He has two of the surest hands in NFL history, but only now does Antonio Gates fully grasp what his little sister meant to him.
The All-Pro tight end, beginning his 12th season with the San Diego Chargers, sat at his locker Tuesday and reminisced about his 22-year-old sister, Pam, who died last month after a three-year battle with lupus. She had been in a coma for several weeks after suffering her second heart attack. Gates missed all the Chargers’ off-season workouts so he and his family — his parents and two other siblings — could be at Pam’s bedside at the Cleveland Clinic.
"We didn’t know what was going to happen," he said. "We didn’t know what to expect. All we knew was we had an opportunity to be there as a family, and that’s all we could do."
The memories flood back for Gates, 34. He’s somber, but there’s no catch in his voice. He shed countless tears during that weeks-long bedside vigil, but there was powerful bonding, too.
"It changed me a whole lot in terms of communicating with my family, being involved more with my other siblings," he said. "It just taught me a valuable lesson about sometimes you’ve got to give flowers while people are still here to appreciate them."
That was never an issue with Antonio and Pam. They had a close relationship, and she frequently made the trip from Detroit to visit him in San Diego. He, in turn, spoiled her, first buying her a car, then a truck, so she was as safe as possible when driving to and from dialysis in those harsh Michigan winters.
"I would buy her everything she wanted," he said. "When she wanted something, I’d tell her no. She’d keep asking. I’d keep saying no, until I had to say yeah.
"She’s the baby," he said with a shrug, smiling and staring into the distance. "She was more like a daughter in a sense. That’s how our relationship was.
"I can vividly remember my daddy used to send me to the store for her. She wanted something, and she’d ask my dad, and he’d make me go. She wanted candy. She wanted a certain juice because the other wasn’t a flavor she liked. You know how little girls are with their daddies."
As Pam grew, so did her admiration for her big brother. He was a trailblazer in the family; he went to college. She was determined to follow in his footsteps, so she went to college, too, attending Marygrove College in Detroit.
Thanks to her famous big brother, who sends money back to the family in Michigan, Pam grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. Antonio was raised in the inner city.
"At her funeral, she had tons of people from universities and neighborhoods that we didn’t even know, people speaking and saying how much they were involved with her," Gates said. "She was an unbelievable person. She was a very funny person too. We were actually laughing at the funeral. Couldn’t stop laughing. Something had happened that was funny, and we were in the front row just cracking up. It was kind of like part of her was there."
As Pam lay comatose and the family worked out a schedule so at least one of them could be with her around the clock, football felt two worlds away for Gates. He got encouraging and sympathetic texts from teammates and gave serious consideration to retiring.
"It definitely crossed my mind," he said. "It wasn’t like I wanted to be done with football. But football was not the most important thing in my life at that point. I just felt like being there for my family was more important.
"At that time, I regretted certain things about how much time I spent in California. I thought, ‘At this point in my career, I don’t need to be at [off-season workouts].’ Not when I have a sister on life support."
Coaches, teammates and the rest of the Chargers organization gave him all the time he wanted. They were unwavering in their support.
"He felt the weight of all of it on his shoulders," said quarterback Philip Rivers, who is as close to Gates as their side-by-side lockers. "It was hard on his family, and he was trying to help everybody cope with it and yet he was having a hard time too. I didn’t talk to him a ton, but I texted him a lot. I didn’t really know what to say â how much can you say ‘Sorry’? I would just text him, ‘Love you, man. Thinking about you. Praying for you.’ I’d send him a picture of the practice field, saying, ‘We miss you.’"
Now, engulfed by the mundane chatter of the locker room, Gates is immersed in the familiar preparation for another season. Even in the twilight of his career, he figures to be a huge factor for the Chargers this fall. He had a team-high 77 catches last season for 872 yards and four touchdowns.
An eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a five-time All-Pro pick and a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s, Gates stands a good chance of winding up with a bust in Canton, Ohio.
"He’s probably one of the quickest stop-start guys you’re going to find in the league, no matter what position," fellow Chargers tight end John Phillips said. "He kind of changed the way tight ends were perceived."
Gates’ path to the NFL was almost unbelievable. He was an All-America basketball player at Kent State who didn’t play collegiate football. He was convinced he was headed for the NBA, even though the vast majority of interest he got came from NFL scouts. Although he went undrafted by both leagues, he wound up signing a free-agent contract with the Chargers and was an All-Pro by his second season.
After NFL games, players typically mill about on the field, mingling with the opposing team, reconnecting with friends and foes from their college days. Gates doesn’t have that.
"I never played with these guys in college," he said. "Never played against these guys in college. So when I got to the NFL, I didn’t have anybody to speak to after games. It’s kind of like you’re in your own world, a lonely world."
In a sense, the sadness Gates experienced this off-season served to deepen some of those NFL relationships.
"Most of our interactions, all of our teammates, it’s playing football, it’s cutting up, it’s laughing," Rivers said. "And now it’s kind of like, ‘Gosh, your buddy’s sister died.’ So I think you realize your friendship and being a teammate is a little more than just making jokes in the locker room and throwing some passes."
Gates struggles to process the surge of memories. As much as he has tried to recover emotionally, he still turns to the spirit of his sister.
"I try to put myself in a place where I would know what she’d want me to do," he said. "I use it as a motivation."