COLUMBIA, MO. • Mizzou cornerback E.J. Gaines went to Fort Osage High in Independence, Mo., which some may recognize as the alma mater of former Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.
"He really is the most famous person to come out of there," Gaines said. "When you walk into the school, you see pictures of him, posters of him. Not too many people come out of that high school."
It's also possible that, owing to recent events, Gaines, an All Big 12 first-team selection, now is the most popular athlete to come out of Fort Osage — at least in Eastern Missouri.
Gaines, a sophomore, is coming off an excellent season for the Tigers, the first one in which he has been a starter. And as for his potential ...
"The sky's the limit for that kid," Mizzou cornerback coach Cornell Ford said. "He literally could be one of the best we've ever had here. It's just a matter of how high he wants to fly, that's what I always tell him."
He already has gone places not many have gone. He's the first Mizzou cornerback since Adrian Jones in 1989 to earn first-team all-conference honors. He broke the school's single-season record for pass break-ups, with 16. (The previous record was 15 by Michael Harden in 2002.) He had two interceptions and 69 tackles, and returned a punt for a touchdown against Western Illinois. His 18 passes defended (16 break-ups and two interceptions) ranked third in the nation.
He had 10 tackles against Texas A&M to win Big 12 defensive player of the week honors, the first Tiger defensive back to take that honor since R.J. Jones in 2002. Even with the experienced backs Mizzou has had in recent years, Gaines is testing Mizzou's memory banks.
"I think it was about an average year," Gaines said. "It was a good year for a sophomore, for a young guy in the secondary. I know I've got lot of things to work at. But I'm not mad about how the season went at all."
Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel raved about Gaines before the season even began, and if it hadn't been for the Tigers' depth at the position last year, Gaines might have started. As it was, he still had significant playing time, appearing in all 13 games and making 26 tackles.
"For a young guy coming in, I thought he had the intelligence to be able to play right away," Ford said. "Sometimes for younger kids, it takes a while to get there. From a maturity standpoint, we thought he was pretty mature, and he was physical. If someone's got two of those three, they've got a chance to play. If you've got all three, you've got a guy you want to get in there and get him as many reps as you could possibly get him."
Gaines said: "It was a great decision I didn't play as much as a freshman. I played just enough to come out and get used to the game. I learned a lot from the older guys like (Kevin) Rutland and (Carl) Gettis. I'm glad I didn't play too much. I wasn't very ready. Coach Ford got me ready for this season."
Gaines has excelled not only in pass coverage this season, but in coming up to make tackles. He also has learned the most valuable lesson for any defensive back, the ability to put previous missteps behind him and move on to the next play. He has been tested in one of the college football's toughest cauldrons, the Big 12, in which every team seems to have a top-quality passer.
He also has shown a willingness to take risks, such as when he intercepted a pass in the end zone against Oklahoma State and instead of taking a knee decided to run it out and returned it 54 yards.
"Bottom line is, he is a heck of an athlete," Pinkel said at the time. "I think (the play) showed a bit of his will. We're struggling out there and here is a guy that says, 'I'm going to make something happen.' He's athletic enough that he can do it."
This could be the start of something big for Gaines.
"I think he played really well this year," Ford said, "but he can play so much better."