It was difficult to detect at the time, but there was something extraordinary about a seemingly ordinary play in last Sunday's Bears-Jets game.
It's a milestone that the Bears linebacker will never forget due in large part to the arduous path he traversed to achieve what most only dream about.
Since concluding a stellar career at the University of Mississippi in 2017, Gates has been signed and cut by the NFL's Browns, Washington franchise and Vikings and also played in five other pro football leagues: the AAF, the XFL, the Spring League, the CFL and the USFL.
All without participating in an NFL regular-season game until last Sunday.
"I guess everybody has their own path; I just had to take the long road," Gates told ChicagoBears.com.
That road has been filled with obstacles that those with less perseverance and determination likely would have been unable to overcome. It began when he missed his senior season at Lovejoy High School in Hampton, Ga., with a torn ACL. It continued when he was not selected in the 2018 NFL Draft after leading the nation with 70 tackles as a senior at Ole Miss.
Gates signed with the Browns as an undrafted free agent but was waived before training camp.
He joined the AAF's Memphis Express in the spring of 2019. Five days after he was named the league's defensive player of the week, the AAF abruptly folded with Gates leading the league in tackles. He then signed with Washington, but once again was waived before training camp.
In 2020, Gates joined the XFL's Houston Roughnecks. He registered 32 tackles and 2.0 sacks, but the season was cut short by COVID-19 and the league suspended operations. He then signed with the Vikings March 25 but was waived Aug. 13.
Gates followed by playing for The Spring League's Blues and the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2021 and the USFL's Birmingham Stallions in 2022 before signing with the Bears in August. After spending the first 11 weeks of the season on the practice squad, he was elevated to the active roster last Saturday, one day before finally making his NFL debut, playing 10 snaps—all on special teams—against the Jets.
During pregame warmups, Gates cried while reflecting on his remarkable journey.
"Some tears dropped in the pregame," he said. "Going through all this—getting picked up, getting cut, playing in small leagues—all that emotion just came back at once. I was just trying to take it all in and I was listening to one of my favorite songs, 'Finally Made It,' by Rich Homie Quan. Just listening to that, saying that I finally got here, I finally got to where I was trying to get to."
Several Bears players and coaches rocked special footwear for the team's My Cause My Cleats game December 4th against the Packers. Take an exclusive look at each person's custom spikes, which were created to support a charitable organization of their choice.
Gates conceded there were times that he wondered if he'd ever play in an NFL game and whether it was time to find another career.
"You definitely have those thoughts," he said. "You just never know when your time is coming, so you try to stay positive and try to keep an open mind. But there have definitely been times when I'm talking with my family and asking, 'Is this really for me?' It's kind of a battle, especially when you feel like you're supposed to be in a place where you're not. That does take a toll on you, but you've just got to lock back in."
Thanks in part to the support he received over the years from girlfriend London Hatten and his family, Gates remained driven to reach the NFL. Asked what kept him motivated after getting released by several teams, he said: "Knowing that wasn't the end for me, knowing that I have more to prove and more to show."
"Going to the smaller leagues, it's great competition," he said. "But everybody knows the NFL is the best of the best and if you feel like you're the best of the best, you want to be playing with the best of the best. So it was just striving to get to this stage and be able to show that I can play in this league."
While ecstatic about finally making his NFL debut, Gates views it as just a beginning. Although he reverted to the practice squad after last Sunday's game, he's determined to get back on the field for the Bears.
"I'm still on the journey," Gates said. "I'm not done. I haven't accomplished what I want to accomplish, but being here is a blessing. I'm grateful for it and I'm trying to make the best of it."