It was a classic Antonio Gates touchdown catch Sunday, like so many of the 111 that preceded it.
The tight end found a seam between a safety and a cornerback in the third quarter of the Chargers’ 19-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins, used his cargo-plane-wide body to fend off defender Bobby McCain in the end zone and leaped to snag Philip Rivers’ seven-yard toss to give the Chargers a 17-10 lead.
The long wait that stretched from the offseason into the second week of the regular season was over. The 112th touchdown catch of a 15-year career moved Gates ahead of Tony Gonzalez into first place on the NFL’s list of receiving touchdowns for tight ends.
“I think Philip had his mind made up that he was coming to me,” said Gates, the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder who plays football much the way he played power forward for the Kent State basketball team from 2001 to 2003. “There was a lot of trust. We work on that play every day. It shows you that practice makes perfect.
“Philip told me before the snap to make sure you get your width. [Receiver] Keenan [Allen] was wide open. [Rivers] put one in there, and I was able to make the catch.”
A dog pile ensued in the back of the end zone in StubHub Center, as teammates mobbed Gates after the catch. Defensive end Melvin Ingram, who said “it’s a blessing just to play with a living legend,” raced from the sideline to the end zone to hug Gates and whack him upside the helmet a few times.
“Melvin is crazy,” Gates, 37, said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing out here? You’re gonna get a flag, because you’re on defense.’ ”
The party would not stretch into the afternoon. After the Gates touchdown, which came at the 8-minute 18-second mark of the third quarter, the Chargers did not score again.
“It was kind of a bittersweet, because we scored and moved forward in the game, but you still want to get a win when you get that kind of accomplishment,” Gates said. “I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it all because it happened so fast. I’m quite sure I’ll enjoy it and move forward.”
Gates said his phone was filled with text messages and voicemails from friends and family members congratulating him. One of the first to praise him publicly was Gonzalez, who taped a message that aired on the Fox NFL show and stadium video boards.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Gonzalez, who played the first 12 of his 17 seasons from 1997 to 2013 with the AFC West Kansas City Chiefs. “If someone was gonna break my record, I’m glad it’s you. Playing in the same division, going at each other twice a year, I’d like to think that pushed us both to be better.”
“It’s like steel sharpening steel,” Gates said. “Tony always brought the best out of me, and I always tried to do the same for him. He set the standard for the tight end position, and fortunately, I was able to surpass that today.”
The Rivers-to-Gates connection marked the 85th time the Chargers quarterback has found Gates in the end zone.
“Too bad it didn’t happen in a win, but it was awesome,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot of touchdowns, a lot of years, a lot of tight ends who have played in his league. It’s a special accomplishment. I’m thankful I could be part of a lot of them.”
The first 111 of those touchdowns came with the San Diego Chargers. Did it sadden Gates that his record-breaker came as a Los Angeles Charger?
“I’ve got to be careful answering that question,” Gates said, a nod to the many San Diego fans who are bitter about the team’s move. “When you put so much time and skin in the game with the city of San Diego, you feel an emotional attachment to them.
“At the end of the day, the accomplishment is still a big part of myself and my teammates, the guys who share the sacrifices, the blood, sweat and tears that people don’t see. I’m able to do it with the guys I practice with, prepare with, who I make those sacrifices with.”
Gates hopes the reaction of his teammates to the record will help the Chargers overcome the sting of two last-second losses to open the season.
“It shows the love, the camaraderie that we’ve built over time,” Gates said. “When you have those guys who care about one another the way we do, good things will eventually start happening for us. We’ve just gotten off to a slow start. Hopefully, we can turn it around.”