Rico Gathers Could Be NFL's Next Great Tight End, If He Can Learn How to Do It

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagAugust 24, 2017

Aug 12, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) catches a touchdown pass in front of Los Angeles Rams linebacker Folarin Orimolade (56) in the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 6'8" tight end they call Zeus has everyone gawking again. Only this time, the highest-paid practice-squad player in the NFL isn't gliding across a football field.

He's humiliating men on a basketball court.

This is familiar territory for 272-pound Rico Gathers. Just two months before signing with the Dallas Cowboys—who selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft—Gathers put the cherry on top of a banner college hoops career by breaking Baylor's career rebounding record while finishing third on the Big 12's all-time list.

But there are no stat crews on this March evening nearly one year later—no cheerleaders or television cameras at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, where 27 randoms watch from the stands as Gathers sets picks for Tony Romo and takes post feeds from Jason Witten and Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, the mammoth forward who played before thousands in the NCAA tournament and once snared 28 rebounds in a single game is now the star of a church-league squad comprised of his Cowboys teammates.

Midway through the first half, Gathers explodes past his defender, drives through the lane and soars toward the basket. Cocked behind his shoulder, the orange ball looks like a grapefruit in Gathers' large, leathery palm—almost invisible until he slams it through the hoop, scowling as he grabs the iron and bends it toward the floor.

"Wow," says Prestonwood coach Andy Alberth, clasping his hands behind his head as he paces the sideline. Alberth, who is Romo's cousin, had heard stories about Gathers' physicality on the court but had yet to witness it in person.

"He's going to shatter a backboard," Alberth says to a friend. "They'll kick him out of the league."

These moments make it clear why 26 scouts hurried to Baton Rouge in April 2016 to watch Gathers work out just weeks after announcing his plans to quit basketball and enter the NFL draft. They explain why Dallas selected Gathers even though he hadn't played football since the eighth grade.

And one year later in Oxnard, California, they're the reason Gathers has become the bearded lady of Cowboys training camp, the sideshow everyone's filming on Snapchat, one of the main players fans scream for and gossip about.

Media members request to speak with Gathers—who caught a touchdown pass in each of Dallas' first two preseason contests—almost daily. The rapper Ice Cube recently sent a shout-out on YouTube, and boxing champion Mikey Garcia (37-0) tracked down Gathers after a recent workout and asked if he could have his gloves.

It's all happening at warp speed for Gathers, whose coaches are taking extra precaution to make sure the buzz doesn't go to his head.

Gathers was scolded during minicamp for saying he was the "heir apparent" to Witten, a future Hall of Famer and one of the most respected players on the team. He was briefly sent to the locker room following a practice skirmish with linebacker Kyle Wilber. And as impressive as Gathers' scoring receptions were, tight ends coach Steve Loney constantly reminds him not to get caught up on "flash plays." Gathers' blocking, Loney says, needs work.

Lots of it.

"Has he made winning plays? Absolutely," Loney says. "He's obviously got a God-given talent, but he's got to see the bigger picture."

Gathers insists he does.

And while he realizes he still has much to learn, the Louisiana native is confident his size and natural ability will earn him a spot on the active roster.

As offensively gifted as Rico Gathers has appeared in the preseason, the Cowboys have been stressing the value of blocking.
As offensively gifted as Rico Gathers has appeared in the preseason, the Cowboys have been stressing the value of blocking.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

"I think I can make an impact this year," says Gathers, lounging in a VIP tent following a recent practice in Oxnard. "I've shown what I can do. From rebounds to touchdowns…that's what I specialize in.

"You want to score? Throw the ball my way. I'll come down with it. I'll catch it."


When his phone rang on Day 3 of the 2016 draft, Rico Gathers was hardly expecting to hear Jerry Jones' voice on the other end.

Or the voice of any NFL owner, for that matter.

Gathers knew he'd impressed teams at his pro day, but he assumed he'd go undrafted and entertain multiple offers to sign as a free agent.

"Hearing Jerry tell me I was going to be a Dallas Cowboy…it gave me goosebumps," Gathers says.

An even more meaningful conversation between Jones and Gathers occurred four months later. After logging just 12 snaps and one reception in four preseason games, Gathers wasn't surprised when the Cowboys cut him with the intention of signing him to their practice squad. The shocker came a few days after, when Oakland contacted Gathers and offered him a spot on its 53-man roster.

"It was crazy," Gathers says. "I hadn't done anything to deserve that."

Rather than earn $112,200 in Dallas, Gathers would make a league-minimum $499,990 with the Raiders. The money too significant to pass up, Gathers informed Jones he was signing with Oakland.

"Sorry," Jones told him. "We can't let that happen."

Even though a promotion to the 53-man roster in 2016 seemed unlikely, Jones matched the Raiders' offer and paid Gathers like a full-time member of the team. With one signature, Gathers became the highest-paid practice-squad player in the NFL.

After a quiet preseason last year, Gathers was cut by the Cowboys only to get re-signed soon after when he received an offer from the Raiders.
After a quiet preseason last year, Gathers was cut by the Cowboys only to get re-signed soon after when he received an offer from the Raiders.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

"We were the ones who gave him an opportunity in the league, so I think he felt loyal to us," Cowboys director of player personnel Will McClay says. "Plus, our coaches really wanted to keep him. We were seeing progress."

Indeed, as thankful as he was for the money, Gathers was even more touched by the commitment. The Cowboys genuinely believed in him and thought he had a chance to become the next Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham—college basketball stars who transitioned to football and blossomed at tight end.

"From that point on," Gathers says, "I knew my destiny was to be a Dallas Cowboy."

A study of Gathers' background suggests drafting him wasn't as risky as it might have appeared. His father is the cousin of former Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers, and Rico's older brother, Greg, ranks second on Georgia Tech's all-time sacks list.

It didn't take long to realize Rico had been blessed with his family's athletic genes. On the opening play of his first-ever football game, eight-year-old Rico scored on an 80-yard run.

"It was like that for the next five years," Greg says. "No one could stop him. It was easy for him."

And also dangerous.

By the time Rico was 13, opponents had resorted to lunging at his knees to bring him down. Greg feared an injury could set his brother back not only on the football field but also on the basketball court, where Rico's AAU squad had advanced to the national championship.

Greg convinced his brother to give up football and devote himself to the hardwood.

"I took so much flak for that," Greg says. "Football is religion in Louisiana, and Rico would've been one of the top players in the state, but in basketball he was towering over everyone and getting so much attention.

"I told him to stick with that for two years and, if nothing happened, he could always go back to football."

But something did happen, as Division I scholarship offers began to pour in after Gathers' sophomore season. Gathers chose Baylor. When he arrived in Waco for his official visit, he was greeted by Director of Basketball Operations Tim Maloney.

Despite finishing his college career as the Big 12's third most prolific rebounder, Gathers' limited NBA prospects convinced him to return to playing football.
Despite finishing his college career as the Big 12's third most prolific rebounder, Gathers' limited NBA prospects convinced him to return to playing football.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

"Are you Rico's AAU coach?" Maloney asked.

Eighteen at the time, Gathers smiled.

"No," he said. "I'm Rico."

As dominant as he was at times for coach Scott Drew's Bears—he had 17 double-doubles as a junior—almost any conversation about Gathers during a television broadcast included comments about his stature and how his build was better suited for football.

By the end of his junior season, NFL scouts were showing up at games, but Gathers remained committed to hoops. At times, the constant banter about Gathers and football became a nuisance.

"It's a slight to everything I'm doing on the court," Gathers told B/R in 2015. "I used to get so offended. I'd want to fight people. I was like, 'Man, you don't respect my basketball skills?' But now…it really doesn't bother me anymore.

"People say I should play football? For what? I don't need football."

One year later, things changed.


Earlier this month, during a visit to Canton, Ohio, for a preseason game against the Cardinals, the Cowboys took a tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While his teammates surged forward, Gathers stopped at an exhibit chronicling the career of Kellen Winslow.

"That's the man right there," Gathers said as he pointed to the statue of one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. "That's the man!"

Gathers has a long way to go before he can be mentioned among elite tight ends such as Winslow or Tony Gonzalez.

But this much is certain: Gathers' ceiling as a football player is much higher than it is in basketball, where he was pegged as a late second-round pick who may have ended up overseas.

Capitalizing on his earning potential is especially important to Gathers considering his family situation. As a high school senior, Gathers got engaged to his girlfriend, Bria, and married her a year later at the courthouse in Waco, Texas. They have two sons: Ricardo Jr. is three, and Raiden is nine months.

"Growing up, the only thing I knew that could change my life [financially] was sports," Gathers says. "I don't want my kids to have to depend on sports. I want them to have the means to do whatever they want to do."

Loney says Gathers and Bria doted on their children multiple times during his first meeting with the couple in April 2016 in Baton Rouge. Dining on chargrilled oysters at a local seafood restaurant, Loney listened intently as Gathers discussed his upbringing, his athletic history—and even some of his missteps and regrets.

The following day, Loney watched Gathers go through a private workout.

"He didn't seem out of his element at all," Loney says. "He didn't look like a basketball player that was trying to fit in. He looked the part. His power and his length and his catch radius are incredible."

Loney returned to Dallas and expressed to the Cowboys brass that Gathers—whose weight had dropped from 287 pounds to 282—was a player they should consider.

"We watched him on film running up and down that court so easily," says McClay. "It was hard not to imagine a football floating through the air and landing in his hands."

That's happened twice this preseason for touchdowns, although both of those moments were a year in the making.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Loney says Gathers "challenged" him as a coach, partially because he often had to explain things that had been second nature to most players since high school. Sometimes it was terminology, stances or schemes—or even the proper way to break a huddle. On other occasions it was Loney's stressing the importance of playing hard until the whistle.

No individual on the field, however, has a bigger influence on Gathers than Witten, the 10-time Pro Bowler.

Loney was frustrated with Gathers in April when he told a radio host that he hoped to be the heir apparent to Witten, who ranks second in NFL history in receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. Gathers insists his comments were absorbed the wrong way.

"I'm not ever going to disrespect anyone, especially Jason Witten," Gathers says. "He's been like a big brother to me. And growing up, my goal was always to someday be as good as my big bro. Every day I think, 'Man, someday I hope I can be just as good or better than Jason.' Why would anyone fault me for wanting to do that?"

Though he said in the spring that he hopes he can be Jason Witten's successor at tight end in Dallas, Gathers says he considers the Cowboys veteran 'like a big brother.'
Though he said in the spring that he hopes he can be Jason Witten's successor at tight end in Dallas, Gathers says he considers the Cowboys veteran 'like a big brother.'David Richard/Associated Press/Associated Press

Toward the end of last season, Gathers was outshining not just members of the practice squad but also players on the 53-man roster. He says he and Romo, who had moved to the second string at the time, continuously "torched" Dallas' starting defensive unit for big plays.

"Every day," Gathers says, "I showed up thinking: 'I'm about to bust someone's head. I'm about to make someone look bad on film.'"

Cowboys defenders say they're mesmerized by how quickly Gathers has adapted to his new sport.

"He's so big and strong that, if you press him, he'll throw you off of him," safety Kavon Frazier says. "But if you stay back, he'll box you out and catch it in front of you, just like he did in basketball."

The feeling among Cowboys insiders is that Gathers will be one of four tight ends on the Cowboys' 53-man roster. Making the 46-player game-day cut, however, will be much tougher, especially since Gathers has yet to contribute much on special teams.

Still, whether he begins to make an impact this season or a year or two down the line, Gathers' future appears bright. Aside from the occasional church-league appearance—he averaged more than 20 points in leading Prestonwood to the championship—Gathers says he hardly thinks about basketball anymore.

"I don't look at myself as a basketball player anymore," Gathers says. "Those days are over. I see myself as a football player every time I step on the field."

             

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR