigan State just a few weeks earlier—Gates set the books aside and focused most of his efforts on basketball.
Gates’ poor academic showing at EMU prompted him to transfer to the College of the Sequoias, a community college in California.
When Antonio moved out West, reality hit him hard—if he wanted to achieve his goal of becoming a professional athlete, he had to get his grades up. Worse, he had to do that at an institution that was hardly a good fit for him.
Fortunately for Gates, fate intervened at the perfect moment.
Former Michigan State Spartans assistant basketball coach Stan Heath, the man who recruited Gates in high school, became the Kent State Golden Flashes head men’s basketball coach.
When Antonio found out, he immediately reached out to Heath. The latter told him that if he earned an associate’s degree from the College of the Sequoias, he would do everything he could to help Gates earn a spot on the Kent State Golden Flashes men’s basketball roster.
Just as Heath gave Gates his proposal, one of Antonio’s former assistant coaches at Central High became part of Heath’s staff at Kent State. The turn of events motivated Gates even more.
Gates kept his end of the bargain, earned an associate’s degree from the College of the Sequoias, and led the Golden Flashes’ resurgence during Heath’s brief, one-year tenure as their head coach.
16 years ago today, Antonio Gates led Kent State to the Elite Eight. pic.twitter.com/fiV9VvK3Yt
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2018
Gates, a junior power forward, averaged 16.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game as Kent State had an outstanding 30-6 win-loss record in the 2001 NCAA season.
The Golden Flashes were virtually unbeatable in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) that year. With Gates wreaking havoc, Kent State beat their conference opponents 17 times in 18 games.
Gates’ excellent play helped the Golden Flashes clinch their first MAC title in their basketball program history. Kent State also had a memorable run in the 2002 NCAA Tournament—the Golden Flashes reached the Elite Eight in Gates’s junior season.
Although Kent State fell short of its title aspirations, Antonio Gates proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony— far from it.
Gates took his game to greater heights in his senior season in 2002. He averaged 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game for the Golden Flashes that year.
Nobody was surprised when Antonio became an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American selection in 2002. He also earned his second consecutive All-MAC selection following his senior campaign.
Although Kent State won 21 games in 2002, the Golden Flashes were not invited to compete in the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Nevertheless, Gates made a big splash during his two-year stint at Kent State. At the time of his final game in the college basketball ranks, his 1,216 points ranked 16th in the school’s basketball program history, per its official athletics website.
Although it seemed like Antonio Gates was on the verge of taking the NBA by storm, he took a different career path that led him to the National Football League in 2003.
Little did everybody else know at the time that the former Golden Flashes basketball star would eventually evolve into one of the greatest tight ends not only in San Diego Chargers franchise history but also in pro football history.
Pro Football Career
The San Diego Chargers signed Antonio Gates as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2003 NFL season.
Gates scheduled workouts with several NFL teams prior to signing with the Chargers. San Diego was the first team he worked out for.
Although the Chargers were first in line, they were not Antonio Gates’ first preference.
Gates told The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Tom Krasovic in January 2020 that he preferred the Indianapolis Colts because of their home stadium, the RCA Dome.
He also crossed out the New England Patriots—the team that would eventually haunt him for years after he retired—because of frigid playing conditions in the country’s northeast region.
The Chargers were so impressed with Gates’ potential that they signed him to a deal despite him not playing a single down of football in the collegiate ranks.
Prior to that, the Colts also dangled a contract to Gates in the spring of 2003, per Krasovic.
However, Gates ultimately chose sunny San Diego because of Chargers tight ends coach Tim Brewster. The latter previously worked out Gates during his college days in Ohio.
Antonio Gates rewarded the Chargers with 16 unforgettable seasons in the National Football League.
Gates had 389 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 24 receptions as a rookie in the 2003 NFL season.
116 career touchdowns, the most ever by a tight end.
We take you back to his very first one. (Nov. 9, 2003)
Congrats on a legendary career, Antonio Gates! 👏👏👏 @Chargers #BoltUp pic.twitter.com/qWK4ex5SVj
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) January 14, 2020
Despite Antonio’s coming-out party, San Diego remained at the bottom of the league standings with an atrocious 4-12 win-loss record that season. The Chargers missed the postseason for the eighth consecutive year.
One of the pivotal turning points in Gates’ pro football career was the arrival of former North Carolina State Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers in 2004.
The Chargers made Rivers the fourth overall selection of the 2004 NFL Draft as part of a blockbuster draft-day deal that sent Eli Manning to the New York Giants.
Rivers played behind Drew Brees in his first two NFL seasons in San Diego from 2004 to 2005. During that time, Antonio Gates became one of the best young tight ends in the league.
Gates enjoyed the most productive two-year stretch of his pro football career. He had a combined 2,065 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns on 170 receptions from 2004 to 2005.
Gates also began his string of eight consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 2004 to 2011. He also earned three straight First-Team All-Pro selections from 2004 to 2006.
Gates helped the once-woebegone Chargers turn things around in the latter years of the Marty Schottenheimer era.
With Gates firing on all cylinders, San Diego won an average of 11 games from 2004 to 2005. The Chargers orchestrated a spectacular eight-game turnaround and finally ended their postseason drought in Gates’ second year in the NFL ranks.
Unfortunately, San Diego lost to the New York Jets in the 2004 AFC Wild Card Game, 20-17.
Although the Chargers missed the postseason again despite a respectable 9-7 win-loss record the following season, their fortunes changed dramatically in 2006.
When Brees opted to sign with the New Orleans Saints prior to the 2006 NFL campaign, the starting quarterback job was Rivers’ for the taking.
The Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates connection helped the Chargers become perennial Super Bowl contenders from 2006 to 2009.
Gates racked up a combined 3,769 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns on 285 receptions during that memorable four-season span that overlapped the Marty Schottenheimer and the Norv Turner eras in San Diego.
Rivers told The Associated Press’ Joe Reedy (via The Detroit News) in January 2020 that Gates was a load to handle at tight end.
Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates!! Get used of seeing this for 2 more seasons #ChargerForLife ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️ pic.twitter.com/kODth52z60
— LA Chargers Film⚡️🏈🎥 (@ChargerFilmRoom) March 9, 2016
Rivers and the other Chargers quarterbacks discussed what they called “Gates Rules” in their meeting room. To simplify matters, they threw in Antonio’s direction whenever the defense covered him one-on-one. Gates would do the rest.
The Chargers averaged 11 victories per season and won four AFC West division titles from 2006 to 2009. They reached the AFC Divisional Round three times and the AFC Championship Game once almost midway through Gates’ spectacular pro football career.
Regrettably, the lone AFC title game appearance was one of the lowest points of Gates’ NFL career.
San Diego had a chance to upset the undefeated Patriots and advance to Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants. Alas, Gates and the team fell short, 20-12. They have never played in the AFC Championship Game since then.
“That’s a game that haunts me to this day,” Gates told Krasovic in January 2020. “Now, years later, never to get back to that—that’s disheartening.”
When Antonio Gates entered his eighth pro football season with the Chargers, he earned another memorable accolade—his college alma mater, the Kent State Golden Flashes, retired his No. 44 jersey in the spring of 2010.
Gates continued piling up accolades as his pro football career progressed. He earned consecutive Second-Team All-Pro selections in 2009 and 2010 after racking up a combined 1,939 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on 129 receptions during that two-year time frame.
The Chargers averaged eight wins per year in the next five seasons. They made the postseason just once from 2010 to 2014. San Diego lost to the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Divisional Round, 24-17.
It was the Chargers’ final postseason appearance in Mike McCoy’s four-year tenure as their head coach from 2013 to 2016.
Gates made headlines when the NFL suspended him for four games due to taking performance-enhancing substances (PEDs) in the summer of 2015.
“This is another chip on my shoulder,” Gates told USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell (via the Detroit Free Press). “Hopefully, when I get back, they’ll welcome me with open arms. You know how tough this league is.”
Gates never questioned his integrity throughout that particular ordeal. He told Bell that his relatively clean track record dated back to his high school days in Detroit, MI. He never recalled getting a positive test result until his PED suspension.
#Chargers TE Antonio Gates was suspended 4 games for violating the NfL’s PED policy pic.twitter.com/UgriKvZtRd
— Cleveland Fandom Podcast (@CLEFandomPod) July 2, 2015
Gates thought the positive result stemmed from a kidney-cleansing product or previously consumed painkillers.
However, Gates failed to convince legendary Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe.
Sharpe was well aware of NFL players doing extreme things to their bodies during Gates’ era.
For instance, players hired nutritionists, personal trainers, chefs, and the like. In Sharpe’s opinion, Gates’ explanation would have been more convincing had he played ten or 15 years earlier. Unfortunately, that was no longer the case—Sharpe thought Gates was aware of everything he put in his body all along.
It’s obvious that Antonio Gates’s glowing football credentials stood out on his resume. Unfortunately, there was no way around his four-game suspension, either.
“That will be on his resume,” Sharpe told Bell (via the Detroit Free Press). “But a four-game suspension is on his resume, too.”
For his part, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who had connected on numerous touchdown passes with Gates over the years, told Bell that his solid working relationship with his tight end remained the same despite the four-game suspension.
Gates’ four-game suspension marked a turning point in his career. Antonio, the bona fide starter at tight end for the past 11 seasons, played behind starters Ladarius Green, Hunter Henry, and Virgil Green in his final four pro football seasons from 2015 to 2018.
The re-christened Los Angeles Chargers had several up-and-down seasons as Antonio Gates reached the twilight of his legendary NFL career.
Los Angeles finished with an impressive 12-4 win-loss record and advanced to the AFC Divisional Round in Anthony Lynn’s second year as head coach in 2018.
It also turned out to be Antonio Gates’ final season in the National Football League.
Gates did not play a single down in the 2019 NFL season. He officially announced his retirement from pro football on January 14, 2020.
— Antonio Gates (@AntonioGates85) January 14, 2020
Antonio Gates finished his legendary 16-year NFL career with 11,841 receiving yards on 955 receptions. His 116 touchdown receptions are the most by any tight end in league history.
The Rivers-Gates passing duo accounted for 89 touchdowns during their 13-year partnership from 2006 to 2018. That made them the most productive QB-TE combination in NFL history.
“He no doubt is one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game,” Rivers told The Associated Press (via The Detroit News)in January 2020. “He is the master of a pivot three and seven route. He ran all of the others pretty dang good also.”
Antonio Gates earned approximately $71 million in his 16-year pro football career, per The Detroit News’ Robert Snell.
Just like many of Gates’ NFL contemporaries, he admitted that he played through pain during his NFL career. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2020 that he has had past issues with his feet, shoulders, ribs, knees, and ankles.
“Playing at a hundred percent, everybody can do,” Gates told Krasovic shortly after he announced his retirement from the NFL. “The good ones learn how to play at 70 and 80 and still have an impact on the game.”
Gates told ESPN’s Thomas Neumann in December 2010 that he has no clear-cut preference between Gaslamp Quarter or Pacific Beach in San Diego, CA. Although he liked visiting both of those places, he said he’s more of a city guy than a beach guy.
When Neumann asked Gates who his favorite NBA players were, Antonio said he preferred following college basketball because the athletes are more passionate than their professional counterparts.
“I pay a little bit more attention to college basketball, because that’s not where it’s about the money, it’s about the passion for the game,” Gates told ESPN in 2010. “Kids play hard; and they’re playing for a purpose.”
In terms of Gates’s favorite musical genre, he told Neumann he preferred rap and R&B because he could relate to the lyrics—many talented rappers speak about their inner-city lives through their lyrics. Those kinds of songs motivate Antonio and remind him of how far he has made it in life.
Gates singled out Grammy-Award-winning rapper Jay-Z as one of his biggest musical influences.
#TBT: He announced his retirement a couple days ago, so here's some Antonio Gates TD highlights!
Legend & future Hall of famer! #Chargers pic.twitter.com/iyGJzunvtl
— Four Verts 🏈 (@FourVerticals_) January 16, 2020
When Gates played in his final few years in the NFL, he admitted that balancing football and family was challenging, to say the least.
Taking care of his family—a group that included his wife Sasha and their four kids—was a daunting task while trying to stay in peak football condition in his mid-to-late 30s.
“It’s very difficult because of the demands of this profession,” Gates told the Chargers’ official website in the summer of 2017. “It’s very tough. It’s one thing to be on a team, but it’s another when you’re trying to be the pinnacle of what you do. It presents a whole different dynamic and challenge.”
Gates and his family supported various charitable endeavors such as the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and the Lupus Foundation of America during his 16-year NFL career.
Antonio supported the Lupus Foundation in memory of his sister, Pamela.
Antonio Gates currently lives in the Encino, CA area.
Gates told Chargers.com in 2017 that his house is child-friendly during the day. He admitted that listening to children’s songs all day long can sometimes become unbearable.
To make up for that, he and his wife Sasha loved watching the crime-drama TV series Breaking Bad at night. They loved it so much, it wasn’t unusual for them to binge-watch eight consecutive episodes.
Regrettably, Antonio and Sasha ended their 11-year marriage in February 2022.
Gates made headlines just two months after he retired from the National Football League.
PNC Bank slapped a $1.68 million lawsuit on Gates after he allegedly did not pay the equivalent mortgage on a 32,505-square-foot strip mall on the east side of Detroit, MI in the spring of 2020.
Gates signed the promissory note as the sole member of Marketing Goldmines three years earlier. According to Snell, the mall failed to pay three years’ worth of delinquent property taxes amounting to $274,181.
Antonio Gates currently works in the Chargers’ front office as their Legends Ambassador.
His son, Antonio Gates, Jr., a four-star wideout, committed to the Michigan State Spartans in December 2021.
Antonio Gates became a member of the MAC Hall of Fame in the spring of 2017. He is also a member of the San Diego Chargers 50th Anniversary Team, the San Diego Salute to Champions Hall of Fame, and the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
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