Justin Gage always knew he could play in the National Football League.
One thing he didn’t know was that it would happen this fast and with this much success. Gage, a former Missouri receiver and small forward on the Tigers’ basketball team, enters today’s game against the Rams at Soldier Field as Chicago’s newest big-play threat.
Gage made his first appearance as a Bear on Oct. 19 against Seattle. He didn’t do much against the Seahawks, making two catches for 26 yards, but he took the opportunity to get used to the speed and rigors of an NFL game.
It didn’t take him long to adjust, though. He has appeared in four games, racking up seven catches for 152 yards, an average of 21.7 yards.
“He has done well after a short amount of time,” Bears quarterback Chris Chandler said. “He’s added a lot of depth to our receiver corps.”
After getting past his initial jitters, Gage wasted no time in making his presence felt against Detroit on Oct. 26. With leading receiver Marty Booker out with a sprained right ankle, Gage filled in admirably.
With a little under eight minutes left in the second quarter, Chandler dropped back to pass, and Gage noticed the safety creeping up to the line. That left him as the first option isolated against the cornerback. Chandler hit Gage, who broke a tackle and ran in for a 21-yard touchdown catch, the first of his young career.
Gage said he was so excited about the touchdown that he almost lost the memory before it happened.
“I almost blacked out,” Gage said. “I didn’t know what to do, I just kind of froze up.”
Gage’s career got off to an inauspicious start. NFL draft experts said he could go as high as the third round, but on draft day, he had to wait a little longer before hearing his name called. When Chicago finally chose him 143rd in the fifth round, Gage was ready to prove all teams that passed on him wrong.
He had to adjust to playing football for a living. He had to learn to study his playbook instead of for tests and quizzes. With little time to get used to his new surroundings, Gage had to jump into his new job. There were a few aspects that he had little trouble with, though.
“It’s been pretty easy in the fact that there is no class or homework type things to do,” Gage said. “I just learned about going out and practicing and studying film.”
While adjustment to life away from school was fairly easy for Gage, the adjustment to NFL talent took a little longer.
The Bears had a solid corps of receivers when he arrived. With Booker, Dez White and David Terrell, Gage’s chance for playing time looked bleak as summer practice ended.
Instead of looking at the competition as a roadblock to playing time, Gage decided to learn from his fellow receivers. He said watching the players ahead of him on the depth chart in practice every day has helped him improve his game.
With his positive approach to the game, Gage began to adjust quickly. After injuries to Booker and Terrell, he was on the field and making plays.
“Justin has come a long way since training camp,” Bears coach Dick Jauron said. “He’s really taken to how you have to practice to be able to perform on Sunday in the National Football League – the intensity of the practice, the speed of the practice, just the physical strain of it.”
Even though he wasn’t playing, the early part of the season wasn’t tough for Gage. He spent most of his time with his head in the playbook, learning the plays and learning his routes. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters and Booker helped him learn the ins and outs of success in the NFL.
Though he knew he could play in the NFL, it didn’t hit him until Oct. 5 that he had finally reached his dream. As he stretched and prepared to face the Raiders, he glanced across the field. On the opposing team’s sideline, stood Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, two of the NFL’s greatest receivers.
After that experience, it is easy for Gage to say he has no regrets about the path he followed to reach his ultimate goal.
“It’s been everything I thought it would be and more,” Gage said. “Just getting to come out every Sunday and play against, and with, big name guys you saw growing up is a dream come true.”