Head upstairs at the Northtown Center in Amherst, toward the back, veer left and inside this dim gym is where you’ll find Jimmy Gaines all month. He’s at the squat rack this day, ripping through a lower-body workout. His light blue Buffalo Bills T-shirt is now drenched to a dark navy.
Once it’s all over, Gaines wipes his brow and takes a seat on the red bench overlooking a hockey rink below.
He cannot stop smiling. One reason? He already has an edge on other linebackers in Buffalo.
You see, last off-season Doug Marrone’s coaching staff let players take home their iPad playbooks during this five-week lull between minicamp and training camp. New head coach Rex Ryan, not so much. His staff asked for all the iPads back.
Many linebackers, Gaines admits, scrambled in a panic. Not him. All spring, he re-wrote everything that was in the iPad. Every play. Every check off every play. His notebooks are scattered with stars and underlines and explanations.
“They told us the day before, ‘You have to turn these in,’ ” Gaines said.
He’s not sure why. He doesn’t really care.
“I just have to focus on me at this point.”
These are the small things this hometown linebacker must do to make the team.
Gaines, a Getzville native and 2010 Canisius High grad who’d eventually star at the University of Miami, is aiming for NFL snaps after spending his rookie season on the practice squad. Physically, he’s not very imposing. Gaines stands 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. His clocked 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash? OK. That 33-inch vertical? Blah.
But there’s a reason this former two-star recruit out of high school – “Two stars,” he repeats. “I didn’t even have a picture on Rivals!” – beat out four- and five-star prospects to run the Hurricanes’ defense. All of those small things add up. Gaines believes knowledge is power and certain events in his life have led to this point.
The kid who grew up playing at Shoshone Park in North Buffalo still has a shot.
“Smart. Tough. Gritty,” Gaines said. “I’m willing to do anything. It doesn’t really matter. I’ll do it. If I have to be on an island like” Darrelle “Revis, I’ll do it. If I have to check” Charles “Clay in practice or whether I have to check” LeSean “McCoy in practice, whatever’s asked of me, I’ll do it. I’m not going to think, ‘OK, he is who he is.’ I’m who I am as well. I’m confident in my abilities and I’m confident in what I can do.”
Parents are role models
Growing up in Williamsville, Gaines’ mother was stricken with multiple sclerosis and forced to go on disability. MS, a central nervous system disease that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and body, completely changed her life.
Some days, Carolyn Gaines feels fine. Other days, she can barely walk or her hands won’t function properly. While it’s impossible for others to tell from her warm, loving demeanor, she’s in pain daily. In addition to the MS, she also suffers from Myasthenia Gravis, the rapid fatigue of muscles. Any activity that lasts 10 minutes leaves her exhausted on the couch the rest of the day.
Thus, James Gaines Sr. calls her the bravest person he knows.
Mom was forced to leave her job and Dad picked up the financial slack to support a family of five.
A Buffalo firefighter for 30-plus years, Gaines Sr. has also played the bass for multiple churches. From home, Gaines Sr. worked for a legal service (now “Legal Shield”) where he helped other families get access to the top law firms in the country and Ambit Energy, an electric and gas supplier.
At the most impressionable age – 9, 10, 11 years old – Gaines Jr. lived through this all firsthand.
“His work ethic and her fight molded me into the man I am today,” Gaines said. “The fact that we dealt with it shows resolve in my father, who was able to support us. Support everybody. We were never hungry.”
Added Gaines Sr., “I tell you, his Mom, her intestinal fortitude, having to deal with what she’s going through on a daily basis, he gets a lot of that from her.”
Which is why Gaines Jr. would be named the Hurricanes’ Strength Training Athlete of the Year. Which is why he is so manic, so meticulous with knowing everything about a defense.
At Miami, he should’ve been lost in the blur of faster, stronger linebackers. Heck, he was the only player from the entire state of New York on the roster. And here he was in spring ball before his junior year with the No. 1 defense – his grasp of the X’s and O’s at a doctorate level.
Injury sets him back
One more life-changing moment fueled Gaines. In the weight room, he jumped over a hurdle, clipped it and landed awkwardly on his ankle. Nothing but a bruise, he figured. The pain the next morning was “terrible,” he tried practicing through it and the ankle buckled after he shed a blocker.
Suddenly, Gaines was damaged goods. Buried on the depth chart.
“Even then, they were trying to replace me,” Gaines said. “They had a guy – a four-, five-star recruit behind me – who was a freshman. They wanted him to play. Raphael Kirby.”
Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio insists it was Gaines’ job all along. Either way, Gaines rehabbed, waited, injuries struck elsewhere and when Gaines returned, he returned with a vengeance. This was the same kid who once ripped the webbing between his middle and ring fingers on a helmet in high school and stayed in the game as blood gushed all over his hand.
That ankle throbbing, Gaines started the final five games and played the best football of his life. The next year, in a 3-4 scheme, he started all 13 games alongside eventual second-round pick Denzel Perryman.
Above all, Gaines took ownership of the defense. He was never worried about Kirby (or anybody else) taking his job because nobody ran the scheme smoother.
“That was my defense,” said Gaines, who had 83 tackles (54 solo) as a senior. “I was in full control. I knew for a fact that the defense ran better with me at the helm. I had no doubts about it. … I was prepared more than anybody else. When it came to knowing my opponent, when it came to knowing the defense, when it came to knowing what other guys had to do in the defense, I knew. Nobody knew it better than I did.”
Take one of Miami’s go-to defensive calls. On this call, the middle linebacker had totally different audibles to check to if the offense came out in a pro set, a slot set, three receivers, empty backfield or motion. If Gaines wasn’t in the game, hell typically broke loose.
In the ACC, such mastery of the scheme helped him overcome a 215-pound frame.
D’Onofrio thinks he’ll do the same in the pros, too.
“I don’t believe anybody will out-prepare him or out-work him,” D’Onofrio said. “So certainly that makes up for a lot against anybody he’s competing against. He can play fast because he understands the game. He trusts what he’s looking at, which ultimately can put him in position to make plays, which really is what matters. Not the height and weight and speed, but how fast can you get the information from the sideline, detect what they’re going to do ahead of time and react faster.”
Gaines is a natural optimist. For 45 minutes, he beams.
He sees signs of hope everywhere. During his childhood, Buffalo linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes both attended his church. Gaines even interviewed Fletcher for a school project. The control, the command Fletcher exuded in Buffalo stood out to Gaines. If the 5-foot-10 Fletcher could play 16 seasons, why can’t he?
“His confidence to tell these other grown men what they have to do,” Gaines said. “That’s tough dealing with all those personalities. Even at Miami, it was tough. Certain guys were smart guys. Certain guys were not so smart.”
Feeling no pressure
No, he doesn’t know this Bills defense as well as the Hurricanes’ scheme. The volume of plays, checks and blitzes is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He says Ryan wants everything run fast. Again, he’ll need to “eliminate thinking” at a faster rate than his peers. Thus, having all these notes through the month of July helps.
Even as a two-star, undrafted, overlooked needle in Ryan’s haystack, Gaines absolutely plans on barking orders all camp long. He’ll approach this summer like a starter.
“When I’m on the field,” Gaines said, “you’re going to hear me.”
Said Gaines Sr., “He’s headstrong with what he wants to do. I strongly believe he has the work ethic to make it on Sundays. If he gets on the field, they’re going to be calling for him to start.”
One day, he’ll put his exercise physiology degree to use. Gaines would love to be a trainer or an athletic director.
For now, he’ll “ride this wave as long as possible.” For Mom, for Dad, for everyone in Western New York.
Does he feel any extra pressure? No. But still, most friends here don’t get it. As Gaines spent last year on the practice squad, his phone constantly lit up with messages of “Why aren’t you starting?” and “I need to see you out there!” He’d never snap back. Rather, Gaines told each friend, “I’m working,” and left it at that.
It’d be great to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium in front of these same people, sure. But hands clasped, eyes focused, his voice picking up a speed, Gaines makes it clear he wants more.
“I don’t want to just be out there to be out there,” he said. “I don’t want to just be another guy. If I’m out there, I want to make a difference. I’m not a guy who just says, ‘Oh, well, I’m here.’ I’m trying to make plays. When I was in Miami, I’m trying to make plays. When I was at Canisius, I’m trying to make plays.
“Whenever I step onto the field, I want to be a playmaker.”
Gaines straps a Hurricanes backpack around his back, clutches a Canisius t-shirt in his hand and heads downstairs.
By Sept. 13, he plans on wearing one more jersey.