Although Gage's abilities were quite apparent during training camp, most observers felt that he would be playing a back up role during the 2003 season. Justin Gage was declared inactive for the first five games of the season, then came in against Seattle where he had 2 catches for 26 yards.
"Sure it was hard to wait for my chance, but that is the role that rookies normally play," Gage said. "You wait and watch on the sidelines and learn all that you can just in case your number gets called."
Gage played again against Detroit where he continued to impress with 2 receptions for 58 yards and against San Diego where one of his catches went for 28 yards. Chris Chandler has praised Gage's ability to reach for the ball and Kordell Stewart relies on Gage's vertical leap deep down field.
"I sort of go into a basketball mode at times when I am out on the football field," Gage said. "I use my elevation to grab the ball. If the guy covering me doesn't know I can do that, it's a tremendous advantage. It's the same move that I used while playing both football and basketball at Missouri. Quarterbacks tell me that they can spot me easily. I kind of stand out from the crowd when I'm trying to catch the ball."
For a basketball player, the 6'4 Gage would be considered moderately tall. As a football player, however, his height makes a difference. Gage also finds that having long arms gives him an edge.
"It's pretty easy for me to reach over defenders. The only time that can cause a problem is when the refs think that I am pushing for the ball," Gage said, referring to his apparent touchdown against Arizona that was called back on a penalty for offensive pass interference.
Gage comes across as both unassuming and easy going. He enjoys locker room banter with teammates and gets along well with Bears veteran quarterbacks Chris Chandler and Kordell Stewart.
"Both Chris and Kordell are great players," Gage said. "They have tremendous experience and they can drive the offense. They are tough players. They know football and can get the job done. Our goal is to go up to Green Bay and put points on the board any way that we can. Whoever ends up calling the signals on Sunday is fine by me."
Although Gage grew up in Missouri, he is surprisingly familiar with the Packers and Lambeau Field.
"Sure I am" Gage said. "The Packers were on TV all the time when I was growing up. That's what my friends and I used to pretend when we were playing grade school ball. We'd imagine being up there at Lambeau Field on that frozen tundra making a touchdown then going into the crowd with our own version of the Lambeau Leap. Now I can have the chance to do that for real. I'm really looking forward to it."
What about the other rookies, who have been praised all season for the maturity of their play during their first year in professional football?
"Coming in to a situation like this all of the new players knew exactly what they needed to do," Gage said. "Skills at a very high level were expected even if you were a rookie. The team has an unusual number of young players on the field right now. Looking around me, I can see so many who have been able to contribute in a very positive way. It wasn't necessarily what people would have predicted at the beginning of the season, but things have turned out pretty well."
Gage feels that the Bears offense has the opportunity to step up this weekend when the pressure is on for a big win.
"There is a momentum building," he said. "We've had a couple of wins against tough teams. I think that we've surprised a lot of people. Now it is up to us to continue this drive. Sure, there are injuries, but each time that happens, somebody steps in who can get the job done. We communicate well with each other and we have confidence in our abilities."
Gage also feels that despite the team's spotty early season record, the Bears are still championship caliber.
"In my mind there is so much to look forward to," Gage said. "We started off slow but as the season has progressed, we came together. We never gave up and that's the thing that I respect the most about this team. I attribute that to Dick Jauron and to the veteran leaders. Now there's a lot to strive for. We see ourselves in the playoffs doing what we do best. We'll go up to Green Bay and get the job done, then see where we go from there."