He pulled on his No. 85 jersey and lightning-bolt helmet Wednesday, Antonio Gates doing something so familiar yet something that came very close to turning foreign.
Before the first practice of his 16th NFL season, the future Hall of Famer admitted he had given up on the idea of his career with the Chargers lasting beyond a 15th season.
“The expectations were I wouldn’t be back here,” Gates said when asked if he thought he’d ever wear the team’s colors again. “They moved on. I gave them the best 15 years I could possibly give them. So, no, I didn’t.”
That was in March, when the Chargers made it known they had no intention of re-signing Gates.
The circumstances changed in May after Hunter Henry suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.
Soon thereafter — until Gates agreed to terms on a one-year deal Sunday — the speculation was he would, in fact, rejoin the team. It took until a week before the season opener for the sides to finally come together.
“I wanted to be a part of this family,” the 38-year-old said. “This will always be family to me. So it’s like forgiving your family member and then moving forward. … I wanted to be here and our goals are the same.”
Gates said he received interest from other teams as a free agent, but nothing appealed to him more than rejoining the only NFL team for which he has ever played.
Exactly how much he’ll now play Sunday against Kansas City remains unknown. Coach Anthony Lynn said Gates’ conditioning will determine his availability. The team will monitor the situation over the remainder of the week.
Transitioning back into the Chargers’ system shouldn’t be an issue, even if Gates hasn’t been around the team regularly since January.
He is the franchise leader in catches, touchdown receptions and receiving yards. Measured in touchdowns, he and Philip Rivers are the second-most accomplished receiver/quarterback duo in NFL history.
“It’s good to see him again,” Rivers said. “It’s funny. With a guy like that who’s been here that long, it’s like he never left. It’s like he’s been here all preseason, all training camp.”
Gates is coming off a year in which he caught 30 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns, single-season totals that are among the lowest of his career.
But with Henry out and Virgil Green the only other veteran tight end on the roster, Gates could become a more popular target, particularly near the end zone.
Green, a free-agent addition formerly with Denver, is considered more of a blocker than receiver.
“He’s a Hall of Fame player, one of the best tight ends in the game, so him being out there, you have to pay attention to him on defense,” wide receiver Tyrell Williams said. “He’ll make an impact, like he always has.”
The Chargers finished the preseason with several players dealing with lingering health issues.
Their initial injury report, though, listed only two — defensive end Joey Bosa and defensive tackle Justin Jones — apparent confirmation that the other various ailments aren’t serious.
The team reported that Bosa (foot) was limited in practice Wednesday while Jones (ankle) participated fully.
Bosa missed all four preseason games, as did starting cornerback Trevor Williams.
Entering his third season, Williams didn’t sound concerned about his readiness for Sunday.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” he said. “You might not have ridden a pedal bike in a year, but once you get on top of a bike and get that first motion and turn, it’s how it used to be.”
Williams said the biggest challenge will be his conditioning.
“Don’t want to overthink it too much,” he said. “Football is football.”