Jimmy Gaines read the offensive linemen and dropped into pass coverage. Backed up deep in his own territory and protecting an early lead, the senior linebacker was ready to make a stand.
Draped in the No. 59 Miami Hurricanes uniform as brilliantly white as the teeth hidden behind his orange mouthguard, Gaines scanned the field before stepping up and hammering Pitt tight end Manasseh Garner at the 10-yard line, dislodging the ball and forcing an incomplete pass.
Miami’s defense held on to force a field goal on that drive and went on to beat Pitt, 41-31, Friday at Heinz Field in the final regular season game of Gaines’ collegiate career.
It’s been quite the journey for the Buffalo native who began playing for Miami as a true freshman at age 17. He started on the kickoff team in his first game against Florida A&M and was so nervous he thought he might throw up. His second game was at Ohio State. The hostile crowd of 105,454 that day was a bit of a wake-up call for the Canisius High School graduate. But over his four years, playing on the road actually became Gaines’ favorite part of being a college football player.
“You go into another stadium and everyone’s rooting against you,” Gaines said. “If you’re able to preform well and shut the crowd up, it’s cool.”
That’s just like Gaines to thrive on quieting the doubters. A kid from Buffalo starting at The U? His teammates tease him occasionally about his Western New York upbringing.
“They say ‘What’s Buffalo? Nobody plays football up there.’ But it’s all good,” Gaines said. “They’ll say that and then I’ll give them a good lick in practice.”
Originally a University at Buffalo commit, Gaines reopened his recruiting when coach Turner Gill left for Kansas. Canisius coaches sent his game film to a graduate assistant they knew at Miami, who passed it up the chain. Miami coaches flew Gaines down and offered him a scholarship after dinner that night, but that didn’t stop people from questioning his credentials, even locally.
“At the time, everyone around town was like, he’s not Miami material and I can’t believe he’s playing for Miami,” said Canisius coach Rich Robbins, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. “Here he is, their starting middle linebacker. He got the last laugh there.”
Whatever shortcomings of raw ability prevented Gaines from being more heavily recruited in high school, he has made up for with drive and character in college.
“My preparation and my knowledge for the game,” is Gaines’ answer to what’s got him from the kickoff team to Miami’s starting middle linebacker.
“I’ve learned a lot of football from these coaches,” he added. “I started to become a student of the game, understand schemes, understand offenses, how to dissect offenses and how to study film.”
That character can be traced to his high school days. The son of a deacon and a former choirboy, Robbins recalls time spent at the church coming before practice.
A healthy dose of toughness didn’t hurt either. In high school, Gaines once ripped the skin on his hand open when he went for a stiff arm. He played two more plays before the referee noticed blood on his uniform and made him go to the bench, where he realized the bone in his finger was sticking out.
In Friday’s game, that toughness was on display as Gaines led all players with eight tackles. He has made himself into a formidable player at this level, and hopes to do the same in the NFL, whether he’s drafted or not.
Gaines plans to host a pro day at Miami after their bowl game, where he’ll do his best to convince teams he’s worth a draft pick. If not, he’ll show up at whichever training camp he’s invited to, put that character and work ethic on display and make himself into what everyone said he couldn’t be once again.