COLUMBIA — Missouri senior cornerback E.J. Gaines could be playing in the NFL right now.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
He could be living a childhood dream and raking in at least $405,000 — the league minimum for rookies.
Instead, Gaines is gearing up for finals next month, putting the finishing touches on a bachelor’s degree in sports management that he’s on track to get in December.
And that’s the only way Gaines and his family would have it.
“We talked for years and years about, if this happened, he was going to stay in school,” said Edwin Gaines Sr., E.J.’s father and namesake. “He went to college to get a degree, not just to play football. That was an added benefit, but school was No. 1. Football got him there, but the schooling was the most important thing.”
Many NFL Draft projections had Gaines as a midround pick, perhaps as high as the third round, if he had come out after his junior season.
Sure, the chance to earn life-changing money was tempting, but the desire to become the first person in his immediate family to get a college degree had much more sway.
“It sounded good, making some money,” Gaines said, “but I could wait another year. My mom really pushed for me to get my degree, and I felt like that was probably the best choice for me. The NFL isn’t promised.”
Besides, “School comes first,” said E.J.’s mother, Alta Gaines. “I know that he would love to be in the NFL, and I encourage that also, but I just think going to school is more important.”
Gaines, who was a two-time all-state selection at Fort Osage, said he wouldn’t be in college without football — he laughs at the mere suggestion — but once he got to Missouri, he wasn’t leaving without a degree.
“To me, it’s more than just me getting my degree,” he said. “It’s kind of setting a different foundation for my family members after me — my nephews and my kids in the future. That’s really my big thing, trying to set a different example for people in my family to do something different and making college something that is expected.”
Gaines is the youngest of five children. He has four older sisters, including two half-sisters. His example, and Alta’s encouragement, already helped inspire two of those sisters, Desiree and Nayia, to return to college.
It’s also opened up a wealth of possibilities for E.J.
“After this, I’m probably just going to be a coach somewhere,” he said, “but with a degree like that, if I want to go be a scout somewhere or something like that, I can do that with a sports management degree.”
Gaines, who leads Missouri with four interceptions and is tied for fourth with 40 tackles despite missing 2 1/2 games because of a strained right quad, hopes to have a long and fruitful NFL career. But if that doesn’t pan out, there’s a fallback option.
For good reason, the Gaines family is excited to watch E.J. walk across a stage and accept that degree. It’s also going to special if he walks onto an NFL field for the first time.
Still, there’s another walk Alta is looking forward to that she also would have missed had E.J. left Missouri a year early — walking across Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium on Senior Day against Texas A&M.
“Right now, I’m looking forward to Nov. 30 when I walk him across the field,” Alta said. “I am looking so forward to that. That puts a really big smile on my face.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.