A 13-year-old boy prepares to punt a rubber football as far as his leg can.
The scene around him is more wish-you-were-here postcard than football stadium. The calmly swaying palm trees and eternal ocean are in sharp contrast to the sweaty clash of muscles and shoulder pads that typify football.
Now the boy, wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey for his hometown team, finds the laces on the rubber ball. As he brings his hand back to throw, it’s unknown whether he takes a look around at the surreal Hawaiian landscape. We don’t know if he caught a glimpse of his smiling parents in the crowd.
When he kicks the ball off the tee in the final round of the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition, we don’t know if he was dreaming bigger than this or if he was just caught up in the moment.
Because for most children at 13, this would be as good as it gets. Hawaii. The Pro Bowl. The finals of a nationwide competition for boys and girls. The rest of life is unavoidably downhill, muddied with deadlines and bosses and income taxes.
But this particular boy was different.
This particular boy would go on to be a star for the Missouri basketball and football teams and would be drafted into the NFL.
This particular boy would play on the world’s biggest stage: the Super Bowl.
This boy is Justin Gage.
As Gage, now a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, basks in the warmth of Miami this week, his proud parents bask in the successful season of their son’s team.
While some Bears fans are caught up in a whirlwind of excitement surrounding the Bears’ first Super Bowl appearance since 1986, Ernestine Gage talks about her son with cautious optimism and a calm head that would make Peyton Manning jealous.
Ernestine Gage said her son’s advancement to the finals of the Punt, Pass and Kick competition was one of many big moments in his life, but she acknowledges that there are still many empty pages just waiting to be filled.
For her, admiring her youngest son as he made sports look easy “since he could walk,” it didn’t matter what sport he ended up focusing on as he grew into a dominant athlete.
“I never really thought about a specific game, per se, but I strongly believed that he would have enough talent to make it to the NFL or NBA,” Ernestine Gage said.
Sure enough, Justin Gage played both football and basketball at high school in Jefferson City and then later for the Tigers — a true testament to his athleticism.
Before enrolling at MU, Justin Gage’s father remembers, Justin Gage didn’t have time to dream of the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals because he was too busy deciding which sport to call home.
At Missouri, the 6-foot-4 receiver began to favor football and started every game from his sophomore year on. His size and athleticism broke Tigers’ records as he emerged as one of the Big 12’s top receivers.
Al Gage, Justin’s father, said his son respectfully studied the game under former football coach Larry Smith and current coach Gary Pinkel.
“Kids don’t do it on their own; they learn from the coaches,” Al Gage said. “Each coach brings something different, and you learn as you go.”
But as much as he could learn as a Tiger, Justin Gage was always like Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cub who played for the perennial (but lovable) losers. Gage, too, was a standout athlete on a mediocre team.
Missouri was 16-29 in the Justin Gage era, but that meager record didn’t make NFL scouts blink. Ernestine Gage said hearing her son’s name officially attached to an NFL team was a defining moment in his life. The Bears drafted him in the fifth round in 2003, the same draft that saw Chicago tap Rex Grossman as their quarterback of the future.
Three-piece-suit-wearing analysts have ridiculed Grossman all season for his inconsistent, sometimes shaky play, but Al Gage sees potential in the Bears’ young signal caller.
“I used to say to Rex all the time, just relax and play,” Al Gage said. “He really is a good person, and he really is a pretty good quarterback. In time, people will be talking about Grossman in the same light that they’ve talked about some of the current named quarterbacks, like Peyton.”
It’s no coincidence that Al Gage chose that particular star quarterback as a muse for Grossman; the two will meet today to settle the debate temporarily as to which quarterback is the better big-game guy on the biggest stage in sports.
Justin Gage’s parents are just grateful to be on any stage at all. Missouri didn’t play a bowl game during Justin Gage’s years as a Tiger from 1999 to 2002. This, Al Gage said, was a great disappointment for Justin Gage.
But come on. Even Vince Young and Matt Leinart would trade their impressive collegiate successes for a shot at the coveted Lombardi Trophy and a diamond ring.
Some athletes will pour their soul into lengthy NFL careers but never play in a single Super Bowl.
At 26, Justin Gage has that fleeting chance, and you can bet his family will be there, just like they’ve been at every Bears home game and as many away games as they could. Just like they were at every Missouri game they could manage.
Al and Ernestine Gage spoke of their trip to Florida with the excitement of eager children on the way to the slopes of Colorado, minus the annoying chants and backseat songs, of course.
Justin Gage’s parents, his girlfriend, his sister and his two older brothers are in South Florida today.
And though Al Gage said he’d be there for Super Bowl XLI even if it were in Alaska, he’s grateful for the dreamy destination.
Today’s forecast for Miami: cloudy with a chance of rain and 77 degrees.
Today’s forecast for Columbia: snow flurries and 27 degrees.
Al Gage is almost rubbing it in.
“I really feel bad for those of you who remain in mid-Missouri,” he said. “We’ll try to bask up as much sun as we can on y’all’s behalf. I don’t think we’re feeling that bad about it.”
While the Gage family is the target of mid-Missouri’s meteorological jealousy, Justin Gage should be the focus of its pride.
Words that heartwarming could only come from a loving mother.
“It says a lot for all of Missouri and the young folk who are coming up and who might think that they don’t have it. If they can stick to whatever program they’re working in, they too can do it,” Ernestine Gage said. “What I like to tell people is that he’s Missouri’s kid. Everyone in Missouri owns a piece of him. That makes me most proud.”
There’s a tinge of irony in Ernestine Gage’s words, however.
Though he is Missouri’s kid now, Justin Gage was Indianapolis’ baby. He was born in the enemy’s lair, but the family escaped while he was in kindergarten. And don’t worry. Al Gage assures everyone that his son never sported a horseshoe-laden bib or Colts pacifier.
And there’s no question what side Al Gage and his wife are on.
“Da Bears,” he said. “I genuinely believe the Bears will take it. It’s probably not going to be as close as a lot of people think.”
Though Justin Gage’s playing time this season hasn’t been quite what his parents and supporters believe it should be, he is always learning from what he sees on the sidelines.
Constantly watching teammates run routes and dissecting opposing cover schemes from the sidelines may seem like tedious, thankless work, but Al Gage said his son welcomes any role.
“He’s a student of the game; he watches it, and he understands it,” Al Gage said. “He really enjoys it, but he’ll enjoy it a lot more if he’s allowed to get in the game.”
Either way, his parents will be watching proudly, just like they watched him on another field in another tropical locale 13 years ago.
They won’t paint their faces, but Ernestine Gage assures us that it will be quite easy to tell which team the Gage family is supporting.
“Oh come on please,” Ernestine Gage said. “The Bears.”