It’s midway through the fourth quarter against South Florida. Louisville hasn’t looked their best, but it’s been enough to handle the Bulls.

South Florida starts the third quarter hoping to mount a comeback and gets a little momentum on their second series. Steven Bench drops back on 2nd and ten. At this very moment, Charles Gaines knows who the ball is going to. Bench is staring him down the entire way. Gaines jumps the route, intercepts the ball, and turns on his ‘run with animals’ speed for an 80 yard TD and the final nail in the coffin for South Florida.

“He got invisible real fast,” former Louisville Defensive Coordinator Vance Bedford would say later after the game.

These have been the typical plays from the 5-11, 190 pound Miami native in his two years at Louisville. He shows “no sympathy”. How he got there is a story that can’t we told through statistics. It can’t be told even through watching him at an open practice. At least not the whole story. It took a change inside that has has placed Charles Gaines in the position to be the next great corner at Louisville.

I intend to tell that story, but first, let’s meet Charles Gaines.

Everything Charles Gaines does is fast. He’s a fast talker (and a loud one) on the football field, letting everyone know that he’ll be the one checking you. He’s a fast player. A real fast one, showing his elite speed anytime he gets an opportunity. He’s a fast rising talent, named on a preseason All-American watch list in 2014, and turning hands around the Country.

“Elite speed, with body balance. That’s awesome,” Defensive Back Coach Terrell Buckley. “When you combine elite speed, body balance and to me instincts – you have something. A guy like Charles Gaines has all of those combinations.”

“His ability is absolutely off the charts,” Head Coach Bobby Petrino added. “Just how fast he is.”

The praise you see above was not always there. He answered thoughtfully to every question asked him on Saturday, calmly and composed. That may not have been the case just two years ago.

But this is now and even before the ever-confident, ever-charismatic, Charles Gaines was able to talk about his triumphs at Louisville with gleam – there was failure. Maybe that was needed for his successes today.  For an ever-evolving game, comes an ever-evolving person.

It took a while for Gaines to see the field at Louisville. He was red-shirted his freshman year, presumably so he could develop. Once completed, Gaines was suspended twice. Once for the season opener against Kentucky, another late in the season against Temple and Connecticut.

Like many things in the Charlie Strong era, the reasoning was left undisclosed. Though given the promise he had shown in limited action between the two suspensions it was reasonable to speculate that it was at least somewhat serious.

There are many points in the careers of college athletes in which they come to a crossroads. Gaines was at one. A crossroad in actually every sense of the word. One turn dictated running from a problem, the other turn dictated tackling and overcoming it.

“In life anybody can run away from situations. Everybody have problems,” an emotional Charles Gaines said. “But it’s like ‘what you gonna do with those problems? You gonna run away with those problems?’ I just decided to fight mine.”

The Charles Gaines of the past would probably not recognize the one that I sat with at a table on media day during our 22 minute interview.

Still playing with a chip on shoulder. He mentioned often how would ask coaches why they didn’t recruit him. Namely, Miami Head Coach Al Golden.

Still always happy. Still always smiling.

“If you walk around dead and you supposed to be leader, people are gonna feed off you,” Gaines explained. “So I just try to stay joyful. Always keep a smile on face.”

Still hilarious. He mentioned the trash talk he’d serve up to opposing teams Wide Receivers. What were those things you say to them again, Charles?

“Your shoes big. Your face big. Your helmet too tight. You too little. Your shoes untied,” Gaines said with a smile. “I just try to do my best to talk that person out of his game”

This is all great but something else is different for Charles Gaines on the football field. He’s become a leader. A leader in every way possible, every sense of the word according to his coaches.

“I think Charles [Gaines] has done an incredible job in leadership. He worked extremely hard in the summer,” Head Coach Bobby Petrino noted with pleasure. “He did a great job with the younger guys in the summer; working in the weight room. He’s made incredible strides on the field with communication and focusing.”

His Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham agreed.

“He’s been a tremendous leader for us,” Grantham explained. “He’s a guy that I thought in the offseason did a great job. Part of being a great defensive team is ownership. Gaines is a guy that I’ve been really pleased with. He’s taken ownership over the defense. Not just the corners but the entire defense to make sure we’re on the same page. He’s a guy we’re gonna lean on.”

Two years ago I’m not exactly sure you would have described Charles Gaines as a guy that a coach would ‘lean on’. It’s always a bit of an unlikely occurrence when a player goes from back-to-back suspensions to becoming a favorite of his coaches. It was the movie Fight Club that gave us the great line of ‘It’s not till you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything’. Charles Gaines is a living embodiment of that.  Something happened when he was stuck with those suspensions – Charlie Strong taught him something.

“Coach [Charlie] Strong was just trying to better be as a man. He knew where I was coming from. Like my background. Anytime I did something wrong, he’d just punish me to see what I was gonna do,” He said. “I’ve changed a lot. I understand ‘my why’. Like why I play football. Why I run sprints. Why I catch balls. Why I wake up every morning. I just run for me and my teammates. I run for my family.”

For Charles Gaines that ‘why’ has propelled him with either interception he makes, every fumble he causes. His mother and two daughters stay his head with each of those plays.

“Like why do I run?” Gaines asked. “It really does make sense now. Like I really don’t run for me to have a big house when I make or if I do make it. I run for my mom to have a big house. For my kids to have a big house. People like ‘How’s camp going? Yeah it’s hard’ but I don’t really look at it like that. I look at camp like it’s a big house. This catch is a big house. This interception to the crib – that’s a grandma’s house.”

Between the long conversations behind closed doors and the suspensions. Something clicked for Charles Gaines. Immediately his Sophomore season, after a red-shirt Freshman year full of ups and downs, it shown. It was actually instant, in his first career start against Kentucky he recorded an interception. Maybe finding that ‘why’ had something to do with. Maybe that extra motivation was all he needed.

Though it was Charlie Strong that triggered that internal ‘change’ in Charles Gaines, he’s reaping plenty of benefits through Bobby Petrino as well.

“He’s business. Coach Strong just let us have fun,” Gaines said. “With Coach Petrino, yeah you can fun but there’s a time and a place. Don’t be too loud in film or anything like that. It’s just calmed me down.”

Armed with new tools on the field and a bit of an altered mind. Charles Gaines is primed for an absolutely fantastic year. The excitement comes from his stellar finish to last season. Finishing the year with four interceptions in the last six games and leading the team with five interceptions.

Now the goal for Charles Gaines as he heads into his junior season is double-digit interceptions. Former Cardinal great Sam Madison – whom Gaines has lately drawn comparisons to – finished with 7 interceptions his final season at Louisville. Gaines doesn’t expect to limit himself to interceptions, either. He plans to return interceptions for touchdowns, record sacks and force fumbles.

Though Gaines hears the hype, don’t expect that to cause him to let his guard down. That’s simply not in his DNA.

“I don’t have time to mess up. There’s a player behind me that thinks he’s better than me. I always play with the ‘he trying to take my job’ mentality. So I just go hard and go hard.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that Charles Gaines holds this mentality. At Miami Central, everything is earned nothing is given. When you’re surrounded by so much talent all set on achieving the same goals, you can never make a false movement. Miami High School Football teaches you that, it ingrains that in your soul. For Charles Gaines, figuring out his reason to play football may be the greatest attribute he’s ever been given. Because it keeps him remembering everything he plays for. You can see that determination when you speak to him, you can feel it. It comes at you like a rocket out of cannon destined for enemy. It should scare his opponents.

Miami may have given Gaines the mentality to never falter but he may be on the cusp on one of the greatest seasons in Louisville Football history because of what has happen while he’s lived in Louisville. Charles Gaines has discovered his ‘why’.

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Chris Hatfield

Residing in Louisville, KY (via Bardstown, KY). I write things about Louisville Sports. Sometimes you'll like them. Follow me @_ChrisHatfield Email me at chatfield60@gmail.com

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