SAN DIEGO -- If this truly is the year the San Diego Chargers rebound, how fortunate for them that former college basketball star Antonio Gates has
become one of their go-to guys.
Just 2½ years ago, Gates helped take the Kent State Golden Flashes within one win of the Final Four. Now he's the Chargers' starting tight end,
nicely complementing star running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
So far, it's been a slam dunk for a team that desperately needed one. And Gates' transition has been pretty amazing, considering he hadn't played
football for five years until signing with San Diego in May 2003 as an undrafted rookie.
"It hasn't necessarily sunk in," Gates said. "When you're in the moment, things happen."
Gates has become Drew Brees' favorite target, catching a team-high 31 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns, including two in last Sunday's 34-21
win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that improved the Chargers to 3-2.
"People say, 'He played basketball.' And I kind of say, 'Well, I'm in the NFL right now, and I'm a starting tight end,' " Gates said. "So I want
people to give me the same expectations they do a starting tight end who played four years at Miami coming in to play. That's just the way I look at
Former general manager Bobby Beathard used to take chances on track guys -- most failed miserably -- and current GM A.J. Smith took a gamble with
Gates, who turned to the NFL because he was undersized for the NBA.
Gates was recommended by an agent. The Chargers liked what they saw, even though they couldn't get a hold of Gates' game films from Detroit's Central
"Sometimes you get lucky," Smith admitted. "We're not going to take credit for identifying a great talent. We're very fortunate. We thought he had all
the ability in the world, but we had no idea he would advance this quickly."
Gates started the final nine games last year, when San Diego was an NFL-worst 4-12. He had 24 catches for 389 yards and two touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can appreciate Gates' transition, having played quarterback at Indiana as well as hoops for Bobby Knight.
"He may be a little bit unique in that even though he was a basketball player, the Lord has blessed him with a football player's body," Cameron
Gates is 6-foot-4, 260 pounds.
Cameron credits tight ends coach Tim Brewster, as well as coach Marty Schottenheimer's system, with helping Gates develop. He also remembers Gates
telling him: "I came into the NFL with no bad habits."
"He bought into the way he's being taught and he wants the football," Cameron said. "You can't have too many guys like that, who are willing to
listen, be coachable, and yet at the same time want the ball in critical situations."
Said Gates: "Everything I'm learning is firsthand."
Gates wowed his teammates when Schottenheimer held a free-throw shooting contest at the end of an offseason workout.
"He's left-handed, and there's nothing prettier than a good-looking left-handed jump shot with someone who knew how to use it," Cameron said. "It was
pretty obvious this guy could play basketball."
Gates, who bounced around three colleges before settling at Kent State, said he doesn't think about basketball during the NFL season. But he's not shy
about using his hoops skills on the field.
"When the ball is thrown to me, I'm in an attack mode because I'm so used to boxing out guys who are bigger than me and taller than me," said Gates,
who was a physical rebounder at Kent State and an honorable mention AP All-American as a senior.
He hopes teams keep covering him one-on-one.
"That little shake that I had in basketball, it's kind of like, 'I'm glad it's man coverage.' Granted I get jammed, but I feel when a guy's holding me
man-to-man, he can't guard me because he couldn't do it with a basketball in my hand, and now I'm free."
Gates has caught six more balls than all the Chargers' wide receivers combined.
"Gates is very good right now, but he's only going to get better," Brees said. "I'm not sure if he even knows how good he can actually be."
Gates' emergence certainly has been noticed by Atlanta coach Jim Mora, whose Atlanta Falcons host the Chargers on Sunday.
"There's always that training camp story, you know, that guy that didn't play in college," Mora said. "Through the first three weeks of training camp,
he looks pretty good, everybody gets fired up about him, and then he gets cut. That hasn't happened to this kid. I'm impressed."