It was one of the NFL’s most unlikely pairings.
A former first-round quarterback and an undrafted tight end who didn’t play a single down of football at the collegiate level.
Who could have ever predicted that by the end of their time together, they’d have re-written the record books and solidified themselves amongst the best to ever play the game?
No one. That’s who.
Antonio Gates was signed by the Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted free agent following the tight end’s first and only workout for an NFL team. The Bolts saw something in Gates from the very beginning, and they weren’t willing to let him get away from them.
As I mentioned earlier, Gates played zero football in college. Prior to the NFL, he spent stints at Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, and the College of the Sequoias before landing at Kent State University in Ohio. There he played a pair of seasons, averaging 20.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists as a senior while leading the basketball Golden Flashes to an appearance in the Elite 8 and culminating in a selection as an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press.
Gates played two seasons with the Chargers before Rivers took over for Drew Brees as the team’s starting quarterback, which only makes one wonder how much more incredible their numbers could have been together had they both been starting from the beginning.
In Rivers’ first year at the helm, Gates didn’t miss a step, despite the fan base and media forecasting a drop in production with a new quarterback under center. While his numbers across the board dipped slightly, No. 85 still racked up 71 receptions for 924 yards while catching nine of Rivers’ 22 touchdowns on the year. That was good enough to earn Gates his third and final First-Team All-Pro selection of his career.
Three seasons later, thanks in part to a career-high 1,157 receiving yards from Gates, Rivers recorded a then career-high 4,254 passing yards with 28 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, which tied his career low set in 2006. He also earned the second Pro Bowl nomination of his career, his first since his rookie year in 2006.
Over the next seven seasons from 2010 to 2016, the Chargers would accumulate just one playoff appearance (2013), despite leading the league in total offense and defense during the 2010 season. In that span, Rivers threw for 30,882 passing yards and 208 touchdowns with 111 interceptions, en route to earning four more Pro Bowl nominations. At the same time, Gates visited two more Pro Bowls while recording 418 receptions for 4,969 yards and 52 touchdowns.
In the final game of the 2016 season, the Chargers took the field in Qualcomm Stadium for the very last time. Gates was currently sitting at 110 career touchdowns, just one shy of tying Tony Gonzalez’s NFL record 111 touchdowns for a tight end. From the very first whistle, it was obvious that the Chargers — who were far from being in the playoff picture — were trying their best to get No. 85 the record.
Within the first 10 seconds of the second quarter, Rivers hit Gates for a two-yard score, officially making the tight end the co-owner of the NFL touchdown record for the position. Unfortunately, despite being pelted with targets every time they’d enter the red zone, Gates was unable to set the record in what could have been “story-book fashion” within Qualcomm.
Fast forward to Week 2 of the following season, Rivers would find Gates for No. 112 halfway through the third quarter. Following the catch, the 37 year old took some extra time to savor the moment by laying on his back, arms extended to the sky as his teammates dog piled on to join him in celebration.
Gates would go on to play the rest of 2017 before playing one final year with the Bolts in 2018. After setting the touchdown record, he would record just 612 more yards and four more touchdowns before deciding to hang his cleats up prior to the 2019 season. His final touchdown catch of his career, No. 116, came on a short six-yard pass from Rivers against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 18 of that year.
When it was all said and done, and the dust had finally settled on a legendary 16-year career, Rivers and Gates combined to rewrite most of the Chargers’ record book while also solidifying their names within the NFL’s storied history.
Gates finished with 955 career catches and became just the seventh tight end to record 500 or more receptions in a career. He also became the ninth player in NFL history, and just the second tight end all time, to catch at least 100 touchdowns. The 89 total touchdowns between him and Rivers also became a new league record between a quarterback and tight end duo. His receptions mark, along with his 11,841 career receiving yards, are both still franchise records, as well.
The only thing that could have put this duo even higher on the list of the best to ever do it would have been even one single Super Bowl championship. Unfortunately, the Chargers were on the wrong end of more than one bad break in the postseason near the end of the 2000s, and the team managed just two more playoff appearances this past decade.
But even without the hardware, Rivers and Gates inspired an entire generation of Chargers fans, and that includes the guy who is typing this.
So here’s to Nos. 17 and 85, two guys who made one of the most difficult sports in the world look so dang easy.