After a year of learning the position, Antonio Gates has solidified himself among the elite at his position. He is tied for the lead league in receptions with 62 and is tied for second in the league in touchdown receptions with nine.
"I had an opportunity to look at him a lot," said Gonzalez. "He's impressive. He's a great football player and I couldn't be happier for him."
Eight years into his career, Tony Gonzalez is the model of consistency at tight end. He has played at such a high level for so long that his production is what other teams long for. This year is no different. Gonzalez has 56 catches and five touchdowns through ten games.
The linking of these two goes even further back. They both played college basketball, Gonzalez, a two-sport star at Cal-Berkeley, and Gates, a Kent State single sport star on the hardwood.
Gates was the better basketball player. He averaged 20.6 while playing for the Golden Flashes and snared an average of 7.7 rebounds per game through his career. Gonzalez netted an average of 6.4 points and grabbed 4.3 rebounds per game.
While they both played basketball in college, they differ in how they got to the NFL. Gates was a point producing machine at Kent State. He hadn't played football in four years. He went undrafted and was signed by the Chargers as a free agent. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was drafted in the first round of the 1997 draft, 13th overall.
"Midway through my senior season in college, all these NFL scouts were coming through to watch my basketball games," said Gates. "I was wondering why they kept showing up. It didn't matter how well I played. I could score 50 points in a game, and they would still be telling me I looked like I could be a good tight end. I was wondering what I had to do to convince people I was a basketball player."
The early returns from Gates in his second year top the numbers Gonzalez put up through his first two years – perhaps like his basketball career. But Gonzalez also pounded out 33 receptions as a rookie to bring his initial two year total to 92 receptions. Gates is currently six catches behind through his first two years in the league with six games to go.
The first year was one of learning for Gates. He didn't take over as the starter until the season was nearly done. Since then he has not relinquished his role. And this year he has already surpassed the numbers Gonzalez was able to put up in his second year, 56. Gonzalez never knew a time when he wasn't in the starting lineup, a product of his successful college career in football.
Because of their basketball backgrounds, they are forever linked.
"I think the fact that they play the game well in the air," Chiefs' coach Dick Vermeil said of the two tight ends parallels. "People are always around them because it's such a constricted area. They're used to their bodies being jostled when they're going up to slam dunk or take it off the board, or take a high pass reception. I think that's the parallel that I see.
"I think that the way I attack the football, that's something I translate from the basketball standpoint," Gates agreed. "In basketball, I was going up against guys 6-9 and I couldn't just wait on the ball to come down. You have to try to get to the ball faster than your opponent. That's just something I've learned in football that just comes naturally to me. To see that ball in the air and just go attack it."
But it is their football careers that have blossomed. Gonzalez is the standard by which tight ends are measured. He is on his way to a fifth season with 70 or more receptions and has caught six or more touchdown passes in each of the past five seasons.
The lifetime Chief tight end is well on his way to challenging Shannon Sharpe for most catches by a tight end, 815.
Gonzalez wasn't ready to say that Gates' game was reminiscent of his. He sees a player with his own unique style. Always looking to get better, Gonzalez did say he was looking forward to seeing his rival to pick up some pointers on the way he plays the position.
Gates is the new blood. He has scouts flooding the hardwood to see if there is another player of his caliber to be had.
This year, teams have put a heavy focus on defending him and he has come through time and time again. His quarterback, Drew Brees, has faith in him and often uses him as a crutch – not a bad crutch to have.
"Like Tony, (Gates) has a great catching radius," said Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Now that Gates has made the assimilation into the elite, the comparisons have become inevitable. One day, it is Gates who hopes to be the player that is the standard for the type of player they want on their club. In just his second season in the NFL, he has a long way to go.
It is clear, however, that they are revered as two of the best tight ends in the league.
Denis Savage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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