COSTA MESA, Calif. — Antonio Gates had never been to a Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony before last weekend, when he traveled to watch longtime teammate LaDainian Tomlinson’s stirring induction.
The Los Angeles Chargers’ veteran tight end came away from Canton excited for his friend, inspired by Tomlinson’s speech and newly motivated for the final chapters in his own career, which seems likely to end up in the same place.
Gates returned to practice with the Chargers on Tuesday in Costa Mesa after taking off to Ohio for the weekend.
“To me, it’s a lifetime achievement award,” Gates said. “It’s an honor to be around the other Hall of Famers. I embraced it all with the energy and the idea that one day I could have the chance, the opportunity to wear that jacket. But needless to say, I don’t look too far ahead. I’ve still got things that I’m focused on this season. I’ve still got goals with the Chargers.”
The 37-year-old pass-catcher is easing into his 15th NFL season with a light workload in the opening weeks of camp, but he vows to be ready for the start of his only NFL franchise’s relocation campaign next month.
And while he still has goals, the Chargers’ career leader in catches, receiving touchdowns and yards receiving has precious little left to achieve individually. The eight-time Pro Bowl selection already is among the most accomplished tight ends in NFL history, and he begins the season one touchdown catch away from breaking his tie with Tony Gonzalez for the NFL record in TD receptions for tight ends.
Quarterback Philip Rivers stayed home from Tomlinson’s induction ceremony, but Gates was given permission from coach Anthony Lynn to attend. Gates thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, and he was amazed by Tomlinson’s widely praised induction speech in which the running back called for his country to remain unified in the face of bitter division.
“I thought it spoke volumes, not only (about) just sports, but to people in general,” Gates said. “I understood where he was coming from, needless to say. Being here in California for 15 years, we’ve got a chance to experience a lot of things and a lot of different cultures. It was well-said from a person that truly, sincerely believes that in his heart. I’m proud and I’m happy.
“Sports give us a path to be successful in this country, and I think that should apply to everybody outside sports as well. To me, that was the greatest message that he said: That this is the land of the free, this is the land of opportunity, and hopefully people that’s outside this country will get the chance to have this opportunity.”
Gates, Tomlinson and Rivers were teammates for six years, and they formed one of the most dynamic offensive trios in recent NFL history when they played together in San Diego from 2006-09 — the stretch between Rivers getting the starting job and Tomlinson finally departing for the New York Jets.
The Chargers won four straight AFC West titles and reached the conference championship game during that four-year period. They haven’t made a Super Bowl, but Rivers and Gates still hold out hope they’ve got a chance in Los Angeles to do what they couldn’t in San Diego.
Gates hasn’t decided how much longer he will play, but the former undrafted free agent and college basketball player acknowledges that one of his goals from his first NFL season was “trying to have a long, competitive, consistent career.”
If Canton comes calling in a few years, Gates will look forward to his own weekend reward.
“I think every athlete in every sport or whatever your endeavor is in life, we try to have that lifetime achievement award,” Gates said. “In football, it’s the Hall of Fame. Every player that’s here visualizes it, but it comes with health. It comes with longevity. It comes with consistency. There’s a lot of factors that figure in. It’s just a special moment.”