Rico Gathers had no hesitation when asked about the possibility of extending his basketball career.
“I’m a football player,” Gathers said, seemingly baffled by the notion.
Hey, there’s good money overseas for former college hoops stars such as Gathers who might not have NBA potential. Fort Worth native and former Kansas great Keith Langford, for instance, has made millions playing overseas.
But Gathers shook his head at the idea.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” he said. “I’m a football player. I’m totally committed to this.”
The Dallas Cowboys are committed to turning Gathers into a tight end too. They used a sixth-round pick on the former Baylor basketball standout, and have high hopes about his ability to develop into an NFL tight end.
He’s got the build at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, and the athleticism to make it more than just a pipe dream. This is a type of project that has worked in the pros before.
San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez all played college basketball before thriving in the NFL.
Gathers is hoping to follow in their footsteps, and made positive early impressions during last weekend’s rookie minicamp. He asked thoughtful questions. He gave full effort. He showed an ability to be coached and adapt to different situations.
“I was encouraged and he was asking knowledgeable questions,” offensive assistant coach Steve Loney said. “Nothing stupid like, ‘Where do I stand in the huddle?’ His questions were well-founded and you could tell he had a concept of what was going on in the field.”
But Loney and tight ends coach Mike Pope aren’t kidding themselves. They know the learning curve will be steep and there are no assurances it will work out.
As Pope said, “It doesn’t say ‘Houdini’ on our door. It says ‘coach.’ We can’t just make this guy turn over and get up tomorrow and be ready to go. He’s going to be a while.”
Knowing it could take a while, it’s hard to see where Gathers will ultimately fit in the tight end picture.
Jason Witten remains the standard bearer in the tight end room, and James Hanna signed a three-year extension this off-season. Gavin Escobar is recovering from an Achilles injury and could miss the start of the season, and the Cowboys still have Geoff Swaim on the roster.
That makes it an uphill battle for Gathers to make the team, but perhaps he shows enough to justify a practice squad spot.
At this point, though, all that matters is that Gathers is carrying himself with the right attitude. And it’s easy to see upside with his build and athletic ability.
This is a guy who posed a double-double threat on a nightly basis and became one of the best rebounders in the country. Plus, it won’t hurt that Gathers will be groomed and mentored by one of the league’s most consistent tight ends in Witten.
“Witten helps everybody,” Pope said. “He’s the 13th Disciple.”
For Gathers, it’s about soaking in as much information early on. He’s been in touch with former college classmate Robert Griffin III, Baylor’s Heisman Trophy winner now with Cleveland, about how to handle the NFL workload.
And he’s now getting the chance to work with a professional coaching staff to become the player he wants to be. He’s taken in everything from the playbook to different stances to route running to the quarterback’s passing lanes.
Gathers is eager to acclimate himself and prove doubters wrong. He even recalled his basketball coach at Baylor, Scott Drew, calling him crazy.
Gathers, as stated, could have pursued a basketball career. But he’s committed to returning to a sport he hasn’t played since the eighth grade.
“Like I told [Drew], I really wanted to play football,” Gathers said. “And I’m just glad that I have the opportunity to do that now.
“It’s been challenging, having to deal with a lot of doubters thinking I can’t do it and stuff. For the most part, I just try to keep my ears closed, not listening to none of the stuff people are saying on the outside and focus on what’s coming on the inside.”
That is a mindset that is sure to sit well with coach Jason Garrett, and part of the reason why the Cowboys were willing to use a sixth-round pick (No. 217 overall) on a project.
They liked his motor during a workout in Waco, and Drew raved about Gathers’ relentless pursuit to get 50-50 loose balls on the basketball court.
That’s the kind of effort and focus Gathers will need to make this transition work. He’s saying and doing all the right things early in the process.
“It’s a big challenge,” Gathers said. “If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it. I took this challenge last year in September and I stuck with it.
“Now I’m here and I’m ready to take whatever adversity comes my way because I know there’s a light shining at the end of the tunnel.”
Dallas Cowboys schedule
Saturday, Aug. 13 at Los Angeles Rams, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Friday, Aug. 19 vs. Miami, 7 p.m., (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Aug. 25 at Seattle, 9 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Sept. 1 vs. Houston, 7 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Sunday, Sept. 11 vs. New York Giants, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Sept. 18 at Washington, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Sept. 25 vs. Chicago, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Oct. 2 at San Francisco, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Oct. 9 vs. Cincinnati, 3:25 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Sunday, Oct. 16 at Green Bay, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Oct. 23 Bye
Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Nov. 6 at Cleveland, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Nov. 13 at Pittsburgh, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Baltimore, Noon (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Nov. 24 vs. Washington, 3:30 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Thursday, Dec. 1 at Minnesota, 7:25 p.m. (KXAS/5, NFL Network and Twitter)
Sunday, Dec. 11 at New York Giants, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Dec. 18 vs. Tampa Bay, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Monday, Dec. 26 vs. Detroit, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, Jan. 1 at Philadelphia, Noon (KDFW/4)