Meet Your Neighbor – The Titan of Mt Juliet

WLM - Justin Gage

WLM - Justin Gage

 

Tennessee Titans fans know the player swathed in jersey number 12 as sleek, wide receiver Justin Gage. His job, which seems simple but can be brutal, is to sprint across NFL gridirons on Sunday afternoons, leap into the air and snare missiles from quarterback Vince Young.

NFL receiver Justin Gage makes Wilson County his home.

Story and by KEN BECK. Photos by RICHIE BOUTON

Wilson Living Magazine - Titan Justin Gage runs a pass route.Tennessee Titans fans know the player swathed in jersey number 12 as sleek, wide receiver Justin Gage. His job, which seems simple but can be brutal, is to sprint across NFL gridirons on Sunday afternoons, leap into the air and snare missiles from quarterback Vince Young.

Besides his team, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Gage, 29, finds a lot to like in Nashville with a couple of similarities to his old hometown of Jefferson City, Mo.

Like Nashville, Jefferson City is a state capital and boasts a major river, the wide Missouri, flowing through it, just as Music City claims the mighty Cumberland. But with a population of 41,000, JC has more of a small-town personality, thus at the end of a hard day’s practice, Gage hangs his helmet in a Nashville locker room but brings his heart home to Mt. Juliet, where he has chosen to raise his family.

Gage spent his first four seasons as a pro in the Windy City with the Chicago Bears and now prepares for his fourth season as a Titan—Wilson County’s only active Titan.

“When I came out here (to Nashville), I was on a one-year deal, and my fiancé (Joy Carter) and I wanted to find a house. We had dogs and needed a fenced-in area. We were looking for a home where the town was building up. We went out to Mt. Juliet and saw some of the developments they had. They had the new high school in progress at the time, and we found a great deal on the house,” Gage said during a mid-summer interview inside the players’ lounge at Baptist Sports Center at Metro-Center.

“That was our initial reason for moving out there. Since we did, I’m glad that we did. I love it, I love it. It’s my kind of town. It’s a place you can call home. You don’t have to worry about the college crowd. Your downtown crowd you won’t find in Mt. Juliet. I like that it’s a dry community. The neighborhood we live in, it’s great for my son, and there’s a daughter on the way. It’s definitely family oriented,” said Gage, who recently married his girlfriend of 4½ years and with whom he has a 2 year old son, Justin Corde Gage. (The couple is expecting a daughter, Jaelynn, on September 3.)

But don’t think the athlete has anything against the big city that helped make Hank Williams Jr. famous (“Are you ready for some football?”) a few miles west of Mt. Juliet.

Wilson Living Magazine - Mt Juliet's Justin Gage greets fans and signs autographs“The people that I meet in Nashville are so friendly—even those that don’t know I play football. It’s a real calm, lovely place. That’s something I’ve never experienced in St. Louis or Chicago. Jefferson City was similar to it on a smaller scale. That Southern hospitality is everything they say it is.”

His wife says Amen! to all of the above as she, too, has become one of Mt. Juliet’s biggest boosters.

“I love that Mt. Juliet’s laidback. It’s crazy over in Brentwood where many of the other players live. So much traffic,” said Joy. “We’ve already seen in the past three years the growth here, but it’s sort of a slower pace. We have cows in the lot next to us. We love our neighbors. Everybody is so friendly, super nice. The traffic’s not like Chicago or St. Louis. There’s so much more of a relaxed pace of living. Out here you feel like you can breath and have room to move around. We love it.”

Justin and Joy traded marriage vows in a Nashville wedding chapel, The Bridal Path, on July 24. They met in college through a friend. She shares how their romance began.

“We had a bunch of mutual friends, but I never knew who he was, but he saw me in passing,” said Joy, who transferred to Mizzou as a junior just as Justin was about to gradudate. “I came to find out that my college roommate was friends with him before I got there. So she had moved to Chicago where Justin was playing (with the Bears). I went to visit her, and we went to Justin’s house to say hi. Justin is a very shy, shy person. It came off as if he were too good to talk to me. I just ignored him. Eight months later he called me. That’s how it all started.”Wilson Living Magazine - Justin Gage keeps his eye focused on the football

Joy discovered a number of traits in Gage that she admired. Among them, she found the quiet athlete had a large sense of humor.

“He is super patient, super laidback. If you didn’t know he played football, you wouldn’t know. That is what I loved most. He is not flashy. He’s very funny, a pretty hilarious guy,” said the St. Peters, Mo., native. “He doesn’t go out a lot and is more of a homebody, which is how I am. We clicked automatically.”

As for his role at home as dad, Gage says, “It’s great. There’s a lot of things I didn’t realize, like all the worrying you do. I’m always being protective. But I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

And since this father is a professional athlete, it seems to be natural that he’s already playing ball, lots of ball, with his young son.

“Ah, man, we compete. I have him playing basketball. He’s learning how to play golf, play tennis, play Whiffle ball. Anything active, he does. I like to say he’s a little older than he appears because he is so active and athletic. I keep trying to push him. We’ll wrestle around all the time and play,” Gage said.

The athlete was born the youngest of seven children to Al and Ernestine Gage in Indianapolis, Ind. When Gage was 5, the family moved to St. Louis, and during his upper-elementary years they relocated to Jefferson City.

“They were just hard-working parents,” he says of his dad and mom. “My father was a director of social services for the state of Missouri, and my mother worked at employment security and also worked for MoDOT (the Missouri Department of Transportation).” Retired, they live on Gage’s 40-acre ranch near Alton, Ill., less than an hour’s drive from St. Louis.Wilson Living Magazine - Gage bursts through the smaller defensive halfbacks

As a youth, Gage proved a natural and competed from the ages of 8 through 13 in the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick national competition that took him to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and Lions Stadium in Detroit. At 13, he won a trip to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii where he met NFL stars quarterback Jim Kelley and linebacker Junior Seau, who left an indelible impression upon him.

During his high school years, Gage participated in football, basketball and track, where he was a sprinter, high jumper and triple jumper. As for his favorite sport, as quarterback his senior season at Jefferson City High School in 1998 he passed for 1,148 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 702 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was also second-team all-state as a defensive back.

Gage had typical NFL, NBA and Major League stars for his heroes as a teenager. He names Ozzie Smith, Bo Jackson, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan as a few of them, but says that outside of his immediate family, his biggest inspiration was Ted LePage, today the head football coach at Jefferson City High.

“He was the guy who pretty much kept me playing football, kept me into sports and showed me a different nature of athleticism,” said Gage.

Although he was recruited by the University of Missouri to play free safety, when a freshman quarterback candidate ran into academic problems, the coaches decided to redshirt Gage and practice him at quarterback. However, come week nine the staff took off his red shirt and played him for two series at QB against the University of Oklahoma. The following week, he completed 11-of-24 passes
for 111 yards and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Texas A&M.

With the football season over, Gage joined the Mizzou basketball team where he played for three seasons and went with the squad into the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament in 2002.

After his freshman year, a new offensive coordinator took over on the gridiron. Gage received his wakeup call to play wide receiver as a sophomore and responded by making 44 receptions for 709 yards, throwing a 70-yard pass for a touchdown and earning the most valuable offensive player award.

Wilson Living Magazine - After practice Justin motors on down from Nashville to his home in Mt. JulietBy the time his college career concluded, Gage held numerous school records, was a three-time all-Big 12 Conference selection and started each of the team’s 34 games during his final three years, finishing with 200 career catches for 2,704 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading the team in receiving each season.

Drafted into the NFL in the spring of 2003, Gage was at home when the phone call came from the Chicago Bears.

“I was excited to hear my name,” he remembers. “I went in the fifth round, so all these teams passed on me, so I had a chip on my shoulder. But I was going to Walter Payton’s (an All-Pro Chicago running back) stomping grounds, that was it.”

As for his four seasons with the Bears, well, during his last season the team went to the Super Bowl but Gage never got into the contest much less a touch of the ball. He sums up his time with Chicago by saying, “It was the craziest roller-coaster ride ever. I went to the highest of highs and went to the lowest of lows. As a rookie things started off slow, playing behind a vet, but I thought, ‘Hey, I can play, I can play.’ I was getting that chance to excel and did great, but the next year there was a new coach and offensive coordinator, and things changed around.”

With lots of ups and downs, he said his last year as a Bear was a downer. “It was not real good for me on a personal note, but that year we went to the Super Bowl. Experiencing that was definitely a treasure.”

Leaving Chicago, Gage was thrilled to sign in the 2007 off season with Nashville’s Titans. He knew the team had a lot things that he liked, especially that it was a young team hungry to win.

“It was a program that was coming up, being strong, a very physical program. I remember playing them a couple of times, seeing how aggressive they were and liking their quarterback, Vince Young. They were growing, and outside of that, it wasn’t as cold as the city of Chicago,” he can say now with a laugh.

Once enlisting with the Titans, Gage went to work proving what a dangerous pass catcher he could be. His first season in Nashville, he caught 55 catches for 750 yards and two touchdowns. In 2008, he pulled in 34 passes for a team-best 651 yards and averaged 19.1 yards per catch. Last year he caught 28 passes for 383 yards with three touchdowns and made a leaping 49-yard catch against the
San Francisco 49ers that set up the go-ahead score, a fourth-quarter touchdown by Chris Johnson, that gave the Titans a 34-27 victory.

The acrobatic catch came at heavy price as Gage suffered several broken transverse bones in his lower back and missed the next four games. But a new season is on tap. Gage is healthy again and one of the players that Coach Jeff Fisher depends upon.

“Justin has made a lot of plays for us, big plays and clutch plays, since his arrival here,” said Fisher.” He is reliable, consistent and really knows how to get open. He is also a big target and can catch well out of frame. He is a guy that Vince (Young) is comfortable with. Vince can just put the ball up and Justin can go make the play.”Wilson Living Magazine - Justin Gage cools down in the player's lounge

Word was out during the preseason that Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger would be opening up the playbook and that should translate into more passes coming in Gage’s direction, a notion to which he is looking forward.

“As a receiver that’s what you want every year, to pass the ball. Understand at the same time, we have a dynamic running back that definitely has to get his share of touches, but as receivers we’ve got to be sure to do our part to make sure he is not carrying the whole load 16 games in and 16 game out,” says Gage.

The high-flying receiver has been timed at 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and his vertical leap was 43 inches in his prime. His strongest physical assets remain his size and strength.

“In fighting against DBs (defensive backs), I’m mentally a step ahead of them by being a little stronger, so I can physically get them off me as I go up for high balls. I have the versatility to jump up and attack a football like it was a rebound. . .. Once you get physical, they kind of lighten up,” he said.

As for the best part about playing in the NFL, Gage answers, “For me, it’s just my competitive nature. Every Sunday you get that opportunity to go out in front of hundreds of thousands of people and display your talents. It’s a game you compete against other people, you have your individual battles but ultimately it comes down to team battle.

“It’s a team thing. You need all 11 guys on the field to be on the same page and know that the team that makes the most mistakes is gonna be the team that ends up losing. Knowing I have to run this route at this particular time or I mess up the whole play for these guys. Just knowing that every part of the engine has to be working at the same time.”

For Joy Gage, who attends every Titans home game, the collisions she witnesses her husband take on the field can cause her to grimace, as she says, “Anytime he gets hit, I’m scared to death.”

But the biggest challenge being wife to an NFL athlete?

“The time that he is gone is the hardest part. It’s not that normal nineto-five job,” Joy said. “We get so attached in the off season because he is here all the time, and then the first day of training camp is awful. Just as you’ve got used to them being around all day, every day, and then they’re gone. But we’re a very close-knit family.”

On and off the playing field, Gage has learned much from Revie Sorey, his third cousin, who played right guard for the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1983, leading the sweep for Walter Payton. “He just said stay focused. There’s going to be some ups and be some downs but have faith in your ability, and every day you go in and learn something.”

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune Magazine five years ago, Sorey said of his younger cousin, “If he needs me for anything, all he has to do is pick up the phone. I give him all the space he needs. Now, I’m not going to sit back and let him make a mistake. I’m going to be on him like a cheap suit in the rain.”

Gage served as a guest instructor for several years at Sorey’s off-season youth football camp at Concordia University in Chicago. Then two years ago, Gage started the Twelve Starz Foundation, which benefi ts underprivileged youth in his former hometown, and last summer held his first football camp in Jefferson City. This past summer about 100 athletes from ages 8 to 15 came to his weekend football camp.

As president of Twelve Starz, he says, “It’s a foundation that we started to assist the Boys and Girls Club and also help other underprivileged kids, whether it be with school supplies, books or clothing. It gives a lot of opportunities to kids who can’t afford cleats, helmets, pads, sportswear. We provide them with those things to go out there and participate in these different sports activities.”

During his teen years Gage worked such jobs as washing cars, mowing grass, serving as a waiter and working as a telephone operator/bill collector. These days, when he’s not working on his pass-catching skills, he pursues a variety of hobbies.

Wilson Living Magazine - Justin Gage prompts the crowd to cheer for home team Titans.“I’m a movie buff. I love bowling, golf, tennis. I like to do a lot of sports that I never had a chance to do growing up. I tried skiing, wave running, riding boats. I’ve tried tennis and racket ball. I like ’em both but got to get a little better,” he said. “I’m just an active guy. If there’s something where I can move around and be active with it, I enjoy it. I’m not really too good at just sitting around unless I’m watching a movie.”

He reluctantly reveals that he became a fair cook during his early years in the NFL. “I didn’t realize I could cook until I got to Chicago and I was by myself. Then all the things my mama cooked came back to me.” His best dishes? Boiled cabbage, sweet potatoes, chicken and macaroni.

As for what life might bring to him after football, the Mt. Juliet Tennessee Titan ponders, “I ask myself that three or four times a week. I’m really not sure—something where I’m active, where I’m not in the office nine to five.

“Whether that would be getting into coaching or starting some Pop Warner basketball, football, baseball leagues or getting into buying real estate and just remodeling? I’m big into music also. I want to get into music engineering. I have a million ideas, but I’m not set on just one thing.”

For now, the Titan of Mt. Juliet is set on two things—fulfilling his role as a family man and striving to be the best wide receiver possible. And all of Wilson County is pulling for him on both counts.

GAGE PRO GRIDIRON STATS

Chicago Bears: 2003-2006, Tennessee Titans: 2007-present, NFL receptions: 181, Receiving yards: 2,692, Touchdowns: 15

GAGE SCHOOL RECORDS at the UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI (1999-2002)

Most passes caught: Game: 16, Season: 82, Career: 200
Most yards gained: Game: 236, Career: 2,704
Most consecutive games with a pass reception: 34

GAGE OFF THE FIELD

Favorites – Movie: Harlem Nights, TV series: 24, Actor: Denzel Washington, Actress: Salma Hayek, Musicians: Trick Daddy and Lil’ Wayne
Video games: Any action games, Vacation getaway: Bahamas, Food: Soul food, Non-profit work: www.twelvestarzfoundaton.org

Ken Beck can be contacted at KBTAG@aol.com.

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