Tuesday, November 01, 2005 | The speculation began growing last year that Antonio Gates might evolve into the NFL best’s tight end. If you’re still debating, you weren’t watching Sunday as the Chargers’ third-year tight end overshadowed Tony Gonzalez, the reigning king.
Gonzalez is a six-time Pro Bowler for the Kansas City Chiefs who in recent history has been widely recognized as the league’s best tight end. But Gonzalez and other NFL Pro Bowlers might have been already acknowledging the future king back in February while they basked in the glow of Pro Bowl festivities under a golden Hawaiian sun.
Gates had arrived in Hawaii for his first Pro Bowl appearance excited to mingle with NFL stars that he had watched in awe on TV since he was a college kid playing basketball at Kent State and a high school kid in Detroit playing football and basketball.
But before he got up the nerve to introduce himself, Gonzalez and other Pro Bowlers approached him.
“They were coming up to me and saying hello,” Gates said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I know who you are!’ I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Anyone with a pulse following football knows about the Chargers’ 6-foot-4, 260-pounder with the moves of a wide receiver.
In the Chargers’ 28-20 win over the Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium, Gates established a career high in catches (10) and yards (145) and matched a career high in touchdown receptions (three). His performance was so dominating he overshadowed Gonzalez’s otherwise impressive day of seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
“One of the best games I have ever seen by a tight end,” Gonzales said. “They threw him the ball up where only he could get it and he was able to cash in and make plays.”
The only thing that hasn’t grown with Gates’ reputation around the NFL is his ego. Don’t ask him for an opinion on surpassing Gonzalez.
“I don’t want to say that,” Gates said. “Tony has definitely set a high standard at tight end and he has done it year in and year out. This is just my third year and I am up and coming. He has a situation where he is definitely a standout and has been to eight Pro Bowls (six actually). For me, I need to go to eight Pro Bowls in order for me to say that.”
Gates is certainly on his way to another Pro Bowl appearance. He’s second in the AFC in catches with 43 for 575 yards and six touchdowns. He leads all tight ends with numbers such as 13.4 yards per catch that are more commonly found in the neighborhood of wide receivers.
Gates may be humble, but he’s not passive. He knew he’d be on the same turf as Gonzalez on an afternoon the Chargers planned to get him the ball to help loosen up defenses that have been stacked to stop Chargers Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
“Anytime we play against each other, he makes me elevate my game,” Gates said. “That is just the competitive nature about me. I just want to compete and battle and it’s all fun and games in the end. It was fun going out there and competing with him and seeing him do well.”
One reason to expect Gates to someday match Gonzalez’s six Pro Bowl appearances is his work ethic. Having made his first Pro Bowl last year, Gates approached the offseason with the same dedication he had entering his 2003 rookie season when he was trying to make the team as an undrafted free agent and beginning his 2004 breakout season when he was trying to fulfill the promise he showed as a rookie.
“I want to be better at understanding the entire game,” Gates said. “I don’t want to just know my route; I want to understand what everybody else is doing while I’m running my route. I used to focus on running a route and trying to get open. Now I know if I can’t get open, I need to understand how my route is tied in with someone else to help them get open.”
Getting open wasn’t a problem for the NFL’s new king of tight ends on Sunday as his royal predecessor watched in awe from the other sideline.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at