METAIRIE, La. – When Drew Brees first saw Antonio Gates on the practice field with the San Diego Chargers, the hopes weren’t high.
In fact, you could say Brees, then the Chargers quarterback, didn’t have any hopes at all for Gates, a former basketball player at Kent State with no football background.
“I remember when he first got there as an undrafted free agent, he was an experiment, I was like this guy will never make the team,” Brees said.
Seven years later, Brees once again was in charge of breaking in a former basketball player.
Only this time, Brees had experience with just that type of situation thanks to Gates. And Jimmy Graham was the beneficiary of it.
“I remember kind of my first day with him right after rookie camp,” Graham said. “I remember coming here and that’s the first thing that he told me. He said, ‘Listen, I remember where Gates was when he first got into the league and I was there for his first start. And I’m going to work with you every day. I’m going to work with you as much as I can so that we can try to get that connection because I think you’re going to be a special player, you’re a special athlete and I believe in you.’ ”
Sunday night, Graham’s New Orleans Saints will host Gates’ Chargers and the third-year tight end out of Miami will once again be able to thank the elder statesman for paving a path for him into the NFL.
“He’s one of the main reasons I got an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Graham said. “Without him, I wouldn’t have even been given this opportunity or even been given the opportunity to play in college. He paved the way for me. I know that.”
As much as Graham has done in his first two-plus seasons, he has a long way to go to catch up to Gates. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound 10th-year veteran is San Diego’s all-time receptions leader and has been voted to eight Pro Bowls. His 76 touchdown receptions are second-most in San Diego history.
“I see a lot of similarities between him and Jimmy in just how much basketball can help them in regards to the body control and body position and suddenness and going up and attacking the ball, just like you would in the paint in basketball,” Brees said.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers echoed Brees’ thoughts, saying he’ll throw high passes that only Gates can catch.
“It’s amazing to see, but you really see how the basketball benefits them and benefited them in this game at that position from a route-running standpoint, body position and I know I’ve certainly thrown Gates a lot of high balls he’s gone up and gotten,” Rivers said.
But Graham can fall back on one year of college football, something Gates couldn’t. Graham played his senior season at Miami, a year in which he said confidence was built and an opportunity to learn without pressure was taken advantage of.
The fruits of that work blossomed in 2011, Graham’s second year in the NFL. He set a single-season franchise record with 99 catches and finished with the second-best season by a tight end in NFL history with 1,310 yards, getting passed only on the final day of the regular season by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Graham still calls himself an experiment. In spite of his 24 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns, he still has had head-scratching drops in games. He’s still learning how to be a consistent blocker, as well.
Yet, he’s accomplished something he set out to when he started this crazy journey – change everyone’s image of him as a basketball player trying to play football.
He has done that with at least one person. Gates wasn’t aware of Graham’s basketball background.
“I was always trying to change the image and not to be called a basketball player anymore so that’s an honor that he says that he just knows me as Jimmy Graham the tight end,” Graham said. “That’s pretty cool.”