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Dearborn – Antonio Gates Jr. has only played one season of high school football and has caught a grand total of 15 passes. But college football programs are already taking notice of the rising sophomore at Dearborn Fordson.

Gates Jr. is following in the footsteps of his famous father, the future NFL Hall of Fame tight end of the same name.

Antonio Gates starred at Detroit Central in football and basketball, but never played a down of football in college. He played basketball at Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Pasadena Junior College and Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament in 2002.

The 6-foot-4 Gates went on to sign a free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers in 2003, and in 2004 set an NFL record for TDs in a single season by a tight end with 13.

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Gates has had a prolific NFL career, with 955 receptions for 11,841 yards and 116 TDs (sixth all-time and tops for tight ends). He is a free agent but hopes to play a 17th season with the Chargers this fall in hopes of getting his first Super Bowl ring.

On Monday morning it was Gates’ son who was showing his skills on Fordson’s baseball field while turf was being installed at the school’s football facility.

Gates Jr. was working one-on-one against talented senior Brandon Thomas, switching from receiver to cornerback while junior quarterback Ali Beydoun was delivering passes.

Gates Jr. opened some eyes during his freshman year at Fordson last fall, grabbing those 15 passes as his team went 10-2, including a 41-14 win over Detroit Cass Tech in a Division 1 district final. He received offers from Kentucky and Florida Atlantic on Jan. 17, then got another one from Central Michigan a week later and a fourth from Toledo last month.

Fordson showed it will be a state power once again this summer, winning 7-on-7 competitions at Michigan and Saginaw Valley State and being one of the frontrunners at Toledo.

Gates Jr. was a role player last season when he was a 5-foot-10, 170-pounder and had trouble benching 135. Now he is ready to be the go-to player. He got in the weight room and is now a sturdy 6-1, 180 pounds, benching 205.

“I wasn’t on the field that much last year, but this year I’m one of the primary receivers,” Gates Jr. said. “I’m looking to do some great things this year. I learned last year when I was a freshman that you had to have a heart of a lion, especially when you’re going up against seniors. You have to think fast. You can’t play around with the big boys. It’s definitely not Little League.”

Gates Jr. said the game is slowing down for him with a year of experience under his belt.

“It’s much easier to run routes,” he said. “It’s much easier to process things. I feel faster, stronger.”

Gates Jr. said his father has been a big help to him in his development as a player.

“My dad is great, he’s always in my ear – first is school – always telling me what to do, telling me how to process things in a game,” Gates said. “He just tells me to stay focused. I get together with him a lot, watch film together, just doing dad bonding things with him.

“He teaches me how to trick the DB. Some dudes are more finesse and some dudes are more strength and just physical. Sometimes you might be in a rough game, and you might be tired, and your arm might hurt and you want to use your feet – that’s the game that he teaches me.”

Gates Jr. also plays basketball, like his father did as a high school athlete.

“Basketball is my second love,” Gates Jr. said. “I’ve gravitated more to football. I just think the passion is so much different, scoring a touchdown or getting an interception, more so than making a 3-pointer or making a dunk. I’m groomed more into football because my dad’s an NFL player, but really my dad’s favorite sport is basketball, but he just became a football player.”

Fordson opens the season with a home game against Hartland Aug. 29. Walker Zaban enters his 14th season as Fordson’s head coach, guiding his team to the state playoffs the last 13 years.

Gates Jr. hopes to face Cass Tech again this season in the playoffs.

“That was big last year, going up against Kalen and Kobe King (Cass Tech twins),” Gates said. “I played with them (King twins) in Little League (Michigan Bulldogs), so just being able to battle with Kalen this year will be exciting.”

Fordson and Cass Tech have met in the state playoffs the last five years so a head-to-head matchup with Cass Tech three-star junior receiver/cornerback Kalen King is a strong possibility for Gates.

Zaban expects big things from his receivers in Gates and Thomas, adding he plans to have a balanced attack with 6-1, 190-pound running back James Wheeler, along with 5-8, 180-pound Hassan Mansour.

“Antonio runs good routes and just catches the ball,” Zaban said. “He knows how to use his body. We need him to step up. We feel he’s capable of doing it, and now we just need him to go out and do it.”

Thomas and Beydoun also have high praise for Gates Jr.

“He’s an athlete,” said Thomas of Gates. “He’s pretty big for being a sophomore, so it’s kind of difficult to try and check him off the line when he’s quick and big like that.”

Said Beydoun: “Antonio is a big receiver. He’s physical and gets off the line fast. He’s a sophomore and he’s only going to get better.”

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