He has been such a fixture around this team that, sitting in the visitors’ locker room late Thursday night, he fit in as completely as a wadded-up Chargers jersey ready to be laundered.
Looking at Antonio Gates, it was hard to remember that he spent the offseason off the team and didn’t re-sign until only a week before the opener.
Were it not for an injury to tight end Hunter Henry, Gates would have experienced this season just like every other Chargers fan — from the outside and at a distance.
“I think it’s worked out for both parties pretty well,” he said at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. “I came back and here we are, at 11-3 with an opportunity to go to the playoffs. Yeah, I’m glad I came back.”
Gates, 38 and in his 16th season, is returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
He was with the Chargers more than a decade ago when they finished first in their division five times in six years. That streak ended in 2009. They haven't won a division title since.
“A lot of guys in here don’t understand how difficult it is to win in this league,” Gates said. “To be in this position with two games left, says a lot about our hard work and preparation.”
The Chargers still could win the AFC West. They need to beat Baltimore on Saturday at home and Denver on Dec. 30 on the road, and have Kansas City lose one of its final two games.
Regardless of what happens in Weeks 16 and 17, they are bound for the postseason after a 29-28 victory over the Chiefs, a win secured in the final four seconds.
“You think about all the hard times and things you had to get through to get to this point,” Gates said. “That’s what sticks out the most. I think the first thing that comes to mind are the people who did it with you, all the sacrifices you put in.”
He is the team’s eldest voice of historical perspective, becoming a Charger one season before quarterback Philip Rivers.
When he made his NFL debut in 2003, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn was in his first season as a full-time position coach, working with Jacksonville’s running backs.
Safety Derwin James had turned 7 and the Chargers backup quarterback was Doug Flutie, now 56.
So when Gates talks about the belief he and his teammates have built with their recent comeback victories and late-game playmaking, he is doing so as someone who also can talk about twice finishing 4-12 as a Charger.
“We just kept going and going and going,’’ Gates said after the Chargers scored 15 points in the final 3 minute 49 seconds to top Kansas City. “To me, that’s contagious. That’s how you win games in this league. That’s how you win championships in this league.
“At the end of the day, we never stopped believing in the guy next to you, to your left and your right. I don’t think one guy on that sideline was doubtful that we could come back to win.
“You start seeing reinforcement when you win these games. You start believing even more. I think that’s what’s happened.”
Gates will set a career-low for starts this season. He has zero and likely will finish with zero.
But he has been an effective alternate option for Rivers, catching 25 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns.
Gates also had one of the Chargers’ two two-point conversions during their comeback Dec. 2 in Pittsburgh.
Against the Chiefs, he caught four passes for 54 yards. Three of Gates’ receptions resulted in first downs.
“My heart is with the Chargers,” he said. “It will always be here. I knew we had the team and the ability to do this. To be a part of it now … words can’t really explain it because I understand how fortunate you are to play in this league, let alone be on a team that has a legitimate shot.”
Rookie defensive tackle Justin Jones recently said the 2018 Chargers remind him of being in high school, so tight and committed to one another are the players.
Rookie running back Justin Jackson likened the team’s last two night games to playing in high school, explaining that he felt like he had just made the varsity again.
Gates graduated from Central High in Detroit last century.
“I wanted to be a part of this family again,” he said. “And now we’re in this great position together. When you have these opportunities, you have to embrace them.”