He was not even certain if he’d be playing football.
Yet, 7 1/2 months after he was released by the Los Angeles Chargers, Gates was basking in the glow of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2013 following his team’s dramatic 29-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.
“Very emotional,” Gates told the team’s official website after the Chargers rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to stun Kansas City. “I think what happens is that you think about all the hard times and the things you had to go through to get to this point. I think that’s what sticks out the most. Any time you’re able to put yourself in a position where you can accomplish certain goals, I think the first thing that comes to mind is the people that did it with you.
“(The people who) went through the trials and tribulations with you, and just all the sacrifices you’ve put in, and for me, just putting into this organization.”
Gates was uncertain if he would play at all in 2018 after the Chargers informed his representatives in late April that they would not seek to re-sign the future Hall of Famer.
An eight-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, Gates had recorded only 30 receptions for a career-low 316 yards and three touchdowns in a reduced role in 2017 as Los Angeles attempted to transition into a new era with fellow tight end Hunter Henry.
However, when Henry suffered a season-ending torn ACL during organized team activities in May, it forced the Chargers to weigh their options for the upcoming season. Still, the team did not come to terms to terms on a one-year deal with the 38-year-old Gates until a week before the season opener.
Gates served as more of an insurance policy for much of the season, managing only 25 receptions for 312 yards and two scores. The touchdown total was the lowest since his rookie campaign in 2003, when the Chargers signed the former basketball player as a free agent out of Kent State.
Turning back the clock for at least one night, Gates had his second-most productive game of the season against the Chiefs, hauling in four passes for 54 yards. He provided a pair of key receptions on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that pulled the Los Angeles within 28-21.
“How about 38-year-old Antonio Gates making some big plays for us down the stretch!” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said when interviewed after the game. “The old Antonio came out! He was like, ‘Hey now! Come on!’ And I was like, ‘Shoot, (let’s do this!)'”
Gates, in his 16th season with the Chargers, moved past Andre Reed into 17th place on the all-time list with 952 catches. He already is the franchise’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards (11,820) and touchdowns (116). The latter mark is an NFL record for tight ends.
Still, despite all the individual records, Gates was bursting with pride as how the resilient Chargers clawed back against the Chiefs to clinch a playoff spot and remain in the running for an AFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the conference.
“I can’t say enough about this team, man,” said Gates. “Look how we just continue to fight. I think we still can reach our short-term goals, which is to win the division, so that’s always exciting. I think for the most part, a lot of guys don’t understand how difficult it is to win a division in this league.
“I remember us having a stretch of us winning and then we had a stretch of not winning, so to be in a position with two games, three games left and we’re obviously sitting at 11 wins, says a lot about our hard work and preparation as a team.”