It's an unwritten rule that there are no guarantees in recruiting. But one thing is certain: your experience will not be like that of Antonio Gates.
Four years, four schools, three states. That's what Gates endured in search of the right college fit. He was fortunate, and he knows it. In the midst of another Pro Bowl campaign, the San Diego Chargers TE paused for a moment to share with STACK his firsthand knowledge of "the process."
The All-Pro's recruiting story is the gateway for STACK's comprehensive 2011 Recruiting Guide, compiled for the sole purpose of helping you capitalize on your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Gates' path to the NFL was as incredible as his athletic skills, and it defined who he is today. As you read about his uncommon journey, you'll find references
to additional information on various recruiting topics, beginning with items you need to address as early as your freshman year of high school (Academics).
An 'Elite' Player
March 2002. Antonio Gates is all the hype among NFL scouts. But it wasn't a Pro Day performance or an individual workout that got him on their radar screens. Rather, the 6'4" power forward was stroking jumpers and snatching rebounds in a Sweet Sixteen match-up against the Pitt Panthers. His 22 points led the Kent State Golden Flashes to an improbable appearance in the Elite Eight.
"Being 260 pounds, moving well and running the court got me noticed," says Gates, who credits his NFL breakthrough to that marvelous run on the hardwood.
No matter how good Gates was on the court, scouts always viewed him as a football player. After all, his gridiron success is what ultimately drove him to Kent State.
Forging a New Path
"Growing up in Detroit, you either played sports or you were doing something you had no businessdoing," says Gates. That's why he surrounded himself with a solid support group at Central High School in the Motor City (Support Network). "I wanted to go to college and become a professional athlete," he says. "That's where the transition occurred for me: changing friends, changing my surroundings and putting myself around people who wanted the same things out of life that I wanted."
Gates was more than a two-sport athlete at Central. He was a two-sport star. A First Team All State performer in football and basketball, he led the Trailblazers to the '98 Class A state title on the hardwood.
Gates was on the right path, his goal of attending college in sight. Nobody in his community had risen to that level, especially on a full scholarship (Financial Aid).
Football came naturally, but Gates says basketball is what molded him. He didn't participate in summer two-a-days. Instead, he traveled across the country playing AAU basketball. He says, "I wanted national exposure, and that's how I became Antonio Gates" (Self-Marketing).
Showcasing his skills on the AAU circuit, together with his state honors, allowed Gates to draw interest from several mid-major hoops programs. Then the Big Ten came calling, but not with the kind of deal he wanted. First Ohio State, then Michigan, offered football scholarships. "Football letters always had more power," Gates says. "A midmajor would send me a basketball letter, and then Michigan would send me a football letter" (Gauging Interest).
As time went on, it seemed less likely the gap would close between big-time football and mid-major basketball. Then Michigan State entered the picture with a golden proposal: the opportunity to play both sports.
Coach Nick Saban visited Gates and pitched the projected tight end/linebacker on a future football career and "being a first rounder" in the NFL Draft (Communicating With a Coach). Initially, Gates didn't think twice, but he now admits he should have (Researching Colleges).
Beyond The Gates of Detroit
Gates made his first (and only) official visit to Michigan State's campus in East Lansing, about 90 minutes west of Detroit (Campus Visits, page 30). Being on a college campus seemed a world away from the neighborhood life familiar to Gates. "My mom was strict. I wasn't able to take phone calls until the 11th grade," he explains. "The fact that these kids had freedom at Michigan State to do whatever they wanted [influenced] my decision."
Gates didn't realize that the college scene—living independently, no curfew, house parties—far from being unique to Michigan State, was the norm at almost every campus in the country. The reality was that Gates was uneducated about the recruiting process, and even more so about the overall college experience.
Nevertheless, the table was set, and Gates was hungry for what the Spartans were serving. He accepted a scholarship offer, but when he arrived on campus freshman year, college life hit him like a 300-pound lineman. And the hits kept coming.
First, a redshirt season in football. Demanding coursework was next. "If you're not playing sports and just going to school, that's already a major adjustment as a freshman student-athlete," Gates says.
Then came the most devastating news, handed down from Coach Saban, who wasn't about to allow his prized recruit to become sidetracked with basketball. For the first time in Gates' athletic career, the winter would no longer be basketball in-season. It would be football off-season.
It was a dose of reality, Gates learning from yet another mistake. Since he had signed a National Letter of Intent to play football, the team essentially controlled his "rights," he admits.
The truth set Gates free, literally. He says, "I found myself in an uncomfortable position, which led to me leaving." And the journey continued.
Gates transferred to Eastern Michigan University, one of the mid-majors that had actively recruited him as a power forward out of high school. Re-uniting with his first love proved costly, however, when Gates shifted his attention to basketball and away from academics. Gates was out of Eastern Michigan just as fast as he bolted East Lansing.
Going out on a big limb, Gates enrolled at the College of the Sequoias, a two-year community college in California's San Joaquin Valley. It was the farthest thing from a good fit, which was, ironically, exactly what he needed. The wake-up call allowed Gates to pull himself out of his comfort zone, put his athletic career on hold and hit the books.
Then came a major development. Michigan State assistant basketball coach Stan Heath, who had recruited Gates out of high school, accepted the head coaching position at Kent State University. Upon learning the news, Gates contacted Heath, and the coach made a proposal: if Gates earned an associate degree at the College of the Sequoias, Heath would do everything in his power to help the one-time prized recruit gain acceptance to KSU (Rules & Regulations).
Gates' assistant coach at Central High School then joined Kent State's coaching staff as well, adding more incentive. For Gates, it was an opportunity to play for people who were familiar with his game and who "would put [him] in the best situation to be successful."
Finally, Gates found his perfect fit. The basketball player could realize his hoop dreams. Little did he know, those dreams would drive him back to the sport he'd been running from since high school.
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