Touchdown-maker Antonio Gates set standard for pass-catching tight ends

Cruz: Gates a phenomenal person and player (1:21)

Victor Cruz and Matt Cassel reflect on Antonio Gates' career now that the tight end has announced his retirement from the NFL. (1:21)

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- A prescient Nick Saban predicted Antonio Gates' career path when he was just a freshman at Michigan State.

Saban, then the head coach for the Spartans, recruited Gates to play football. However, he viewed Gates as a twitchy, pass-rushing defensive end. Gates, who had focused on basketball all his life, had other plans.

He wanted to play both sports at Michigan State. So he moved on to Eastern Michigan and then Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to the 2002 Elite Eight as a junior.

However, Saban offered Gates a few words of wisdom before they parted ways.

"In hindsight looking at it, he was a genius," Gates said. "I was 17 years old, wanting to play the game of basketball. I hadn't even turned 18 yet when I had this conversation with Nick Saban. He just always felt like my God-given abilities and the attributes that I was blessed with were very suited for what they were looking for on the next level [of football] -- the professional level."

Gates later faced Saban's Miami Dolphins in the NFL. He finished with 13 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown in a 23-21 loss during the 2005 season. The two met in the middle of the field afterward.

"He asked me after the game, 'What did you think about that choice for football?'" Gates said. "The guy was a genius. He told me I was a first-round pick. I didn't believe it in a sense. I just wanted to play the game of basketball."

Gates' choice proved Hall of Fame worthy. After 16 seasons, all with the Chargers, Gates retired this week.

Considering his numbers, he was among the best to play the position. He's No. 3 among tight ends for total receptions (955) and receiving yards (11,841), behind Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.

Gates ranks first in league history among tight ends with 21 career multi-touchdown games and fourth in the NFL with 21 100-yard receiving efforts. His 39 touchdown receptions on third down are the most in league history for a tight end and tied with Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter for No. 3 overall.

According to Gates, what set him apart was his ability to get in the end zone. He ended up with 116 career touchdowns, tops for a tight end in NFL history.

Throughout his career, Gates was nearly impossible to guard in the red zone. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 92 of Gates' touchdowns came in the red zone -- second all time and most of any player since he entered the league in 2003.

To hear him tell it, what made Gates unique was his ability to create separation with the precise body control developed on the hardwood floor as a smallish, wide-bodied, low-post player at Kent State.

Gates points to his basketball acumen for his unique ability to get open in the red zone, using soft hands and leverage to create separation against linebackers or safeties, or sometimes both.

"As I evolved to become the red zone threat, I noticed that every other team had started looking for red zone threats at that position," Gates said when asked to make his case for the Hall of Fame. "That would be the majority of my case. The thing that I've always had in terms of respect is more respect from defensive coordinators than any other tight end in the history of the game.

"I've watched film on tight ends. I've watched film on all of them. I can recall playing a team and they did something, then when they played the Chargers, they didn't quite do it the same. I feel like there was a ton of respect.

"For the most part, I was always faced with a defensive back. It was very rare that I got the opportunity to go up against a linebacker. Very rare. ... Anytime I look at who's the best or who is considered to be in the Hall of Fame, I consider the level of respect that coordinators or teams gave that particular person. That's how I would like to be judged. That's how I would explain it to [selectors] in Canton."

Gates wanted to play one more season, but he could not find the right opportunity in free agency last year. The 39-year-old said the Indianapolis Colts provided the best chance in 2019, but after they fell out of playoff contention, he decided to hang up the cleats.

"It was a very difficult choice," he said. "Not for the simple fact of the word 'retiring,' but the whole idea of it. The whole 'I don't have any more left in the tank.' ... I just felt like it was just time to move on to the next chapter in my life. I felt like I gave the game of football all that I had. I gave the [Chargers] organization all that I had. It was just time to move on."