COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines says he tries to be a leader of his team.
The senior captain, a Fort Osage High School graduate, made a decision in the offseason that helped him become a leader at home, too.
Gaines likely could have left the Tigers and been selected in the NFL draft, but he chose to return in hopes of becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.
"Some kids will rush to go make the dollars and make the money in the NFL," cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. "But I think there are some that are smarter and understand the big picture."
Gaines, like many kids, grew up wanting to play professionally; college wasn't on the radar screen.
"No, not a chance," he said with a laugh when asked if he would have attended school without a scholarship to play football.
But while he "definitely" made the right choice to stay in Columbia and remain on track to graduate in December, there was a moment last month when he wasn't smiling.
In the second quarter of a game at Georgia on Oct. 12, Gaines injured his quadriceps trying to run down Bulldogs receiver Rantavious Wooten. He stayed on the field for another play before collapsing and signaling for help.
The Independence native missed the team's next two games, the first time since becoming a Tiger in 2010 that he didn't play. The toughest part, he said, was watching Missouri lose to South Carolina without him.
"When he's on the field, there's a sense of confidence," coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's our best defensive player, certainly, coming into this year. And I think it was very difficult for him to sit out."
Gaines admitted to being nervous when he strapped on his helmet last week in his return, but he seemed at ease on the field. In the second quarter against Tennessee, he intercepted his fourth pass of the year, tying him for the Southeastern Conference lead. The next play, quarterback Maty Mauk fluttered a 26-yard touchdown pass to L'Damian Washington for a 17-0 lead.
Missouri won, 31-3, yielding the fewest points to a conference opponent since 2010.
The ninth-ranked Tigers (8-1, 4-1 SEC) actually rank last in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 279.3 yards per game, 28.2 more than Auburn. But the team leads the league with 17 interceptions and a plus-15 turnover margin, 10 more than Alabama. This week at Kentucky (2-6, 0-4), Missouri will try to force its 40th consecutive opponent into committing a turnover.
Freshman Aarion Penton filled in for Gaines after the injury, recording his first career interception. Penton called Gaines a "brother," saying the senior told him that whenever he needed something, he could turn to Gaines.
"I was one of those young guys one day, and my big brothers were excited for me making plays," said Gaines, who now just wants to return the favor.
After capping his educational career, Gaines plans on continuing the pursuit of his lifelong dream. He hopes to get chosen in one of the first two rounds in April's draft, but he says he has a hunch he'll get a chance to play wherever he goes.
Whatever happens, Gaines remains thankful for where he is despite any speed bumps life throws his way. Having defended some of the best receivers in the country in single coverage, he understands the importance of having confidence in every situation, whether that's catching an interception or watching film with younger players.
"There's never a dull moment when you're out there on an island by yourself," he said.