One year and one day after he caught his final NFL pass, Antonio Gates formally retired Tuesday.
He spent all 16 seasons of his career with the Chargers, finishing with 116 touchdown receptions, the most ever by a tight end.
An eight-time Pro Bowl selection, Gates also made five All-Pro teams and is the Chargers’ franchise leader in catches (955) and receiving yards (11,841). He’s eligible for Pro Football Hall of Fame election in 2023.
“I find it hard to officially put this statement out and retire from the game of football,” Gates wrote on social media. “I never dreamed that I would play this game of football so long or how fortunate I would be to play it with just one organization.”
In a news release issued by the team, Gates thanked everyone from Chargers owner Dean Spanos to his own family to the team’s fans in San Diego and Los Angeles.
He also announced he would be joining the Chargers in a community relations role.
“Antonio is not only one of the greatest Chargers to ever play the game, he’s one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Spanos said in the news release. “His contributions to our organization over the course of an unprecedented 16-year career, both on the field and in the community, cannot be overstated.”
Gates, 39, appeared in his final game Jan. 13, 2019, the day the Chargers lost 41-28 at frigid New England in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
In the final minute, he caught an eight-yard scoring pass from Philip Rivers. The two connected for 89 touchdowns, the most ever for a quarterback-tight end duo.
In the team’s statement, Rivers praised Gates for his competitiveness and friendship, and expressed his love for his teammate of 15 years.
He also referenced an unofficial guideline that existed among Chargers quarterbacks.
“We would talk through the reads and the plays and they all had a ‘Gates Rule,’” Rivers explained. “It pretty much meant, if he is one-on-one, throw it there.”
After the playoff loss to the Patriots, Gates stood in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium and discussed his desire to continue playing. He finished the 2018 season with 28 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns.
The Chargers, however, opted to not re-sign him, even after starting tight end Hunter Henry fractured his left knee in the 2019 season opener and missed four games.
By that point, the team had moved on from one of its most popular players ever.
“Rewriting the record book is obviously part of it, but when you needed a big block, needed to convert that first down, needed a steadying voice in the huddle or leadership in the locker room, that was Antonio,” general manager Tom Telesco said. “He didn’t just do one thing well, he did everything well.”
Gates joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003, one season before Rivers did. Born in Detroit, Gates didn’t play football in college; instead, he was a standout basketball player at Kent State.
He earned a roster spot as a rookie, making his first catch in Week 4 against Oakland, scoring his first touchdown in Week 10 against Minnesota and producing his first 100-yard receiving game in Week 15 against Green Bay.
A decade and a half later, Gates concluded his career with a postseason touchdown on his final reception.
“Antonio was an unselfish player who had the ability to do just about everything you can think of on a football field,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “Run precise routes, pick up a key block, catch better than a receiver ….
“But it wasn’t until I had the privilege of coaching him that I saw his most important skill: leadership. His teammates always were seeking his guidance. They just wanted to be around him. … Combine all these factors, may as well start fitting Antonio for a gold jacket right now.”