The NFL’s most highly skilled tight end did not have an impressive college career on the gridiron. In fact, he had no college career on the gridiron. When Antonio Gates joined the San Diego Chargers as a free agent in 2003, he hadn’t strapped it up since his senior year at Central High in Detroit. Between then and ’03, he battled on the hardwood for Kent State University, leading the Golden Flashes to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 2002.
Upon finishing his impressive hoops career, the 6’4” power forward was slapped with the dreaded “tweener” label—too small to be a big man, too big to be a quick guy. However, Antonio had too much athleticism to ignore, at least in the minds of a few NFL coaches and scouts. The college baller decided to take a long shot and try to break into the NFL without college experience. Although he initially had trouble readjusting to football, Antonio quickly shook the rust off his game. During his rookie campaign, the 260-pound tight end hauled in 24 catches for 389 yards. Respectable—but nothing compared to what Antonio had in store.
Heading into the 2004 season, the league-wide scouting report on Antonio read: “Overall, Gates may never be an elite tight end in the NFL, but he could develop into an adequate starter with more experience.” The “adequate starter” went out and set the NFL TD record for tight ends with 13, earning a starting spot on the AFC’s 2004 Pro Bowl squad. In 2005, Antonio again proved the assessment wrong, leading all tight ends in receptions (89), yards (1,101) and touchdowns (10). The “experts” now sing a different tune about Gates. Referring to the most talented tight end prospects, they toss around the phrase, “He may have the tools to be the next Antonio Gates.”
Refusing to become complacent with the record-setting start to his career, Antonio has dedicated himself to a strength program and hours of film sessions to drive his development as a football player. Below, he discusses his past experiences, goals and the training he used to make the switch from college hoopster to NFL Pro Bowler.
STACK: Do you think being a collegiate basketball player helped you out as a football player?
Gates: Yes, definitely. Being out on the basketball court was huge for my hand-eye coordination. That’s something I took from the court and brought to the football field. Also, I was going against players who were a lot bigger than me on the court, so I learned how to play big. That was key, because I’m 6’4”, and now that I’m back on the football field, I’m going against guys who are 5’9”, 5’10”. It’s a huge advantage for me.
What led to your decision to play only basketball in college?
Gates: I really didn’t have a choice. I wanted to play both, because I thought that would give me the most and best options. I was fortunate that basketball took me through school, but people always thought that football was the sport I was a natural in.
How did you decide to switch back to football after college?
Gates: It always seemed that no matter what I could do on the court, people considered me a football player playing hoops. And now, when I’m doing these big things on the football field, people see me as a basketball player. It’s funny; people make more basketball comments about me now as a football player than they did when I played basketball. I was hearing that I was good enough for the NFL all through high school and college. If people were still convinced I could play [football]—even though I hadn’t played a down—[playing in the NFL] was something I had to check out. NFL coaches and scouts were telling me that not only could I play in the NFL, but I could play at a high level. So I decided to try it.
Since you took a break from football, did you have any problems readjusting when you joined the Chargers?
Gates: Oh yeah, I was real rusty. To be honest with you, I didn’t think I was going to be here for long. It was a real learning experience for me. It was like coming straight out of high school and going to the pros. That’s a hard thing to do, and it’s the reason you don’t see guys going to the NFL from high school. The game is so much faster, and the guys are so much stronger. I had a rough time adjusting to it.
If you had decided to take your hoops game to the NBA, how do you think you would have done?
Gates: It’s unfortunate that the things you regret most are the things you never try. You never have that insight into what would have happened. But one thing I will never regret is my decision, because it made me understand what people see, and it made a tremendous mark on my life. I became a Pro Bowler and the touchdown leader for tight ends in one season. Would I have been able to accomplish things like that on the basketball court? Probably not. So that’s how I look at it. I might have made a team in the NBA and been a role player. But with football, I can envision myself being a superstar if I work at it.
How does the thrill of throwing down a nasty dunk in college compare to scoring a TD in the NFL?
Gates: They’re similar because they both provide a momentum shift for you and your team. But a touchdown has way more of an effect on the game and gets you way more recognition than a dunk. A lot of people can dunk, but they can’t play. A touchdown is worth more and means more. A dunk is just two points.
What was your most rewarding moment in each sport?
Gates: In basketball, it was going to the Elite Eight—making that run and challenging some really good teams. No matter what happens, I will always remember that. In football, it was when we made the playoffs my second year in the league. It was the first time we made them since ’94. It was also the same year I set the tight end touchdown record; so it was a memorable season for me.
Who was your biggest influence when you were growing up and playing sports?
Gates: My family had the biggest impact on me. Outside of them, I would say society as a whole influenced me the most. I can’t really point to one person as to why I did certain things. I wanted to do something that was different so I could stand out. I was in love with sports, and I wanted to become a professional athlete to separate myself from everybody else.
Where do you plan to take your game in the next couple of years?
Gates: The biggest key for a successful player is avoiding complacency. You see a lot of guys get the money and fame, then become complacent with where they are. I promised myself I would never let that happen. No matter who you are or where you are, you can always get better. Nobody’s perfect, and if you’re not perfect, then there’s room for improvement.
Antonio on Training
Did you work out when you played both sports in high school?
Gates: Back in high school, it was always one season right after the other. Just when football ended, I was starting basketball. And I played so much basketball that it went all the way to the start of football. I never had an off-season or one of those off-season training programs the other guys had.
Once you narrowed it down to one sport at Kent, what was your off-season training like?
Gates: More intense than I was used to. We always played pick-up games, or we were out on the track doing sprints and running. All that helped me when I got to the NFL, because I was asked to do a lot of running. And at that point, it was already second nature to me.
Did you do much weightlifting in college?
Gates: We didn’t do all that much lifting when I played basketball; that has been my biggest improvement since college. When I got into the weight room here, there was an intensity I had never experienced on the basketball court. My workout intensity has gotten a lot better since I got to the NFL.
How has your body changed as a result of this intense training?
Gates: When I started playing football again, I was dealing with a lot of fatigue problems. It was a unique situation, because the fatigue wasn’t just a result of running around; it was my muscles getting tired from all the pushing and shoving, which I wasn’t used to. At that point, I knew I had to get in that weight room to get where I wanted to be. The great thing about weight training is that it prevents injury along with making you stronger and improving your endurance. It makes your muscles that much stronger, so they don’t get hurt.
What are some of your favorite lifts, in terms of effectiveness?
Gates: I don’t necessarily like these lifts [below], but I understand what they do and how they help me. When you’re lifting, you start feeling like you’re getting strong in the weight room, and you take that confidence and mental edge onto the field with you, which I didn’t have when I first got into the league. Now I know I’m strong enough to go head to head with anyone.
The Antonio Gates Workout
Med Ball Sit-Up
• Lie on back and hold med ball at chest
• Perform sit-up
• Lower with control and repeat
Med Ball Toe Touches
• Lie on back with legs pointing toward ceiling; hold med ball at chest level with arms extended
• Keeping arms straight, perform crunch to bring med ball to toes
• Lower with control; repeat
Pay off: Core strength, body control
Gates: Having a strong core is probably the number one key for a football player, and it’s the reason I made it in the league. Most people think that having a strong core means being able to show a six-pack, but that’s not the case. Being strong in the core means you can run and make plays.
• Grip bar just outside athletic stance with shins touching bar
• Assume deadlift position with back locked, shoulders up, and abs and chest flexed
• Begin initial pull by extending hips and knees
• When bar is just above knees, explode upward by forcefully shrugging with straight arms, and fully extending hips, knees and ankles
• Pull bar up, keeping it close to chest
• Drop underneath bar and catch it along front of shoulders in athletic stance
Pay off: Full-body explosion
Gates: The thing about football is that you use your lower body, upper body and everything in between. That’s what the Power Clean does. You need the strength to balance the weight—lower-body strength and power, and upper-body strength to get the weight up. Nothing else in the weight room can replicate all three of those.
• Lie with back on incline bench with dumbbells at upper chest
• Without arching back, drive dumbbells toward the ceiling until arms are straight
• Lower dumbbells with control to start position; repeat
Pay off: Improved blocking and releases
Gates: When I was playing basketball, we did a lot of lower-body work—running, jumping and squatting. We didn’t do any Bench Press or Incline Bench, though. My legs were pretty developed and strong, but my upper body wasn’t. A lift that I have learned to enjoy and appreciate is the Incline. I was using the straight bar for this exercise until I looked at tape of me playing football. I never once saw myself bench press someone off me. I always had one hand on them, wrestling them. In football, when you are competing, you don’t have the luxury of getting your hands where you want them. So I started doing the Incline with dumbbells to really isolate each arm, so each side can build stamina and strength by itself, rather than together.