Warren County Football Alum Gage Steele fulfills dream career at JMU

James Madison University is always where former Warren County High School football star Gage Steele wanted to play.

After capping off an impressive four-year run as a starter for the Wildcats under former coach Tony Tallent, Steele realized his dream by joining the Dukes.

After being redshirted as a freshman, Steele was a productive linebacker for JMU for four seasons, and culminated his fine career on the Harrisonburg campus by being an integral part of the Duke national championship squad this season.

JMU won the FCS championship game last Saturday, 28-14, over Youngstown State in Frisco, Texas, to cap off a magical 14-1 season.

“To win the national championship game at first was a surreal feeling, as it hadn’t sunk in that we actually won the whole thing,” Steele said. “The day after the game I’m finally starting to realize what my team and I have done.” Steele, who led the Dukes in tackles this season from his middle linebacker spot, recorded the first tackle of the game against Youngstown State. Steele led the hard-nosed and physical JMU defense with six tackles, recorded two sacks and one pass break-up early in the game.

“Every athlete dreams about being the best in the world and the national title being the highest honor,” Steele said. “There is no better way to write this story, with it being my last year as a senior to go out on top after being through all the coaching changes and all of the adversity.

While many local football fans and area residents tuned into ESPN2 on Saturday to watch the nearby Dukes and one of their own, win a national championship, one in particular was pulling hard for Steele.

Coach Tallent.

Tallent, who left Warren County for the new Rock Ridge High job in Loudoun County three years ago, still stays in touch with his former star player.

“I was totally tuned in to the game,” said Tallent, a Harrisonburg native, a JMU alumni and an assistant coach on the Dukes last national championship squad in 2004. “The sweetest part was seeing Gage be a part of that team and enjoying that experience. After having three coaches over his past five years at Madison, I felt there wasn't a more deserving person or group of seniors in all of college football than the ones at JMU.”

Tallent, who knows Steele about as well as anyone, said he knows how much his teammates respected him by selecting his as a captain for the second consecutive season.

“To see the pure joy in his face on the podium at the end was amazing,” Tallent said. “There aren’t many that personify determination and loyalty more than Gage Steele. I think that every coach who has ever had the honor of being part of his career will testify to
that statement.”

Tallent said he talked to Steele shortly after the game, just to make sure that he enjoyed and honored the experience of being a champion.
But Tallent likely already knew the answer to that.

“There are many greats who never get to play the last game and come out a winner,” Tallent said. “So many people climb to the top only to fall short. To walk off the field for the final time victorious is a humbling experience. It was evident that game had that type of impact on Gage. I know that all the trials and tribulations he experienced on the road to that day will become lifelong lessons. I am sure every person in Warren County got a bump in pride by seeing one of their own have such an impact.”

And that’s something Steele says he was fully aware of before and after the game.

“It’s good to see all the support and love coming from my hometown,” Steele said, “and I greatly appreciate it.”

The ride to the top at JMU certainly didn’t come easy for Steele.

The former Wildcat had to battle numerous injuries and coaching changes at JMU, a career that had several ups and downs, but ended with the satisfaction that only a national championship title can bring.

After former coach Everett Withers unexpectedly resigned after the 2015 season, current coach Mike Houston inherited a talented but flawed team that needed a stern wake-up call.

“Coach Houston is the prime example of what you want a head coach to be,” Steele said. “The difference with him and the staff was that they genuinely cared about us as people and have respect for us. They wanted the best for us both on and off the field. It allowed all of us to play for one another and fight as a family.”

Steele would obviously still like to keep playing football, but realizes the odds are against a FCS player making it to the NFL.

“I’ll be in the process of finding an agent, training for pro-day and doing all the other things that comes along with preparing for the next level,” Steele said. “No matter what happens, though, I’ll continue to work hard at whatever I put my mind to. That’s something I truly believe in — work
hard for what you want and don’t let anybody stand in your way.”

And if last Saturday was indeed Steele’s last game on the field, well, it couldn’t have ended in any better of a way.

“It’s definitely the way I’ve dreamed about going out,” Steele said. “It’s awesome to say that the dream has come true.”

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