Most NFL players dread the start of training camp. Who wants to exhaust themselves out in the hot and humid conditions of two-a-day practices?
Tampa Bay running back Lionel Gates does. The second-year running back may be the happiest Buccaneer at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex this year. In the weeks before training camp, Gates was acquitted of all of the charges he faced when he was arrested earlier this spring.
Gates made headlines on March 30 when he was arrested for allegedly kicking in a pregnant woman’s door, hitting her in the face and pushing her into a wall during a confrontation about whether he was the father of the woman’s unborn child, according to the arrest report filed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
He was also charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling and criminal mischief of $1,000 or more by allegedly destroying some of her property, according to the report. All were felony charges.
But Gates escaped going to jail and losing his NFL career when he was told the charges were dropped.
“I was at home in July and I got a call saying that I had been acquitted of all charges and everything is over and done with,” Gates said. “I was so happy. I got on my knees and prayed. I thanked God for putting this behind me so that my mind would be clear for camp. All I can focus on is football.”
Gates did not want to discuss the specifics of the incident, but emphatically said that the charges in the police report were dead wrong.
“It was bogus,” Gates insisted. “All of the police report stuff was bogus. It wasn’t true. I don’t want to get into the specifics of it because it’s over. But I would never put my hands on another female. I have a mother. I have nieces. I wouldn’t want anything like that to happen to them. I had a confrontation with that woman, but it wasn’t physical at all. It just got blown out of proportion.”
The 6-foot, 223-pound Gates has been impressive in the first three days of Tampa Bay’s training camp, ripping off several big runs while showing a good mix of speed, power and receiving ability. Gates says the bounce in his step is from the good news he received from the courts, which has given him a new perspective on his freedom and football.
“I was acquitted of all of those charges,” Gates said. “It was a big mess, man. I thank God that it is all behind me now and I can focus on football. It was a big nightmare for me and my family.
"[The acquittal] gives me energy. Every day I come out here I get excited. My situation could have gone another way. Look at the Michael Vick situation. I just thank God that my team supported me, Coach Gruden and the owners supported me. I appreciate that. That’s what helped me get over it.”
The Buccaneers had no official comment regarding Gates' acquittal, but the fact that he is participating in training camp suggests that the team is pleased with the way his case was resolved.
In a day and age when bad behavior off the field has caused NFL teams to quickly cut or suspend some players who have had run-ins with the law, Gates is thankful that the Buccaneers stood by him and let the legal process take its course.
“At the time it happened, I thought I was going to get cut, especially with all of the stuff that’s gone on off the field in this league this year,” Gates said. “I couldn’t even think, man. It was like a big thunderstorm. When a thunderstorm happens, there is so much going on that you can’t even concentrate on the lightning or the thunder because of all the rain and the wind. It was a big storm. I was just looking for some shelter.
“I’m just thankful that I’m just playing football. Nowadays, some guys will get some minor traffic tickets and they’ll get cut. They’re out of there because you can find another guy to come in and do the job. I thank Coach Gruden and everyone for backing me all the way.”
Gates was drafted by Buffalo in the seventh round in 2005 out of Louisville after rushing for 1,475 yards (4.8 avg.) and 20 TDs backing up Eric Shelton and Michael Bush. And although he was signed to the Bucs’ practice squad on September 4, 2006, he hasn’t had the benefit of going through a whole offseason in Tampa Bay to learn the offense
Gates said that the mental anguish over his looming charges caused him to get off to a slow start in his first offseason in Tampa Bay really digesting Jon Gruden’s voluminous playbook.
“Coach Gruden demands, demands, demands that you have this offense down,” Gates said. “I came out kind of stumbling in this offense a little bit during the OTAs, but I made sure I went home this offseason and got it together.
“[The charges] really hurt me. Not only did it hurt me, it also hurt my family and friends. I’ve been playing football for a long time. I’ve got a lot of people rooting for me and cheering for me. It hurt those people, too. I just try real hard to stay out of trouble, but that was a real dagger in my heart. It took my teammates, my family and my strong supporters to get me through that. I’m a quality, character guy who gets his work done on the field.”
Gates has work to do to impress the team’s coaches and scouts and make the final 53-man roster. With Cadillac Williams as the established starter and veteran Michael Pittman as the backup, Gates is fighting for the number three running back role on the Bucs along with special teams ace Earnest Graham and this year’s seventh-round pick, Kenneth Darby, who starred at Alabama.
“I’m fighting for the third-string running back spot, I know that,” Gates said. “All of the running backs we have are qualified guys. I’m not worrying about things I can’t control. I can’t control who coach keeps and who he cuts. I just come out here and exhaust myself and give it all I’ve got.
“I have no doubt about my skills on offense. I believe I can start in this league, but right now I know my position on this team. I’m going to go out there and hustle and kick butt on special teams and get after it. That’s where I’m going to make the team.”
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