Gates too fast, big for most defenders

SAN DIEGO -- Here's the strange thing about Antonio Gates:

There are more than 1,600 players in the NFL. And while the league's rosters are dotted with alma maters like Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Tuskegee and New Haven, most of those athletes making a living in professional football actually played the game in college. Gates did not.

"It's pretty amazing," says Donnie Edwards, Gates' teammate on the San Diego Chargers. "He played high school football, but everybody plays high school football -- I mean, the guy down the street working at 7-11 played high school football."

Marty Schottenheimer, the Chargers' head coach, counts himself among the amazed.

"Let's be realistic here," Schottenheimer says. "To suggest that the young man, now halfway through his second year of professional football, (could reach) the level to which he's come is quite remarkable."

The level is, quite simply, the highest the NFL has to offer. The Chargers tight end has caught 69 passes for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns. Only Tennessee's Derrick Mason (70 catches) and Philadelphia's Terrell Owens (13 touchdowns) top him in the two categories.

Gates caught two of those touchdown passes on Sunday -- both in the fourth quarter -- in the Chargers' uplifting 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. There is no one hotter in football; Gates has eight touchdowns and 25 catches for 302 yards over the last four games.

For the record, the mark for catches by a tight end is 96 by the New England Patriots' Ben Coates in 1994 and the last tight end to lead the NFL in catches was the Raiders' Todd Christensen, who had 95 in 1986. Gates is on pace for an even 100. And since 1961, only five tight ends have caught more than 11 touchdowns in a season.

"It's definitely a blessing," Gates says. "It's something that amazes me. Everything is based on fit. I just had the right fit, the right look for the NFL."

There was a time when the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Gates thought he'd be an NBA power forward -- when he was carrying Kent State to the Elite 8 in the 2002 NCAA Tournament. But, as Gates says, the fit just wasn't right. The Chargers couldn't be happier.

Sunday's Chargers-Chiefs game featured Gates and Kansas City counterpart Tony Gonzalez, who had eight catches for 105 yards in the contest. Before this season, Gonzalez was considered the preeminent basketball player-turned football player in the league. Now, based on his statistics in both sports, that honor has passed to Gates.

While Gonzalez played both sports at the University of California, he was only a part-time basketball starter and averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds during the mid-1990s, which included a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

Another tight end, Indianapolis' Marcus Pollard, preceded Gates' path to the NFL as a hoops player with no collegiate football experience. In two seasons at Bradley, he averaged 7.3 points a game.

Gates, however, torched some of the best schools in the country with 20-point games during his college basketball career. His 22 points led all scorers in an overtime win against the University of Pittsburgh that propelled Kent State into the Elite 8. The next season as a senior, Gates averaged more than 20 points and seven rebounds and was an honorable mention All-American.

"He was invaluable during our run to the Elite 8," says Jim Christian, the current Kent State head coach and whose first season was Gates' senior year. "He was a guy that, regardless of who we played, regardless of what conference we were in, we had the hardest guy to match up with. With his quickness and strength, he was very valuable in our run."

The only thing Gates was lacking was two or three inches. This was evident in a pre-NBA draft camp. At the urging of his agent, Gates held a private workout for the NFL scouts.

"When I would work out for the NFL scouts, it was kind of like, 'He's got good size, good speed.' I mean, it was like the right ingredients were there. And when I would do the same for the NBA scouts. It was kind of like, 'He's an in-betweener.'"

Since he hadn't played football for five years, Gates was not taken in the 2003 NFL draft. But the Chargers signed him as a free agent because his strengths on the hardwood gave him an instant advantage on the gridiron. While he was too short for the NBA, Gates is too fast for most NFL linebackers and too big for cornerbacks and safeties. The Chargers rarely get a matchup on the field that doesn't favor Gates.

Last season he contributed almost immediately. Gates started 11 games and caught 24 passes for 389 yards and two touchdowns. This year, though, has been a quantum leap. With opposing defenses focusing on running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Drew Brees has found an alternative target in Gates. The Gates-Brees combination, coupled with a surprisingly tenacious defense, gives the 8-3 Chargers the look of a playoff team.

So much of his success is a product of his mentality as a basketball player. He treats every pass as a potential rebound.

"It's absolutely the same," Gates says. "When I see the ball in the air, I'm automatically thinking attack."

Says Edwards, who is the Chargers' leading tackler. "Basketball players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, they go for the ball."

In one breathtaking sequence, Gates' past, present and future were on display. After catching a Brees pass for a touchdown against Oakland on Halloween, Gates gathered himself and -- unlike Gonzalez and some other would-be hoopologists who took a running start -- went straight up for a slam dunk over the crossbar.

"My teammates were messing with me," Gates said. "They said, 'Get something going, get some excitement going.' I said to myself, 'Let me do something different,' "

Something different: a Pro Bowl-bound tight end who didn't play football in college. Well, the scouts have noticed. The success of Gonzalez and, now, Gates has sent NFL scouts to college basketball games in search of the next power forward-turned tight end.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.