Visit my website homepage, TomShanahan.Report
PHOTO: Antonio Gates Jr. scored his first career touchdown September 9 against Richmond at Spartan Stadium.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Antonio Gates Sr. prefers climbing Spartan Stadium’s steps to its upper reaches when attending Michigan State football games. The vantage point allows one of the NFL’s greatest tight ends to anonymously watch his namesake, Antonio Gates Jr.
“I get the game tickets on my own with friends, and I don’t leave my name at will call,” Gates said. “I tell my son to give his tickets to his mom – take care of her family.”
Antonio Sr., naturally, is a proud father, but he’s especially grateful his son, a Michigan State redshirt freshman receiver, has climbed above the pressure the old man strapped on his back.
“If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t name him a Junior,” Gates Sr. said. “It applies so much pressure on him, and I struggle with that. He’s been going through this since he was a child. I never had to go through that.
“That’s what I respect about him the most – to overcome it and go to a Big Ten school. To be able to play at a Division I school is not easy for any kid. I tell him how proud I am and that he has been fantastic.”
“I started hearing people yelling at him, ‘You aren’t your daddy!’”ANTONIO GATES SR.
The uglier side of fans has been an ongoing revelation spanning Antonio Jr.’s high school years playing at Detroit Fordson. Antonio Sr. sat on the visitors’ side – again, to be anonymous – and in the COVID-19 years a mask made it easier to blend in.
“I started hearing people yelling at him, ‘You aren’t your daddy!’” Gates Sr. said.
“I was amazed people acted that way. It made me want to say something, but I didn’t. I want him to be like any other kid, but he’s not. I told him, ‘You have a bullseye on your back, but I love watching you competing.’ He has thick skin. That’s what I love the most about him. He talks back sometimes but that means he’s capable of taking care of himself.”
Antonio Sr.’s success blending into the crowd may not continue as Antonio Jr’s game matures. Two weeks ago, Antonio Sr. wasn’t able to travel from California for the Richmond game. Otherwise, he might have been spotted celebrating as Antonio Jr. caught a 45-yard post pattern for his first career touchdown.
But maybe later in the season, if you see a big guy reveling over a Gates Jr. play, that’s him. Another way to identify Gates Sr. is by the Pro Football Hall of Fame glow about him. In his first year of eligibility, he’s a leading candidate for election during Super Bowl week. He holds the NFL career record of touchdown catches by a tight end with 116 in a 16-year career.
PHOTO: Antonio Gates Sr. owns the NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end with 116 in a 16-year career.
This interview with Gates Sr. was arranged before the news broke that led to former Michigan State coach Mel Tucker’s suspension and dismissal over a sexual harassment charge. But Gates went ahead with the interview and was willing to comment on his role as a father helping his son cope with the ongoing controversy.
“It’s difficult for him because Mel Tucker is the reason he went to Michigan State,” Gates Sr. said. “Mel was headed in the right direction, and I felt he was doing a good job of directing young men. But I told my son these are times when you learn lessons in life.
“I don’t know the full story, and I don’t want to delve into it, but I’ve told my son no one is immune. That’s why I consistently talk to him about making the right decisions. I’ve told him what you say or do is very important. I’ve alluded to, ‘You have sisters. You have to respect all women.’ No one is immune from the trials and errors of life.”
Although Antonio Jr. inherited has father’s athleticism as a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, he, unlike his father, gravitated to football from a young age. Antonio Sr. loved basketball to the point of walking away from a Michigan State football scholarship to embark upon a roundabout college basketball career.
As a result, Gates Sr. tells his son to listen to experts, not the people around him whose opinions carry no more weight than well-meaning sycophants.
Gates Sr. long ignored advice telling him his pro sports future was football as a tight end or linebacker – not basketball as a 6-foot-4 power forward. But he was seduced by basketball praise from those around him while leading Detroit Central to a 1998 state title.
One expert Gates Sr. ignored was Nick Saban, who recruited him as Michigan State’s coach, 1995-99. Gates committed in 1998 with a plan to also play basketball for Spartans coach Tom Izzo. But as his redshirt freshman football season unfolded, Saban stepped up the message he needed to drop basketball and focus on school and developing his football potential.
“He told me I could be a first-round draft pick,” Gates said.
Gates looks back upon those confused days feeling Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo deferred to Saban and the sport funding his scholarship. At the time, Izzo wasn’t the established face of the athletic program he is now.
After Gates left Michigan State, he bounced between Eastern Michigan and College of the Sequoias in California until he found his basketball haven as a junior and senior at Kent State.
He earned All-American honorable mention his senior season while he averaged 20.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. His play led the Golden Flashes to the 2002 NCAA Elite Eight. Kent State beat No. 20 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Alabama and No. 8 Pitt before falling to No. 5 Indiana.
PHOTO: Antonio Gates Sr. rose above the crowd as an All-American basketball player at Kent State and All-Pro tight end with the San Diego Chargers.
But despite his success, NFL scouts who came to see him play far outnumbered NBA scouts. He was told he might not be one of 15 in the NBA, but even as an undrafted free agent he was one of 52 in the NFL.
“I should have listened to Saban. If I had, I probably would have been a first-round draft pick. Nick Saban was just trying to show me the right way, but I had my own vision.”ANTONIO GATES SR.
He finally gave in, signing with the San Diego Chargers. He went from third string to starter his rookie year, in 2003. Then began a run of three straight first-team All-Pro seasons, 2004-06, and over his career eight Pro Bowls.
One day in 2004 after practice I interviewed Gates for a Chargers.com story. He told me, “I should have listened to Saban. If I had, I probably would have been a first-round draft pick. Nick Saban was just trying to show me the right way, but I had my own vision. What he was trying to get across to me made sense as I got older, but back then I was a 17-year-old kid going to college who wanted to play basketball.”
Apparently, Saban – and arguably justifiably so — wanted to hear the admission face-to-face. Saban was the Miami Dolphins’ head coach when Miami traveled to San Diego in 2005 to play the Chargers. They talked after the game.
“He said, ‘What do you think about that football choice now? You we’re an all-pro, but you couldn’t see it.’”
Although Gates made the transition look easy, he explains it was more difficult than fans understand.
“A lot of people think because you’re the best athlete it’s easy to do,” Gates said. “I learned these guys are faster and stronger than I thought. More importantly, their lateral movement was impressive.
“People misconstrue if you can run and jump you can play football. I had to learn toughness. I dislocated a finger and had a high-ankle sprain my first year, but I still had to play and perform.”
He has long admired that football toughness in his son, but those distant seats at Spartan Stadium taught him something else unexpected.
“I’m really enjoying sitting up there,” he said. “I like being out there among the fans in the Big Ten college football atmosphere. It’s fun. I didn’t have that experience.”
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.
Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.
Click here to purchase The Right Thing To Do
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s
Foreword by Ruffin McNeill
Click here to purchase Raye of Light.
RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy