Monday, September 15, 2014

Antonio Gates Pays Back Chargers Brass, and Fans, With Epic Game Against Seahawks

Antonio Gates catches TD pass in win over Seahawks -
Sunday's sun-baked clash between the San Diego Chargers and the Seattle Seahawks in impossibly hot conditions at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was one of the most satisfying regular-season Charger wins that I can remember. As a Bolts fan for 30-plus years, I was thrilled to see the team beat up the gifted but gratingly arrogant, allegedly invincible Super Bowl champion Seahawks, 30-21, in a physical battle in which the field temperature was a blistering 120 degrees. 

The Chargers on Sunday lived up to my pre-season hype. I said to a chorus of doubters back in June that if this team can stay healthy, especially along the defensive line which has demonstrably improved over last year despite some early injuries, San Diego will go deep into the playoffs. 

San Diego powerfully demonstrated on Sunday that it can now compete with anyone in the National Football League, stifling the Seahawks' high-powered offense with a speedy, confident and at times dominating pass rush and blanket pass coverage. 

The Bolts also thankfully humbled Seattle's so-called "Legion of Boom" cornerbacks with a stunning ball-control offense led by a quarterback in Philip Rivers who had another almost-perfect game in a career inching closer to consideration for the Hall of Fame. 

San Diego was not the least bit intimated by Richard Sherman and the rest of Seattle's other barking defenders, who got schooled, repeatedly, by Charger receivers.

It was a true team win, but the game ball goes to Antonio Gates, the team's heralded and sometimes unfairly maligned tight end whose three touchdown catches on Sunday -- each more awe-inspiring than the last -- should go far in silencing his clueless, blowhard critics.

That's the one thing sticking in my craw even as I celebrate this big victory. Some of my fellow Charger diehards, as well plenty of so-called football fans outside San Diego who don't know anything about this team, insisted throughout the off-season and again after San Diego's heartbreaking 18-17 loss at Arizona on Monday night that Gates is finished. 

They said he was washed up. That it's time for the 34-year-old veteran to step aside and let his talented protege' Ladarius Green take over. But the people who think Gates should be traded or cut aren't just off the mark, they are insane and should be driven away in a rubber truck! 

Antonio Gates giving thanks after touchdown catch -
Gates is a special player who still possesses unique athletic skills. He led the team last year with 77 receptions for 872 yards and four touchdowns, and Sunday against the Seahawks he caught seven passes including three touchdown passes. One of them was a one-handed gem in the end zone that was as good as any catch you will ever see. Gates' three TD's earned San Diego the victory few thought would happen. 

Gates is even more dialed in this season than last, despite the dropped pass against the Cardinals last week. Respectfully, those of you who said #85  is through don't know football and you don't know Gates, who still loves the game and still makes spectacular catches. His routes and subtle jukes and cuts remain unrivaled. 

I saw this game coming. I felt Gates was ready to break out, despite a hamstring injury that limited his practice this past week. Here's why: he is healthy. And he is grateful. 

For what, you ask? Well, the Charger brass let him take as much time off as he needed to comfort his ailing sister, Pamela, who sadly died in July at age 22 after a long, courageous brave battle with lupus.

I think the compassion General Manager Tom Telesco and Head Coach Mike McCoy showed to Gates over the summer reminded Gates, who's always been an atypically introspective athlete, how much he means to this team, and vice versa. I think Gates' recent family crisis also reminded him how precious and fleeting life is.

It seems as if Antonio has rediscovered his love for football and his appreciation for his teammates and for his enviable job as an athlete in the NFL, which most men can only dream about. He also has commented on how respectful the fans have been to him during his personal ordeal the past few months.

I believe he paid the team and its fans back on Sunday with this huge game. And I hope and suspect more is on the way.

Family Ties

The Telesco-McCoy family atmosphere has been a point of positive emphasis at Chargers HQ ever since these two young leaders came to San Diego -- Telesco from the Indianapolis Colts, McCoy from the Denver Broncos. 

This crazy idea of treating players like grown men and encouraging them to bring their families to training camp and spend as much time as possible with their wives and kids was clearly behind the decision to let Charger linebacker Jarret Johnson, a leader on the defense, take time off on Sunday during this huge game to be with his wife, who had gone into labor.

When Gates returned to camp in late July after tending to his family's needs, he told reporters he was happy to back on the field with his teammates while dealing with what he described as the toughest thing he has ever had to face.

“It puts me at ease, with all the things I’ve had to deal with from my family’s standpoint and a personal standpoint,” Gates told “This is where I’m comfortable at -- competing and doing the things I’m accustomed to doing playing football. And it takes a lot off of your mind.”

I think management's compassion to Gates paid off in dividends today and will for the rest of his storied career. Gates and his quarterback and friend Rivers, who have been playing together now for a decade, are magic. They play at a level few other quarterback-receiver combinations ever reach. 

There is a bit of "backyard" to what they do together on the football field as Rivers explained today after the game. And that makes for some very entertaining afternoons at Qualcomm. If Rivers has many more games like he had today, and many more seasons like he had last year, it will be impossible to keep him out of the Hall of Fame, where everyone agrees Gates is already headed.

"I feel good," Gates recently told "That's the nature of this business, and the nature of this game. One thing I can say is I wasn't a silver-spoon athlete who got drafted in the first round. So I'm accustomed to working for whatever I earn, whatever contract or whatever situation it is. One thing about me is I'm going to compete. I've been a competitor my whole life. So it really doesn't bother me at all. Someone who says things about me -- particularly whether or not I can still do it -- they don't watch film. They don't watch practice. They're not around our organization, which to me doesn't matter."

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