Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | If you were like me, there were some interesting and obvious questions to arise when looking over Chargers Park, where Monday was the first day of training camp for rookies and selected veterans. On Friday, the full roster reports and drills are open to the public.

Who was that new guy running alone on the side while the rookies were being drilled on the practice field?

That was No. 85, Antonio Gates, the Chargers’ All-World tight end. He was a new face on the sidelines only because he underwent surgery for his toe in the offseason.

Gates said it was the third time he got out on the grass in cleats n as opposed to running on a treadmill n to work out.

And it was the best he’s felt in the six-month rehab process since surgery on thetoe that he hurt in the Chargers’ playoff win over the Tennessee Titans. He said the first time he was unable to finish and the second time he was very sore.

How bad was his injury?

It was far more painful than Gates let on or we were led to believe since he found a way to play in the Chargers’ AFC Championship game loss at the New England Patriots.

Quarterback Philip Rivers got the “Ironman” credit from the national media for somehow managing to play quarterback on one knee, but Rivers said yesterday that designation should have gone to Gates.

“His injury was more painful,” Rivers said. “Mine was more discomfort.”

But you’re not alone if you didn’t realize how much pain Gates was playing in. He said a lot of people don’t understand how painful a toe injury that requires surgery can be, including his father.

“He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ ” Gates said with a laugh.

What about the team’s other injuries?

Rivers said he has been going full speed for about a month and there is nothing that will hold him back once the full camp opens. He needed ACL surgery on his right knee after last season’s AFC Championship game loss.

Head coach Norv Turner said he likes what he’s seen from Rivers as the North Carolina State alum enters his third season as a starter and fifth pro season.

“The thing about Philip is I believe he’s getting better,” Turner said. “When you work as hard as he does, you’re going to improve. His legs and knee are in great shape. He spent a lot of time in the weight room and is throwing the ball with great authority. He’s seeing things faster and making decisions quicker.”

Turner said center Nick Hardwick isn’t ready to practice, but the team’s training staff feels he is on schedule after surgery on his foot. The Chargers planned for the possibility he wouldn’t be ready to open the season when they signed 11-year veteran Jeremy Newberry as a free agent from the Oakland Raiders.

“Nick is making progress,” Turner said. “He’s been running and working on pass sets. He’s doing rehab, but he’s a ways a way from being able to practice. I can’t tell you when he will be ready.”

Turner said nose tackle Jamal Williams is recovered from an ankle injury and having arthroscopic knee surgery to clean out problems from wear and tear in the trenches. Nevertheless, Turner says this year he will limit Williams’ practice time and some playing time.

“The funny thing about Jamal is he never wants to come off the field,” he said. “This year I’ll have to be more stubborn about days we want him to practice (or not practice). I believe he’s going to have a great year. He’s doing things to get himself in the best shape he can be. But we’re going to limit some of the things he’s done in the past.”

Another injury Turner mentioned was to second-year linebacker Anthony Waters, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of the June off-season workouts so he can be ready for the season opener.

Although Waters is a backup, it’s significant since starting inside linebacker Stephen Cooper must serve a four-game suspension for a testing positive for a banned stimulant.

Derek Smith, a 12-year veteran signed as a free agent from the San Francisco 49ers, Waters and Brandon Siler will be competing to fill in for Cooper.

Although the Chargers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, what did they gain by advancing to the AFC Championship game?

“What we all thought was true about ourselves became reality,” he said. “We are a team of character. People can try and tear us apart, but we’re a team.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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