SAN DIEGO, (AP) - Antonio Gates is five catches away from lifting Charlie Joiner's San Diego Chargers team record for receptions.
Joiner is convinced the record couldn't be headed for a more sure set of hands.
"I love it," said Joiner, a Hall of Famer who's the Chargers' wide receivers coach. "I don't think there's a better person in the world to do it than Gatesy — great professional, great athlete, great player. All the good adjectives you can describe Gatesy ... magnificent. He's all of them."
The star tight end has 582 career catches going into Sunday night's home game against the Baltimore Ravens and their tough defense. Joiner had 586 catches from 1976-86, the final 11 seasons of his 18-year NFL career.
"Believe me, records are made to be broken," Joiner said. "That's why they're out there, for people to come after them. Like I said, I can't think of a better person to do it than Gatesy."
Gates would have had the record weeks ago if not for painful plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for several games late last season and earlier this year. He's starting to look like the Gates of old, a three-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler. He's tied with Vincent Jackson for the team lead with 53 catches, and is second with 601 yards and six touchdowns, including two in Sunday's 37-10 victory against Buffalo. All that despite being held without a catch in a loss at New England on Sept. 18 and then missing three straight games with the foot injury.
True to form, Gates isn't making this about himself.
It is quite a feat, though, for a guy who was a college hoops star at Kent State and then joined the Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted rookie because he felt he had a better chance in the NFL than in the NBA.
"Anytime you have any type of accomplishments, it's a testament to the people around you who help you get to this point," said Gates, who led the Chargers in receptions from 2004-09 and was second last year to Darren Sproles. "You couldn't do it all by yourself. I've always felt that way. The Chargers are first and foremost with them giving me the opportunity to play and me making the most of it, and it goes down the line to Norv (Turner) giving me the opportunity to make plays. When you look back at all that, I just can't believe it's happened so fast because you're in the moment and it never sinks in. Like, you hear about it, but once you're actually playing, you're still in the moment."
Once the record is his, Gates will have caught more passes in nine seasons than Joiner did in 11.
"Anytime you're mentioned in the category with someone of that stature it's always a privilege," said Gates, who has 7,606 yards receiving — a 13.1 average — and 75 touchdowns in his career. "I think that's an honor itself, let alone passing his record. Just being mentioned in the same category of a guy who's in the Hall of Fame is an honor."
Gates' teammates know what he's gone through with the plantar fasciitis and other foot injuries in previous seasons.
"Numbers like that reflect the willingness to perfect your craft, to gut through some times when maybe you shouldn't have been on the field but you were anyway, and dedication to your career and your teammates," center Nick Hardwick said.
"The plantar fasciitis, the toe a couple years back, he's played through a ton for a position that's all footwork," Hardwick said. "He's been impressive and a good example for young guys of how to know your position inside and out and impose it on your opponents."
Gates was a target for Drew Brees for three seasons and has been one of Philip Rivers' favorite targets for the last six.
"I'll be happy to be a part of it," said Rivers, who's had his locker next to Gates' for years.
"He's a special player and he's earned every reception he's gotten," the QB said. "It'll mean a lot to him now, but it'll mean a great deal more when he's done and he can look back and think, `I went from a guy who didn't play college football and here I am a franchise leader in receptions.' That's pretty impressive."
Despite being affected by injuries, Gates has never gone down the woe-is-me road.
"I think what happens is when you deal with injuries and you deal with pain you learn to appreciate the game itself," Gates said. "You learn to appreciate the abilities God has given you. Personally, to be able to get back out there and do the things I know I'm capable of doing, it gives me a sense of appreciation of this league, and of the abilities I was given to go out and run and catch and make plays with the football."
Said Rivers: "He's the ultimate competitor. And in saying that, the ultimate competitor not in competing to get records like this, but just in wanting to go out and play and help us win. When you approach it that way, usually things like this get accomplished. So he's done it the right way."
Gates was on the Kent State team that came within one win of the 2002 Final Four.
"I can't say I remember him necessarily shooting the ball or whatever, but I remember that team when he was at Kent State, playing Indiana and I think Alabama," said Rivers, who grew up in Alabama before playing at North Carolina State.
Rivers and Gates were just talking about playing each other in hoops a few years ago.
"We played a little H-O-R-S-E and a little light one-on-one. But I didn't fare too well in the one-on-one. I was OK in H-O-R-S-E," Rivers said. "He definitely lives up to the hype. He can still shoot it and play. He's just so quick. I couldn't guard him. That was the thing. It wasn't the post-up. It was just how quick he was with the ball in his hand."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.