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.”
Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo reacts after his game-tying field goal attempt at the end of regulation was blocked by the Denver Broncos on Sept. 11.(Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon dives over Broncos strong safety Justin Simmons in the second quarter on Sept. 11.(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)
Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris celebrates with defensive back Chris Harris after beating the Chargers. Shelby blocked the game-tying field goal attempt.(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is sacked by Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett during the second half on Sept. 11.(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon reacts after being tackled for a loss in the third quarter of a game against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 11.(Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams (16) catches and runs for a 12-yard gain against the Broncos on Sept. 11.(Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
Bosa and Ingram consistently harassed Denver last week, finishing the game with 1.5 sacks a piece. They also collectively produced six quarterback hits, which means they spent plenty of time in the opposition’s backfield. Ex-Dolphin Chris McCain also contributed a sack. The Chargers pass rushing duo might be the NFL’s best. That means Miami’s starting tackles, Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James, will face their biggest test of the year in the season opener.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Chargers inside linebacker Korey Toomer forces Broncos running back Jamaal Charles to fumble during the second half of a game in Denver on Sept. 11.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin (12) pulls in a touchdown catch against the Denver Broncos during the second half on Sept. 11.(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Broncos inside linebacker Corey Nelson tackles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler during the second half on Sept. 11.(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Chargers inside linebacker Korey Toomer and Broncos running back Jamaal Charles look at a fumble Toomer caused during the second half on Sept. 11.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian is hit by Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget during the second half on Sept. 11.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian tries to avoid Chargers linebacker Charmeachealle Moore during the second half on Sept. 11.(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
QB Philip Rivers (22 of 33, 192 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) is among the best in the league and he has dangerous WRs among Keenan Allen (5 receptions, 35 yards, 1 TD), Travis Benjamin (3 receptions, 43 yards, 1 TD) and Tyrell Williams (5 receptions, 54 yards). Miami’s pass rush, led by Cam Wake and Ndamukong Suh, must pressure Rivers and make him uncomfortable. CB Byron Maxwell could be targeted, as he was in preseason. And FS Nate Allen will be tested. The entire secondary was suspect during preseason. The key for Miami will be the pass rush. <b>EDGE: Chargers</b>(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
The Dolphins’ 31-24 fourth-quarter victory over the Chargers last season was a byproduct of Miami’s defense forcing Rivers to commit four turnovers. Rivers only threw for 192 yards last week against Denver, but three of those 22 attempts ended up being thrown for touchdowns. The Dolphins will have a tough time stopping RB Melvin Gordon, TE Antonio Gates and Rivers’ receivers. Miami’s linebackers need to be at their best.(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson stiff arms inside linebacker Chargers’ Korey Toomer in the first quarter on Sept. 11.(Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon fumbles as Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (54), inside linebacker Todd Davis (51) and defensive end Derek Wolfe (95) make the tackle during the first half on Sept. 11.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian) eludes Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa for a touchdown run during the first half.(Jack Dempsey / AP)
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon is hit by Broncos free safety Darian Stewart during the first half on Sept. 11.(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
The Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Chargers kickoff at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium on Sept. 11.(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)
Chargers nose tackle Damion Square and the rest of the team take the field before the game against the Denver Broncos.(Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
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