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.
“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.
“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.