BAKER — There is a reason the Gage family’s living room is mostly empty.
For the same reason, the old blue truck outside won’t start and the horse stable in the side yard is a fraction of its former size.
There is a reason the flooring and fixtures are brand new in this 23-year-old home and why the two dirt bikes in the garage are no longer in service.
There is a reason why Alisa Gage sees her son in a different way than she did last summer.
There is a reason for it all, the same reason: the Baton Rouge flood.
“A little water,” Alisa says, “will ruin everything.”
Two feet of water shook this family’s life last August. The capital city’s 1,000-year flood turned the Gages into nomads. They lived in a hotel for three months and a trailer for nine more. They lost four vehicles and all of their furniture and kitchen appliances.
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A couple of them even lost their phones, victims of the same water that trickled into their home on Aug. 13, 2016, when some of the 7 trillion gallons of rain in the Baton Rouge area drained into and subsequently swelled the Comite River.
That day is when Alisa Gage learned something about her son, Russell, a senior receiver for LSU.
But first, you must learn all the things she's known for years about Russell.
He may be 6-foot, 185 pounds, but Russell Gage is tough. He’s a hard-working, regimented football player who shows no weakness. His emotions aren’t on his sleeve — they’re in his pocket.
Small in size as he might be, she said, he steps onto the football field for one thing: to hit. That’s why he chose this crazy game, picking it over a potential career in baseball. He’s an old-fashioned football player, this guy, a thick-framed, snarling nose guard trapped in the body of a slot receiver.
She knew all of these things about her son before Aug. 13, 2016.
“That day,” she said, “I saw compassion.”
She saw her son wade through waist-deep water, ride the family’s horses to safety, swim against the current to return and, through a friend, track down three rescue boats for his mother, father, sister, dog, aunt and grandmother.
“We learned,” said Russell Gage Sr., Russell’s father, “that he can be hardheaded.”
That’s the other part of this tale. His father and mother told Russell to remain on LSU’s campus and then, when he arrived in Baker anyway, pleaded with him to save the horses and leave the family. Don’t risk swimming through rising flood waters, they said. Don’t you come back, they told him.
“I’m going to get my momma,” he told friend Luke Jackson after unloading the horses, slipping off with fellow teammate Devin Voorhies. “I got to go get my momma.”
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A signature move
Terence Williams encouraged Russell Gage to stop hurdling defenders on the football field. “You’re going to get yourself killed,” the former Redemptorist coach warned his do-it-all player.
Then came that 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in which Gage hurdled a man to get to the end zone in a momentum-swinging score just before halftime. From then on, Williams allowed Gage to hurdle.
He hasn’t stopped.
“I see him doing it on Saturdays,” said Williams, Gage’s coach during his senior season in 2013 at Redemptorist.
Gage has created what fellow LSU receiver D.J. Chark calls his “signature move.”
You’ll probably see it, if you haven’t already, when LSU (4-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 10 Auburn (5-1, 3-0) on Saturday in Tiger Stadium. The senior wideout leaps over oncoming, would-be tacklers the same way a track star clears hurdles.
Gage has no experience in actual hurdling, though he did participate in the long jump at Redemptorist.
The hurdling is so prevalent that it’s almost expected when he gets the ball, many times on coordinator Matt Canada’s patented jet sweeps.
It took two years for Gage to find the right position – he played defensive back in 2014 and 2015 – and it took three years for him to finally earn a starting spot. Now, he’s got one of the team’s most peculiar roles – the hurdling jet sweeper.
Gage has more rushes (16) than catches (10), and he’s averaging 6 yards a run, a number inflated by one of his most recent and successful sweeps – a 30-yard touchdown in a 17-16 win at Florida last Saturday.
He also took an end-around for 15 yards, a first-quarter rush in which he hurdled Florida defensive back Duke Dawson and a play CBS replayed multiple times for the nation to see.
Yes, America, here’s the kid who hurdles 255-pound linebackers and 6-foot-2 safeties.
“When he makes them jumps, I’m like this!” Alisa Gage said, pulling part of her shirt over her head.
“He did it at least five times in practice this season, hurdling the best defenders,” Chark said. “It always catches you off guard, so you can’t really prepare for it.”
Gage's hurdling began at Redemptorist, a small Catholic high school in north Baton Rouge that the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge shut down a year after Gage graduated. In fact, Gage believes he’s the last Redemptorist graduate still playing major college football.
It’s been a long road to this point for a guy whose scholarship offer list, aside from LSU, included programs like Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Tulane and Southern Miss. He didn’t receive an offer from the Tigers until the final two weeks before the 2014 signing day.
He committed to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, moved to defensive back and became a reserve no one really discussed. Gage did not touch the football until the final regular-season game of his junior year last season at Texas A&M.
He was so far down the secondary pecking order that Gage played receiver on the scout team. He did well enough that by the spring of 2016, coaches moved him there full time.
He played receiver at Redemporist as a sophomore, moved to defensive back as a junior and did it all as a senior: a zone-read quarterback, wideout, safety, cornerback, punter, kicker and returner. He played more than 1,400 snaps that season.
“I came in,” Williams said, “and I told him, ‘Son, you’re going to have to get in shape, because you’re never coming off the field.’”
Except, of course, when Gage was in the air, feet off the field, hurdling.
“First time I did it, guy went low and it was just a reaction," Gage said. "I just jumped. I looked at it on film and thought, 'That was cool.' I implemented it in my game, and here I am now.”
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The Gage family — Russell Sr., Alisa, daughter Relisa and Alisa’s mother, Ruby Cole — moved back into its home Aug. 12, one day before the anniversary of its flooding.
Here they sit on a Wednesday night at the simplest of kitchen tables in a sparsely furnished two-story house.
Their flood insurance covered the cost of damages to permanent structures in the home. Their walls, for example, four feet of which needed to be torn out and replaced, were covered. Cabinets and flooring were included as well.
What insurance did not cover was furniture.
“I’m just glad to be in my house,” said Alisa, a social worker whose focus is on schools.
Some aren’t so lucky.
Louisiana has received $1.7 billion in federal aid for flood recovery, but leaders say more is needed if the state wants to help all of the nearly 100,000 homes affected in one of the worst natural disasters in the region's recorded history.
The Gages relive that nightmarish day with a reporter on this Wednesday night.
There was no tornado warning or hurricane watch. The flood came while they were sleeping. At 3 a.m., Russell, Sr. stepped out of bed into sewage water. The toilet had backed up. He peered outside the window to a home surrounded by water.
The family was not rescued until 12 hours later.
Water began creeping into the house at about 11 a.m., and their son arrived from LSU after the team’s morning practice. He and linebacker Devin Voorhies left campus without telling then-coach Les Miles. They parked five miles away and walked. That did no good. By the time the day ended, flood waters had submerged Russell’s vehicle.
At his home, vehicles, dirt bikes and doghouses were already under water.
“We were down here with boots on,” Alisa said, pointing to the family’s now-renovated kitchen.
Russell Jr.'s 66-year-old aunt and 76-year-old grandmother stayed upstairs while scrambling unfolded below. His Rottweiler, Relay, was caged and placed on the kitchen counter. Other valuable items, photographs and such, were moved to high locations.
Russell Jr. and Voorhies showed up with a couple of ideas. The first: Auntie, Mom and Grandma could ride horseback out of the flood.
Alisa laughs when retelling this one. The next idea even makes her chuckle harder.
“We’ll tie a rope around all of us to connect us,” Russell Jr. explained to the family, “and we’ll wade through the water.”
Responded Alisa: “No, son.”
In the end, Voorhies and Russell Jr. rode the horses, Sonny and Rain, to safety before fetching Sherriff’s deputies through high school teammate Luke Jackson. Three boats arrived by 5 p.m., liberating the family from their power-less home, an island in the middle of what had become a vast sea just off Plank Road in the north Baton Rouge suburb of Baker.
They boated down their road in shock.
“It was mind-boggling,” Alisa said.
“Disbelief,” Russell Sr. said.
The Gages didn’t stop gathering around a table for dinner because some flood washed out their home. They only relocated — first to adjoining rooms at the Radisson Hotel and then to a FEMA trailer positioned on their property.
“We kept that up,” Alisa said.
Russell Sr., a processing operator for BP in Port Allen, is the family chef. He cooks his son’s favorites: steaks, hot wings, grilled shrimp, chicken and fries. In fact, Russell Jr.’s long-term plan — after a potential pro football career ends — is to open a restaurant, with his father doing the cooking.
Junior, as the family calls him, has big plans, but the first is football.
Junior is all business. He treats LSU’s offensive playbook, for instance, “like a Bible,” his mother said. He’s no party boy. A few football players celebrated a teammate’s birthday recently. Junior met them for dinner and then left, skipping any late-night activities.
Junior is a homebody. He makes the 25-minute commute from campus to his house multiple times a week. He did so Monday and Wednesday this week for “practice after practice,” as his father described it.
He walked into the family’s home, grabbed a half-deflated football and spent the next 2-3 hours in the yard running routes, driveway lights giving him direction. He was all alone — just Russell and his ball to midnight or 1 a.m.
He does this after games, too, and he is not to be interfered with.
“If you go ask him a question,” Relisa said, “it’s like he doesn’t hear you. It’s like you’re not there.”
This has gone on for years, since his high school days as a two-sport star. During his junior season at Redemptorist, Major League Baseball scouts spotted Russell while watching an opponent’s players. His name quickly spread throughout the league.
On one spring day in 2012, at least eight scouts watched him at Redemptorist. The base-stealing shortstop walked in each at-bat that day, his father recalled.
But baseball wasn’t his thing, despite his mother’s encouraging him to the less physical sport.
“I tried,” Alisa said. “He wanted to hit.”
So here he is, hitting or hurdling — and downing punts. He talked his way last week onto LSU’s punt team, replacing freshman Todd Harris as a gunner. The result: he downed a game-changing punt inside the 5-yard line with four minutes left with LSU leading Florida by a point.
“We needed a little spark on special teams,” Russell said. “I look at it like it was no different than getting off a release and running a (go) route.”
None of this is a surprise to the Gages.
They’ve seen their son do these things for years — run sweeps, catch passes and down punts. What they saw on Aug. 13, 2016, was something different. And no play on the field can match it.
“I told him, ‘No, Russell, that can’t happen. Don’t come back! Take the horses and go!’” Alisa said. “I see him coming back a few minutes later.
“He said, ‘Mom! I’m not leaving y’all!’”