The longest-tenured Chargers player, standing at the precipice of NFL history, milled about at midfield Monday night while his teammates ran through drills. He was the only one with his helmet off, and stood alone, surveying the scene.
It was a fleeting moment of reflection for tight end Antonio Gates, who has seen so much in his 15-year career. He began the night one touchdown away from breaking the all-time record for tight ends, his 111 tied with the retired Tony Gonzalez.
For Gates, the record will have to wait. History was supplanted by heartbreak. He was little more than a decoy in Denver, seldom targeted in a 24-21 win the Broncos clinched with a blocked field goal.
“It’s a very tough place to win. As a competitor you like to try to do more,” Gates said. “As tight ends we want to be more productive. I put my name on that. I don’t shy away from that.”
Gates has made his share of big plays here. Only four tight ends have caught more passes in Denver than he has —and they all wore Broncos orange.
But that was not to be on Monday night. Gates, with just two catches for 17 yards, will have to wait.
Philip Rivers and Gates have connected on 84 touchdowns, the most ever for a quarterback-tight end tandem. Gates has scored on two other receptions during the Rivers era, both thrown by running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
“I don’t have a finish line,” Gates, 37, said in a pregame interview with former teammate Nick Hardwick on AM 570. “I don’t have a destination. I’m just playing, and when it’s all said and done, they tally up the numbers and decide if you’re fit to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Gates and Gonzalez, both undoubtedly Canton-bound, were college basketball players in an era when it was somewhat exotic for those athletes to transition to football. Whereas Gonzalez was a star on the football team at California, though, Gates played basketball at Kent State and hadn’t put on pads and a helmet since high school.
Accordingly, Gonzalez was a first-round pick of Kansas City, and Gates landed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.
“I remember his first training camp back in 2003,” John Spanos, Chargers president of football operations, said of Gates. “He was fighting just to make the team, fighting for a roster spot. He was making rookie mistakes and they were coaching him up hard. To see how far he’s come now… He came into this league without even knowing if he’d make it to Year 2.”
Now, Gates is the grand old man, a savvy mentor for players such as second-year tight end Hunter Henry, who might be a rising star but barely factored into the game plan in the opener.
“We’ve got some young guys, no doubt about that,” Gates said in training camp. “I’m like, ‘What? You graduated in what? Man, I was in the Pro Bowl then. I was the No. 1 tight end in the world that year.’ Naw, it’s all fun. What we’ve been able to do over the years, me and Philip.
“Even now when people are talking to me about the way I play and what I can accomplish, in my mind I’m just still competing and having fun. I’m doing what I love to do. I ain’t thinking about, ‘Man, if I catch this one more touchdown…’ ”
That was a problem at the end of last season. Rivers and Gates were pressing, chasing that record. In the finale against Kansas City, it was clear the Chiefs weren’t going to let Gates get the record; he was frequently doubled, yet still caught five passes and scored. The full slate of games ahead of them allows Rivers and Gates to unclench and breathe.
The record didn’t fall in Denver, but if Gates stays healthy, it will. In the meantime, the 0-1 Chargers have more pressing goals.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer