ST. LOUIS — E.J. Gaines did just about everything he could during the three days of the NFL Draft to avoid thinking about what was unfolding and how it impacted his so-close-he-could-taste-it football career.
The former University of Missouri cornerback, who grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Mo., played video games during the draft and later went with friends and family to shoot pool. He made sure his cell phone was with him everywhere he went and even kept it out of his pocket to make sure he’d know whenever the life-changing call came in.
"I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff to try to keep my mind away from the TV," Gaines explained later. "I know I have no say in who was going to call me, so when the phone call comes, just be by the phone to answer it."
When the call finally came, from St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, Gaines was pleasantly surprised that he’d have the opportunity to begin his professional career just a few hours from home.
"It’s a blessing, especially to stay close to home, close to where I played college football," Gaines said. "I’m excited to play for coach Fisher."
The Rams were surprised that the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder was still available when they selected him in the sixth round. St. Louis had him rated higher on their board and considered picking him earlier, so when he was still available at No. 188 overall, they felt like he fell to them.
"At one time we just said, ‘You know what? Let’s sit back and wait.’ That’s when we got E.J., which was nice," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "Instead of using picks to go get him, we said, ‘Let’s hold pat.’"
Gaines, 22, will have a good opportunity with the Rams.
St. Louis went into the draft needing help in the secondary, especially after releasing cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Before taking Gaines, the Rams picked Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner in the second round and Utah State safety Maurice Alexander in the fourth.
Gaines will be competing for a roster spot or playing time with such guys as second-year players Brandon McGee, a fifth-round pick in 2013, and Darren Woodard and undrafted rookie free agents Greg Reid (Valdosta State), Marcus Roberson (Florida) and Jarrid Bryant (South Dakota).
"He’s a good zone player, a good effort player, a solid tackler," Fisher said of Gaines. "He shows man-to-man skills and he’s a good athlete. We had some spots available at the position so we feel like he’s got a chance to come in and not only compete, but also do some things on special teams for us."
Gaines is ready to prove himself in the NFL. He thought he’d done just that during his three years as a starter at Mizzou, which included being named to the All-Big 12 Conference first team as a sophomore in 2011 and earning All-Southeastern Conference first-team honors as a senior last season.
Gaines showed what he was capable of when he limited Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans, an early-first-round pick, to four catches for eight yards during their one-on-one matchup last fall.
That was something he was asked about by scouts often during the grinding pre-draft process this spring, which included a trip to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and then his pro day in Columbia.
"Yes, they did," Gaines said. "They brought it up. Actually, all of them did. To see him go in the first round and see me go in the sixth is a little crazy to me, but … it’s a blessing. God has a plan for me and for Mike Evans and I’m sure we’ll both be great in the NFL."
Gaines likely fell because of his size, but he’s shown during his career in Columbia that he can cover anybody he’s lined up against. Evans is a physical specimen at 6-5 and 231 pounds, about as big and strong and fast as any wide receiver anywhere.
So, yeah, he’s proven himself against the best of the best in college.
In a conference call with reporters shortly after he got the call from Fisher, Gaines said he was more surprised than disappointed with being selected in the sixth round. Then he vowed to do whatever he had to to be able to get on the field for the Rams.
Gaines took the chip-on-his-shoulder cliche to another level when he tweeted, not long after he was selected by the Rams, that he had a Dorito on his shoulder. He didn’t specify which flavor. Unfortunately.
But he will have every opportunity to prove himself in St. Louis. He was out there with his new rookie teammates on Friday, wearing a white No. 33 jersey, and will take the field for conditioning with his veteran teammates this week. He’s eager to show what he can do, just like when he was a freshman in Columbia.
"I think there’s plenty of things I can bring to the Rams as far as going inside and playing the nickel, playing outside at corner, even moving back and playing some safety," Gaines said. "I’ll do whatever I have to, to get on the field. Like I said, if it’s special teams, inside, outside, safety, it doesn’t matter. I’ll do whatever I have to."