With a golden stripe blitzing through his dark hair, E.J. Gaines looks like a tiger.
This season, the 5’11” 195-pound senior cornerback is the face of the Missouri defense and perhaps the entire team.
Gaines calls the “island” his home—it’s the lonely position he plays that usually involves him lining up in a one-on-one matchup to prevent the opposing team’s wide receiver from getting the football. Sort of like the 2000 film “Cast Away,” except this time, the other team vies to snag Tom Hanks’ “Wilson.”
But before he landed on the island, Gaines strained his patellar tendon in his left knee on Aug. 12.
Gaines’s teammates jokingly call his away time from his position a “vacation.” As he’s speaking, a teammate saunters past him with a megaphone, bellowing over the horde of media, “E.J. Gaines, I have a question for you, sir? Do you like my haircut?”
A smile breaks across Gaines’ face. As a defensive captain, he loves his teammates, who he calls his family, and seemingly they love him back. As a senior, he’s grown up with the players on the team, who seem to look up to his humble yet driven approach to the game.
He’s not used to the time off from football. Never in his life has he been injured, he said, donned in a crimson pull over that barely shades the white “31” emblazoned on his dark jersey.
Gaines is not necessarily upset. He talks to reporters calmly as the setting sun illuminates his face at the end of the warmest afternoon practice last Tuesday. His dyed streak clearly stands out.
His voice barely quivers as he recounts the story of his injury that has kept him on the sidelines, even causing him to miss the final scrimmage a few days later.
Perhaps he could have told the story with a bit more concern. As he was cutting to go for a break up, senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington stepped on his foot and as Gaines continued forward, he tweaked his knee. If the strain would have occurred a few inches north or south of his injury, his season would be over.
“Yeah, it scared me,” Gaines said, calmly. “I’m blessed that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I guess God was watching over me.”
Vacations, assumedly, relax oneself. But it becomes apparent the more Gaines talks, even in his cool manner of speech, the more he shows he wants to be back on the football field. During his time off, Gaines watched NFL cornerbacks, particularly smaller ones such as Kansas City Chiefs’ Brandon Flowers and Dallas Cowboy’s Brandon Carr, outside of watching his team practice.
“They are definitely students of the game,” Gaines said. “It’s fun to watch them play.”
It’s more than just fun, though, as the senior looks to get drafted after this season. His hopes aren’t unfounded. After not playing much as a true freshman, Gaines broke out during his sophomore season. That year he was named first team, all-Big 12 after recording 69 tackles and setting a Mizzou record with 18 passes defended.
Going into his junior year, Gaines was listed as a third-team, All-SEC award winner. Even though he racked up a career high in tackles, 74, and tallied 11 pass break ups, Gaines only received one SEC award last season—an outstanding performance award during week five after tallying 13 tackles and forcing a fumble against Central Florida.
Flash forward to August, though, Gaines has been on a slow path to recovery from his injury, missing over a week of practice. Last Tuesday, Gaines said he felt like he was 70 percent.
“Hopefully we can get him back 100 percent,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “I think anytime you have as a sophomore, he was all-Big 12, that kind of a high level player, you’re going to miss him. So, we want to get him back. That’s the importance of staying healthy.”
Gaines said he’s been trying to help out in any way he can during his time off from playing. Always one to get involved, he said he’s been helping the younger players on the team work on what they are doing wrong from the sidelines. Gaines said giving advice has been different, making him sort of feel like he’s a coach.
“EJ, I need a ride home,” another player chimes in on a megaphone.
During his injury absence, Gaines still said he’s just been focused on getting healthier for the start of the season to achieve his biggest goal as player this year: getting his defense off the field.
“My main concern right now is more interceptions on the ball when it’s coming my way,” Gaines said. “That’s really what I’m concentrating on, my break-ups and tackles. Just to step my game up and get better as a senior and make more turnovers.”
When asked if he would be able to start against Murray State on Saturday, it seemed that the vacation would soon to be over and working on the island would continue again.
“No doubt in my mind,” Gaines said. “I’ll be ready to go.”