BATON ROUGE, La. -- Is Rico Gathers serious?
It's a question the Baylor basketball standout has heard a lot lately, since he declared for the NFL draft despite not having played football since he was 13 years old.
"A lot of people think I'm crazy," acknowledged Gathers, who is hoping to become the latest in an impressive line of star tight ends who transitioned from the hardwood to the NFL.
Gathers, who sure looks the part in a thick and chiseled 6-foot-7, 276-pound frame, thought about playing one year of college football at Baylor, like Jimmy Graham did at Miami. But then he decided to go the Antonio Gates route instead, skipping college football entirely.
Gathers figured he had already put his NFL dreams on hold long enough.
"The NFL's been a dream for me ever since I was 7 years old," said Gathers, a wide receiver in middle school in his hometown of LaPlace, Louisiana -- and a dominant one at that, he wasn't too humble to admit.
Gathers said he made a "business decision" to choose basketball over football, in large part to avoid the wear and tear on his body. That was the advice of his older brother Greg, a record-setting defensive end at Georgia Tech in the early 2000s before a kidney ailment cut short his own NFL dreams.
"When I made that decision in the eighth grade, all the high school football coaches in my area, from John Curtis to East St. John to Destrehan, they were like, 'You're crazy, man,'" Gathers said.
"They were telling my brother, 'How could you let your brother do this?' And he would have to explain my story to them."
The Gathers brothers also figured Rico could switch back to football if he couldn't resist the urge.
Sure enough, even though Gathers had a solid basketball career at Baylor -- he led the Big 12 in rebounding as a junior and was third as a senior -- he couldn't help but let his gaze wander over to the football field the past four years.
"Seeing the success that they were having, I was like, 'That could be me, man,'" Gathers said. "I could be on that team making an impact and possibly pushing for a national championship."
Picking basketball may have been all business. But this recent decision, he said, is more about passion.
"I was just to the point where I want to go back and do what I really love doing. Because football is my first passion," Gathers said. "I'm real passionate about what I'm doing, and I just want to make sure I dial in and give it my all."
Learning to be a tight end
Is Rico Gathers serious?
He sure looks that way on this Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, sweating through another workout at the Traction Sports Performance facility where he has taken up permanent residence over the past three weeks.
Gathers has been learning how to run routes all over again under the helpful direction of his regular throwing partner, NFL quarterback Matt Flynn. And he is learning how to do things he has never done -- like run a proper 40-yard dash and shuttle runs -- while preparing for an impromptu pro day at the New Orleans Saints' practice facility on Monday, three days before the NFL draft.
Flynn and Traction founder Mack Chuilli insist that Gathers will get drafted because of his upside and physical gifts. But they rave as much about his work ethic and coachability as anything else.
"He's dead serious about it," Chuilli said. "When he first started, he looked like a basketball player trying to play football. And when you watched him today, he looks totally different.
"We've seen such strides in two weeks, I can't imagine if you get him under a two-year contract what he could become."
Gathers started off in New Orleans before he switched to Traction -- in part to get away from home and immerse himself in his training.
"The improvement that I've seen the last couple weeks has been dramatic," Flynn said.
"When he first got here, he didn't know how to run a route. So he was kind of flat-footed, off-balance, didn't know how to transfer his weight in route-running, lifting his shoulders up before it broke or telegraphing his breaks. He looks so much smoother today.
"So that tells me, if he keeps working at it and gets the right coaching. ... Every NFL team is looking for a guy that physical. And if he can show that he has the talent and the ability to improve, then he'll get all the opportunities he wants."
"A lot of people will say, 'The last time you played football you were 13.' I'm like, 'That's cool. But I've got something that you just can't teach, and I work hard, and I'm an eager learner.'" Rico Gathers
Flynn, who is between NFL gigs after finishing last season with the Saints as an injury replacement, occasionally works with young prospects at Traction.
On this Tuesday morning, Flynn is preaching some of the finer points to Gathers between routes, like using his long stride to his advantage and not running too high. But Flynn also doesn't want to overload Gathers and make him think too much, since it's his natural athleticism that teams are going to want to see on display Monday.
"My first thoughts were the automatic ones you see. Just look at him, and he's a specimen," said Flynn, who was also impressed by how good Gathers' hands are.
"What he's trying to do now is something extremely hard, and he's trying to pick it up very fast and play against guys who have been doing it for 15 years. He's gonna go against guys that are putting food on the table for their family. So he's got a big learning curve ahead of him.
"But the good part is he has tools that most other guys don't have. ... I haven't seen him block, I haven't seen him in pads. But if he can block, he has a chance to be really special."
NFL is intrigued
Is Rico Gathers serious?
He seems to have a healthy dose of humility, but he can't resist showing off a healthy dose of self-confidence either. Like when he talks about an article that listed him at 287 pounds early in his training process, which he heard might concern some NFL teams.
"One thing I say about my 287 and somebody else's 287: My 287 is sexy," Gathers said with a big grin. (Chuilli marvels at Gathers' 11 percent body fat and confirms he's down to 276 pounds.)
And Gathers' wife, Bria, rolls her eyes when she hears Rico say, "If I can catch basketballs, I know I can catch pigskin footballs."
But Bria knows Rico is serious about the switch he's making -- and she's one of the few who weren't surprised when he made the decision before his senior season at Baylor.
"Honestly, I kind of saw it coming," Bria said. "He always talked about it. He always felt like he was gonna go back to (football)."
NFL teams will have to take Gathers seriously, too.
The Saints and Dallas Cowboys have already had private workouts. ESPN NFL analyst and former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said he anticipates a large turnout at Gathers' pro day because it "sounds like everybody's covering themselves."
Savage said at Gathers' size, teams might even consider him as a defensive end, but his workout will show them more about his quickness and athleticism and ball skills.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said he does not have a draftable grade on Gathers, "but he will at least get a camp look."
Gathers already is thinking like a regular NFL prospect, saying he's most eager to see what he runs in the 40-yard dash on Monday. He again showed off his confidence when he pointed out that he ran a 10-yard split in 1.51 seconds -- which he claimed was even faster than Graham's time. And he said he hopes to run his 40 in the low 4.6-second range, though Chuilli was a little more conservative, predicting the high 4.6s or low 4.7s.
"I can't wait to wow some people on my pro day," said Gathers, who already turned some heads while filming a recent segment for ESPN's Sports Science.
Gathers cleared a high bar set at 5 feet, 6 inches by producing about 9,300 watts of peak power -- the second-most ever in the Sports Science lab, behind only Adrian Peterson. Gathers' hand measured 11¼ inches, more than an inch wider than that of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. And his 83⅝-inch wingspan measured wider than Kevin Love's.
When asked what he hopes NFL teams will see that they can't resist, Gathers said, "A big body, a nice physical body who hasn't been beaten up, who hasn't took as many nicks as some of the players in this draft. A good character guy who can blend in any locker room. And most importantly, a dude who's freakishly athletic and can really do some things if some teams take some time out to really believe in him and hopefully mold him into a Pro Bowl tight end."
"A lot of people will say, 'The last time you played football you were 13,'" Gathers said. "I'm like, 'That's cool. But I've got something that you just can't teach, and I work hard, and I'm an eager learner.'
"I look at myself as a steal."