All week, Rock M Nation will be celebrating the induction of its inaugural class to the Rock M Nation Wall of Excellence. Today, we welcome the winner of our Tier II category, honoring contributions from players from 1994-2003.
I'm not going to say we take stars for granted at Mizzou now--we don't--but there's no questioning that we've been spoiled recently. Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Jeremy Maclin, Martin Rucker, Brad Smith...a lot of offensive talent has put on the black-and-gold in the last few years. Before those guys, we had 12-Gage. The QB-turned-WR was, like Justin Smith on the defensive side of the ball, the sole explosive threat when Mizzou was on offense.
If Mizzou ripped off a big gain, there was a 96% chance Justin Gage was doing it (4% Zack Abron). He had 125 yards receiving and 35 yards passing in his breakout game in Lincoln in 2000, a season in which he finished strong with 288 receiving yards in his final three games.
He led Gary Pinkel's first squad into battle with 74 catches (more than twice as many as the next-highest Mizzou receiver) and 920 receiving yards in 2001. He had 12 catches for 113 yards in a dramatic OT win in Stillwater, 11 for 148 in a comeback win in Lawrence, and in a laugher over Baylor, all he did was set a Mizzou record with 13 catches and 236 yards.
With Brad Smith at the helm in 2002, all Gage did was re-write the Mizzou record books (the parts of which he hadn't already re-written anyway). He caught 82 passes for 1075 yards and 9 TDs--9 for 122 against OU, 5 for 114 against Texas Tech, 9 for 108 against Colorado, 7 for 123 against ATM, and of course 16 for 236 against Bowling Green.
Justin Gage was a bit of a tragic figure in Mizzou history--despite his greatness, in his four seasons at Mizzou, Gage never did get to play in a bowl game--he committed to Mizzou on the heels of the Tigers' back-to-back bowl bids in 1997 and '98 and ushered in the Brad Smith era, which led to bowls in 2003 and '05. It's hard not to wonder what might have been in 2003 if #12's redshirt had not been lifted in the ninth game of 1999 and Brad Smith had actually had a deep threat receiver in a year where Smith rushed for 1300 yards but averaged only 9.4 yards per completion. Regardless, he is one of Mizzou's all-time greats, a big, strong, fast receiver who put up sickening numbers on mediocre offenses.
In the second-most tightly contested race on the ballot, Justin Gage edged out Justin Smith for induction to the RMN Wall of Excellence in Tier II by a margin of only two points.
If you only followed Gage's pro career, it'd almost be easy to ignore just how productive Gage was in his tenure at Missouri. 34 straight games with a catch. 236 yards against Baylor in 2001. 2,704 career receiving yards. 16 catches against Bowling Green in 2002. 200 career receptions. All this from the athlete out of Jeff City who came to Missouri expecting to play quarterback.
As has become custom around these parts, I lean on The Boy to add proper perspective where I have little to add:
"Few careers start under stranger, angrier circumstances than Justin Gage's. His redshirt was torn off in the fourth quarter of Game #9 of the 1999 season so he could split QB snaps with Jim Dougherty. In fact, in his first game (against OU in Norman) he came back out after one series, and Dougherty came in and ran the option. It was possibly the most pissed I've ever been at a Mizzou coach.
Naturally, after that inauspicious beginning to his career, all Gage would do over the next three years is become the greatest WR in Mizzou history."
While the numbers tell the story of Gage's explosiveness, the best example of Gage's heart didn't even occur on a football field. Gage, now the third multi-sport athlete inducted to the RMN Wall of Excellence, may be best remembered not for his football exploits, but for one moment on a basketball court in San Jose.
Gage, the prototypical "energy guy" on the Mizzou basketball teams of the early 2000s, cemented his place in Missouri lore with a full sprint down the court after a loose ball, culminating with a balls-out dive into the cheerleaders, helping spark Missouri to a comeback victory over UCLA.
Yet, while Gage's most enduring image may have come on the basketball court, Gage's most enduring contribution was a flurry of numbers and a priceless glimpse of light during a dim period for Missouri football. Again, as The Boy put it:
"Gage was by far the most dangerous weapon in the dark era between Corby Jones and the emergence of Brad Smith."