Wild holdouts couldn't drag Gates away from practice
June 10, 2005
By Clark Judge
The San Diego Chargers are back at work this weekend, and it's not star quarterback Drew Brees or All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson who draws your attention. It's Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, and for the most basic of reasons.
Simple as that. The guy is the team's only unsigned veteran, yet instead of pulling a Terrell Owens or Javon Walker, he's not only visible -- he's in uniform, participating in every drill and catching everything thrown in his direction.
Owens and Walker have contracts, but each stayed away from minicamps. Gates, meanwhile, is at this weekend's three-day camp and also attended last month's rookie orientation, which included a full-squad workout.
"I want to get better as a player," he said after Friday morning's practice. "There are so many things I need to learn. Obviously, different personalities have different ideas about the way they should go about things, but here's what I ask: Would I get better by sitting out? I don't think so. I understand this is a business, but when the time is right things will happen for me."
Gates doesn't know when that will be. Neither do the Chargers. He hasn't signed a one-year tender of $380,000 because he wants a long-term contract that would make him megabucks. And, frankly, the club wants that deal almost as badly as Gates.
But talks have been going on since the middle of last season, with no settlement in sight. With the team opening training camp in less than two months you have to wonder: What happens to him if no deal is reached by then?
"That remains to be seen," said Gates. "I just know I'm in here every day doing what I can do." And that's what you can't help but notice.
Hey, this is a team whose first draft pick -- linebacker Shawne Merriman -- stayed away from the rookie orientation because he wasn't satisfied with the team's injury protection language. He's not here this weekend, either.
But Antonio Gates is. And last time I checked he hadn't stopped punching the clock.
"At the end of the day," said Gates, "you look at this: When things go right or wrong, did you do everything you could to make it right? And I'd feel good, regardless if something happened or not, that Antonio Gates did all he could do.
"I care about the team concept. At the same time I want to be known as a genuine teammate. That's just me. I want to be known as a guy they can depend on. When you're not here you bring doubt in your teammate's mind, and that's something you never want as a player."
There is no doubt about Gates' dependability or his abilities as a professional football player. Gates, a college basketball standout who joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, last year led the club in catches, set an NFL record for tight ends with 13 touchdown receptions and was named to the league's All-Pro team in only his second season.
No, the only question about him is whether he plays this year for $380,000 or for millions. But here's the problem: If he doesn't sign the team's tender by July 29, the opening day for veterans, he can't step onto the field -- even if he wants to. League rules prohibit it. So he becomes a holdout. And if he does sign, he risks playing for a relatively small sum of money when there are millions out there waiting to be collected.
Optimists believe a settlement will be reached because the Chargers have shown a willingness lately to throw around money to keep their playmakers. I cite their signings of Tomlinson, defensive tackle Jamal Williams, wide receiver Keenan McCardell and linebacker Steve Foley as examples. I also mention their payment of $8 million to keep Brees off the free-agent market for another season.
But then you can't help but notice that talks have been going on for months, with little progress, and wonder what that means for the future.
"We're working on negotiations," said general manager A.J. Smith. "It's business, but we're working our way through the process. I'm optimistic that by the first day of training camp we'll have a deal."
And in the meantime, you can find Antonio Gates showing up when he's asked to show up. Notice I didn't say required. I said asked, and there is a difference.
"His being here all the time is typical of him," said Smith. "He's a hard worker and loves his trade. He's said that business is business, and it'll take of itself. So he's working on being the best player he can."
Nice to see this go the other way for once. Gotta love his attitude. Says he just wants to get better and wants to be a team player that his teammates can depend on.