Antonio Gates waited with the rest of the AFC players and coaches for team photos yesterday at the Ihilani Resort.

Jumping through hoops

Antonio Gates crossed over
from basketball to football,
and he’s now a Pro Bowl
tight end

Antonio Gates thought he might become the next Charles Barkley.

The only problem is there never will be another Sir Charles, and we're not even talking about his irrepressible personality.

Pro Bowl

Who: AFC All-Stars vs. NFC All-Stars

Where: Aloha Stadium

When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Tickets: Still available at Aloha Stadium box office, Ticketmaster ticket centers, Times supermarkets, Blaisdell Arena and Brigham Young-Hawaii. Also available at (877) 750-4400 and online at ww.ticketmaster.com

The NBA just is not in the market for forwards in the 6-foot-4 inch range anymore, no matter how good they are. Not power forwards, not small forwards. Not even Charles-Barkley-type forwards. Six-foot-four is short for guards these days.

Nick Saban, then the football coach at Michigan State, knew that in 1999 when he met with a talented freshman who wanted to continue playing hoops in addition to football for the Spartans.

He told Gates no basketball.

Gates told Saban no Michigan State.

Three colleges, six years and more than a half-dozen tryouts later, and Gates has learned that Saban was right all along.

He's now a Pro Bowl tight end for the San Diego Chargers. That's a lot better than being a forward in the CBA, or some other basketball minor league.

Gates happily admits Saban tried to steer him in the right direction, and he has nothing but good things to say about the man who is now the head coach at LSU.

"Absolutely. He recruited me, he signed me to a football scholarship," Gates said yesterday after the AFC practice for Sunday's game at Aloha Stadium. "He saw the big picture for me. The opportunity for me to get to know Coach Saban was a great experience. "

But so was college basketball. After short stints at Eastern Michigan and College of the Sequoias (Visalia, Calif.), Gates ended up at Kent State.

He helped the Golden Flash basketball team to its first Elite Eight appearance in 2002. In 2003, Hawaii got a taste of Gates' talent.

"He had the body for (football). He's quick and he really had a great feel for the game of basketball," Hawaii basketball coach Riley Wallace said. "I remember he had a bad knee and he still got 20-something points. He was hard to defend."

Gates has a better memory.

"I dropped 30 on the University of Hawaii, that's for real," he said yesterday.

Actually, it was 30 points, on 11-for-20 shooting from the field and 8-for-11 from the free-throw line. He also grabbed seven rebounds in Kent State's 79-78 loss to Hawaii in the inaugural Bracket Busters Saturday event.

He averaged 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds his senior year, but the only numbers the NBA seemed to care about were 6 and 4 -- the ones on the tape measure.

This is when Antonio Gates began to realize he still had options, and that Saban was probably right.

While there is no position in the NBA for someone who is 6-4 and 260 pounds, there are two in the NFL.

Defensive end and tight end.

And more raw athletes like Gates are being looked at seriously. The way the game is now, tight ends don't have to be fully-trained blockers. They can be fast, athletic pass-catchers.

ESPN football reporter Chris Mortensen said the reason is the advent of the zone-blitz defense, where defensive ends often pull back into pass coverage rather than pound on tight ends.

"Very few teams stand there and beat up the tight end anymore," Mortensen said. "It gives the tight end a free rein. A skilled tight end gets more chances to make plays."

Gates kept trying out for teams until one decided to sign him. San Diego picked him up before the 2003 season, and Gates helped elevate the Chargers into a playoff team in 2004. He caught 81 passes for 964 yards, 13 touchdowns and the attention of the entire league.

"The more I've gotten to know him, the more it doesn't surprise me. At first, it was 'Who's this guy?' He came out of nowhere. But he really didn't come out of nowhere," said Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was also known for his basketball prowess in college at Cal. "He has a strong work ethic and respect for the game. He's not a big ego guy, and he realizes what it takes to get better."

If the Pro Bowlers wanted to, they could put together a pretty good pickup squad to take on the best that Paki Park has to offer.

The NFC's Julius Peppers (Carolina defensive end) is also in his first Pro Bowl. He said it shouldn't be too surprising that good basketball players can be great football players.

"They go hand in hand, you use a lot of the same muscles and skills to play both of them. So I guess there's a lot of guys who can do both, just not at this level," said Peppers, who stood out in both sports at North Carolina. "I think it's a little easier if you're a basketball player trying to play football. (Gates) is a very athletic guy and you see what he's doing, 13 touchdowns, it looks easy for him anyway."

Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, also in his first Pro Bowl, looks forward to many more TD tosses to his undersized power forward.

"It's an incredible story, and he's a great player already," Brees said. "He's only going to get better."

Star-Bulletin reporter Jason Kaneshiro contributed to this report


Vick theatrics imminent

MICHAEL Vick and Donovan McNabb huddled in front of their lockers at Aloha Stadium yesterday, goofing on any NFC teammate crossing their paths and making plans for a night out in Waikiki.

Sure, the Pro Bowl week isn't exactly the toughest stretch of the NFL season, but Vick is taking it seriously enough that his fellow all-stars and the Atlanta coaching staff have teased him about it.

In between spending time with his family and his closest friends from around the league, Vick also is hoping to make an impression on anybody who still doesn't know what the Falcons star can do.

"Definitely, I'm focused on this game a whole lot," Vick said. "I've been thinking about it since our season ended in Atlanta. This is the first chance I'm going to have to line up against the best of the best, so if you can't end the season with a championship, this is one of the next-best ways."

Atlanta's Michael Vick, right, faded back to pass along with NFC teammate Daunte Culpepper, left, at Pro Bowl practice.

Vick has become one of the NFL's most popular, versatile and electrifying players in his four seasons, but he hasn't made a Pro Bowl appearance yet.

He was selected for the NFC squad after his breakout season two years ago, joining Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Daunte Culpepper and Tom Brady as the only second-year quarterbacks to earn a spot in the game in their first full year as starters. But Vick skipped the Pro Bowl to get a bunion removed from his right foot.

He figured he would have plenty of chances to get to Hawaii if he kept playing well -- but then he broke his leg in the 2003 preseason, and the resulting disaster in Atlanta eventually led to coach Dan Reeves' firing.

"I wasn't thinking about the Pro Bowl at the end of last year," Vick said. "That was the last thing on my mind."

Everything changed this season when Vick got back on his precocious learning curve. With their quarterback's maturity and leadership skills growing with every passing week, coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp revitalized the Falcons, who won their division and reached the NFC championship game.

"This might be his first time in Hawaii, but he'll probably be setting up camp here every February for a long time," said Mora, who's coaching the NFC squad. "With his abilities, if we can put a team around him that's going to be successful every year, there's no reason he won't be one of the dominant quarterbacks in this league."

The Pro Bowl was the last thing on Michael Vick's mind a year ago. This year, the Atlanta QB plans to show his best stuff on Sunday at Aloha Stadium.

Though McNabb and Culpepper have seniority on Vick, they won't be surprised if Vick plays extensively in the second half of the Pro Bowl, where blitzing isn't allowed and no defenders try to deliver career-ending hits. Knapp has installed a variation of the Falcons' offense for the NFC squad, and Vick knows it as well as anyone.

"He's going to have all eyes on him when he goes in there," McNabb said. "Everybody knows what he can do in a real game. Now we'll get to see what he does when nobody can blitz you. It could be scary."

Vick passed for 2,323 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, and he rushed for 902 yards and three more scores. His passing numbers weren't spectacular in his first season in the West Coast offense, but his uncanny running ability and his strong arm were more than enough to earn the respect of the players and fans who voted for him.

Vick counts McNabb and Culpepper among the players who extended advice to him early in his career, so he's particularly excited to be their teammates for the first time. McNabb and Vick also believe this Pro Bowl will be one more advancement for the acceptance of black quarterbacks.

"It says a lot about how far the game has come and how the position has evolved," Vick said. "We're getting an opportunity to show what we can do in this league. ... It shows that we're here to stay."

E-mail to Sports Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com