Michael Bates’ background in track helped him become a five-time Pro Bowl kick returner for the Carolina Panthers.
Bates’ incredible speed, toughness, and grit made him a key contributor to one of the NFC’s best special teams units during his heyday in the National Football League.
Bates finished his spectacular nine-year pro football career with 9,110 kick return yards and five kick returns for touchdowns.
Bates was so good that his career average of 24.4 yards per kickoff return eclipsed those of Brian Mitchell, Deion Sanders, and Dante Hall.
Better yet, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian once considered Bates the best kick returner he had ever seen.
Bates also rose to prominence after he beat nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis in an Olympic qualifier.
Bates went on to win the bronze medal for the United States in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Although Michael Bates faded from the limelight since he retired following the 2003 NFL season, he remains one of the best special teams players in Carolina Panthers’ franchise history.
Michael Dion Bates was born to mother Linda in Victoria, TX on December 19, 1969. He has three siblings.
Football clearly ran in Michael Bates’ bloodline.
His brother Mario became a seven-year NFL veteran who suited up for the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, and Detroit Lions.
Another brother Marion suited up for the USC Trojans and Arizona Wildcats during his college days.
Linda Bates was a single mother who was a Sears employee and construction company dispatcher, per Tuscon.com’s Greg Hansen.
Her son Michael attended Amphitheater High School in Tuscon, AZ. He excelled in football and track for the Amphitheater Panthers.
He established state records in the 100-meter and 200-meter events in high school. Bates’ early accomplishments on the track were a prelude to his stint as an Olympian several years later.
Panthers track coach Raul Nido lauded Bates not just for his running prowess, but also for his high character.
“Michael is charismatic,” Nido told Hansen in the spring of 2022. “He’s considerate, unselfish, and sensitive to other’s feelings. He’s the kind of young man I describe as having ‘it.'”
8/6/92 – Passing three runners after the turn, Tucson Amphitheater HS and UA graduate Michael Bates received the bronze medal in the Barcelona Olympics for Men's 200M sprint when he finished at 20.38sec, .37sec behind gold medal winner and American, Michael Marsh. #BearDown pic.twitter.com/mtNkt1XZWG
— Arizona Sports History (@AZSportsHistory) August 6, 2020
Bates suited up for the Panthers as a running back. He racked up 1,300 yards on the ground for an impressive 10.2 yards per carry as a junior.
Despite Bates’ abilities as a running back, he impressed the competition with his incredible speed – an asset that served him well when he became an Olympian in 1992.
Bates was so fast one opposing high school football coach told Panthers.com’s Joe Menzer in 2019 that seeing him play was “like watching a Roadrunner cartoon.”
Bates became a Parade Magazine All-American and The Arizona Republic’s Male Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1988.
As his time at Amphitheater High School wound down, Bates whittled down his college choices to the UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Arizona Wildcats, and Arizona State Sun Devils.
Bates eventually scratched the Cornhuskers from his shortlist. He told The Seattle Times’ Blaine Newnham several years later he wonders if he could’ve been a running back in the NFL had he committed to Nebraska.
Arizona Wildcats head football coach Dick Tomey wanted Bates so bad he hardly slept the night before he made his decision, per Tuscon.com.
When Hansen arrived at his news desk at 8 a.m. the following morning, his answering machine recorded a familiar voice.
It was Arizona Senator John McCain – he wanted to know if Bates chose Arizona.
To Tomey’s and McCain’s relief, Bates ultimately chose the Wildcats.
Although Michael Bates had a short-lived stint at Arizona, he established himself as a formidable track and special teams player during his college days in Tuscon.
College Days With The Arizona Wildcats
Michael Bates attended the University of Arizona on a full scholarship from 1989 to 1991.
Although Bates played wide receiver and running back for the Arizona Wildcats, he took the field mainly as a kick return specialist – the position where he’d excel in the National Football League several years later.
Bates’ blazing speed made him an excellent fit as a kick returner.
However, his grit and toughness allowed him to plow through tacklers on special teams plays for Arizona.
“He was the toughest fast guy I’ve ever seen,” Wildcats head football coach Dick Tomey told Menzer in the summer of 2019.
Michael Bates scored on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Washington State Cougars as a sophomore during the 1990 NCAA season.
It was a sign of things to come for Bates, who became one of the best special teams players in Carolina Panthers franchise history.
Bates also excelled on the track for the Wildcats. He won the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes in the Pacific-10 Conference Championships in 1989 and 1990.
It thus came as no surprise when Bates earned consecutive Outstanding Male Performer honors in college track at the turn of the new decade.
Bates averaged 23.7 kickoff return yards during his two-year tenure with the Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona was mainly an average football team from 1989 to 1991. Although they won eight games and won the Copper Bowl in 1989, they averaged barely six wins per year in the next two seasons.
It’s been 30 years since the 4 Horsemen (Mark Olivier, Percy J Knox Jr, Michael Bates and James Bullock) shattered the 4 x 100m record at The University of Arizona with a time of 38.39 seconds which still stands today! #todayinwildcathistory pic.twitter.com/du9I4opg9m
— Arizona A-Club (@UALETTERWINNERS) June 2, 2020
For his part, Bates decided to leave school early because he wanted to develop his potential on the track.
“Not being all banged up and bruised during football season helps a lot,” Bates told Hansen during a track workout in the fall of 1991. “I lost a lot of speed by never having a fall training session.”
Bates’ decision paid huge dividends when he won a bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona less than a year later.
Although Michael Bates excelled on the track, his heart remained on the gridiron.
Bates would eventually become a stellar kick return specialist for the Carolina Panthers during his nomadic nine-year career in the National Football League.
Pro Football Life
The Seattle Seahawks made Michael Bates the 150th overall selection of the 1992 NFL Draft.
Before Bates played an NFL down, he set his sights on winning an Olympic medal in track.
Bates’ personal best of 20.01 seconds in the 200-meter dash beat eventual nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis in the 1992 Olympic trials.
Bates’ time of 20.38 seconds in the same event earned him a bronze medal for the United States in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
He pumped his fist in jubilation when he crossed the finish line – a rarity during his gridiron and track careers.
Despite winning the bronze medal, Bates and his track coach Fred Harvey expressed disappointment over his assignment in lane 1 for the 200-meter finals.
Unless a track athlete runs anywhere between lanes 3 and 6, his chances to win gold dip significantly.
“Michael would’ve won the silver had he gotten a better lane assignment,” Harvey told Tuscon.com in September 2017. “He had the slightest turn. It’s such a disadvantage. What he did was remarkable.”
Harvey also thought Bates’ emergence on the track was nothing short of remarkable considering he wasn’t a big-name star.
Bates could’ve set his sights on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. However, he decided to commit to football instead.
“I love football,” Bates told Newnham in the summer of 1993. “It’s my first love. I played football and didn’t run track until somebody talked me into it.”
Bates proved his point when he wore a Seattle Seahawks cap during the medal awarding ceremonies in Barcelona.
According to Hansen, Bates’ college coach Dick Tomey endorsed his speed and toughness to various NFL teams.
Bates held out for the entirety of the 1992 NFL season due to contract negotiations. He admitted to Newnham he couldn’t agree on an acceptable salary with the Seahawks, so he focused on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that year.
At that point, Bates’ hiatus from the gridiron was at three years and counting. It wasn’t surprising NFL teams paid him little attention – they considered him more of a track star rather than a budding football player.
Bates admitted to Newnham he had his work cut out for him.
He put in the work in the spring of 1993 – before the Seahawks’ minicamp that year, he practiced his running and catching skills relentlessly for ten weeks.
Bates’ work ethic caught the attention of Seattle wide receivers coach Bob Bratkowski.
“Many days we were the only two out there,” Bratkowski told The Seattle Times in the summer of 1993. “I’m really impressed with his work habits. It is obvious that he really wants to be a good football player.”
Michael Bates’ hard work eventually paid off.
Eleven months after the Seahawks drafted Bates, he signed a deal that included a $15,000 workout bonus, a $10,000 playoff percentage time bonus, and $50,000 worth of performance bonuses.
Olympians in the NFL
Michael Bates captured Bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games in the Men's 200m sprint and would also go on to be a five-time Pro Bowler during his time with the @Seahawks (93-94), @Browns (95), @Panthers (96-2000) and @WashingtonNFL (2011). pic.twitter.com/otOmNCQaDw
— NFL Australia (@NFLAustralia) July 23, 2021
Seahawks head coach Tom Flores designated Bates as a backup wide receiver for the 1993 NFL season. He was fourth on Seattle’s depth chart behind Tommy Kane, Kelvin Martin, and David Daniels.
The Seahawks were a mediocre team during Bates’ three-year stint in the Emerald City – they averaged barely seven wins per year from 1993 to 1995.
The Carolina Panthers claimed Bates off waivers in the summer of 1995.
Little did he know he’d spend his glory years in the National Football League with the Panthers.
However, Carolina traded Bates to the Cleveland Browns for linebacker Travis Hill the day after the Panthers claimed him off waivers.
Bates languished on the Browns’ bench for the majority of the 1995 NFL season.
When Bates tested the free-agent market the following summer, the Panthers signed him up.
This time around, Bates established himself as one of the best special teams players in Carolina’s franchise history.
In fact, Bates became a special teams Pro Bowler for five consecutive seasons with the Panthers from 1996 to 2000.
The Panthers struggled mightily in their fourth year in the National Football League in 1998. Head coach Dom Capers’ troops won just four games that year.
Despite Carolina’s ineptitude, Michael Bates flourished on the gridiron.
Bates established several Panthers franchise records in 1998, including:
- Most kickoff returns in a single season (59)
- Most kickoff return yards in a single season (1,480)
- Most kickoff returns in a game (nine against the Atlanta Falcons on October 4, 1998)
Bates’ ended his spectacular 1998 NFL campaign in style when he set another franchise record – most kick return yards in a single game (99).
📽️ Michael Bates was a former Olympic sprinter & bronze medal winner who became an All-Pro kick-returner with the Panthers. Bates was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his 5 seasons in Carolina from 1996-2000. #TBT #PanthersRewind #KeepPounding pic.twitter.com/pjvs8w3Lxn
— Panthers Rewind (@PanthersRewind) March 4, 2021
Bates scored on a scintillating 99-yard kick return for a touchdown in the season finale against Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
The Panthers overcame a 10-point halftime deficit and went on to win at the RCA Dome, 27-19.
It was also Dom Capers’ final game as Carolina Panthers’ head coach. He averaged seven wins per season since the Panthers hired him in 1995.
As for Michael Bates, he concluded his combined eight-year tenure in Carolina as the Panthers’ all-time leader in kickoff returns (233), kickoff return yards (5,987), and kickoff return average (25.7 yards), per Menzer.
Bates’ accomplishments on the Panthers’ special teams urged the NFL’s Hall of Fame Selection Committee to include him in the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.
Although Bates became a Pro Bowler with the Panthers, they were an average team for the most part when his career took off towards the end of the 1990s.
After Carolina won an impressive twelve games in the 1996 NFL season, they lost to Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, 30-13.
The Panthers took a step backward in the next four seasons – they averaged just six wins per year and missed the postseason each time.
Bates’ unofficial second tour of duty with the Panthers ended following the 2000 NFL season.
The Washington Redskins signed Bates to a two-year, $1.327 million deal in the summer of 2001 that included a $100,000 signing bonus.
Bates’ agent Jim Steiner told The Washington Post’s Mark Maske his client wanted to play in the nation’s capital because of the roster’s makeup and head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
The Redskins released Bates following the 2001 NFL campaign. He signed with the Panthers and spent two injury-riddled and uneventful seasons with them until 2003.
Bates later spent short stints with the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys before hanging up his cleats at the end of the 2003 NFL season.
Michael Bates finished his nine-year NFL career with 9,110 kick return yards and five kick returns for touchdowns.
Bates’ career average of 24.4 yards per kickoff return was better than Dante Hall’s (23.8), Deion Sanders’ (22.7), and Brian Mitchell’s (23.1).
Bates dispelled the notion that special teams guys play second fiddle to their offensive and defensive counterparts.
“People look at special teams guys like they’re junk and they’re just lucky to be on the team,” Bates told the Panthers’ official website in 2019. “I think that’s the wrong way to look at things. We get field position and we take away field position.”
Michael Bates @Panthers KR ('95-'00 & '02-'03):
-5 time All Pro
-24 returns for 40 or more yds (still an NFL record)
-26 yd/return avg
-5 KR TDs
-Beat out Carl Lewis to make the '92 Olympic team. Won a bronze pic.twitter.com/bSh0f3kbFj
— 😎😎 (@Panthers_Tigers) December 8, 2017
On the other hand, former Carolina Panthers general manager Bill Polian considered Michael Bates the best kickoff return he had ever seen.
Polian thought the combination of Bates, kicker John Kasay, and coach Brad Seely produced the best special teams personnel in the NFC during Bates’ heyday in Carolina.
“Michael was as important to our ascendancy in the NFC as any player on our team,” Polian told SI.com’s Rick Gosselin in the summer of 2018. “He was as important to us as Steve Tasker was to us in Buffalo.”
When Gosselin asked Polian to state Bates’ case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he said Bates’ relatively short career compared to Tasker’s has excluded the former from serious discussions for Canton.
Nonetheless, Michael Bates produced a similar impact for the Carolina Panthers from 1996 to 2000.
Michael Bates currently resides in Oro Valley, AZ. He returned to his old stomping grounds near the Tuscon area after he retired from the National Football League.
The Arizona Daily Star proclaimed Bates the “Top Athlete in Tuscon History” in 2012. He became a member of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame two years later.
Bates continues following Arizona Wildcats football with a passion. He attended head football coach Rich Rodriguez’s inaugural press conference in 2012.
He also attended current Wildcats head football coach Jedd Fisch’s spring practices a decade later.
According to Hansen, Bates blending in with the crowd and not speaking with Rodriguez and Fisch were a reflection of his soft-spoken and reserved nature.
Bates is currently working as a personal trainer in his home state of Arizona.