Photo by Bradley Heltzel/Times West Virginian

Fairmont Senior’s Gage Michael runs upfield against Bluefield during a Class AA state semifinal game at Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield.

By Bradley Heltzel

Times West Virginian, Fairmont

FAIRMONT — This bulletin board of achievement wasn’t one of individual statistical benchmarks, team-based goals, or standards of athletic character. It didn’t even have anything to do with football at all. 

And yet, Fairmont Senior High’s Gage Michael was determined to earn representation on it all the same. 

The bulletin board was put up by Fairmont Senior coach Nick Bartic, but it wasn’t connected to football. Instead, the board was designed to recognize some of the best work produced by Bartic’s students in his history class. “If it’s good enough, your final product gets put up in the room,” Bartic said. 

Michael, a junior at the time, and his classmates were assigned by Bartic to create propaganda posters related to World War II, Bartic said, and Michael quickly assured his teacher and coach that his poster was going to warrant a spot on the bulletin board. 

“He said, ‘I’m getting on that board, Coach,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure Gage,'” Bartic recalled, reflecting his sarcasm and doubt.  

“He ended up producing a very high quality poster,” Bartic said, “and eventually it was, ‘Oh, you are gonna make the board…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that is indeed going to make the board.’ It was really well done, I couldn’t believe it.” 

The anecdote, while devoid of any football context, offered a lens into the mentality and competitive nature that has made Michael into such a special football player. 

“He’s competitive to the point where he wanted to be one of the posters that made the board,” Bartic said. “Sure, he enjoyed the topic, but he was also being driven by his competitiveness, even in the classroom.” 

Talk to anyone about Michael and all he’s accomplished in his football career at Fairmont Senior, and for all of his gifts as a player — his electricity as a runner, his arm talent as a passer, his instincts as a defender — they’ll tell you his most defining and unassailable trait is his competitiveness.

“If it’s a competition, he’s trying to win it, no matter what the case may be,” Bartic said. “Everything that we do, to the best of his ability he’s going to try to win.” 

“I call him Psycho — and I mean that in the best way possible — because of his work ethic and his competitiveness to win every drill,” said Fairmont Senior offensive coordinator Mark Sampson. “Every sprint that we run, he’s trying to win it, every rep he takes in the weight room, he’s doing an extra rep each set. Whatever it takes to win, he’s willing to do it, and that reflects in the way that he plays and the way that he leads.” 

“Competing is what fuels me,” Michael said earlier this season. “I thrive for competition, I love competition.” 

That competitiveness was the fuel throughout Michael’s legendary career at Fairmont Senior, one in which the Polar Bears won a pair of Class AA state championships (2018, 2020) and compiled a 21-3 record in Michael’s 24 starts at quarterback. It was also at the root of Michael’s sensational senior season which has garnered him the 2020 J.R. House Award, given annually to the state’s top quarterback by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.

South Charleston’s Trey Dunn and Spring Mills’ Keon Padmore-Johnson were also considered as top candidates for the award in recognition of their successful seasons. 

Michael finished the 2020 season 119-of-206 for 2,084 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air while also rushing 177 times for 1,639 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to leading the Polar Bears to a 10-2 record and the Class AA state title via a semifinal road victory over Bluefield. In his two seasons as Fairmont Senior’s starting quarterback, Michael threw for 4,474 yards and 55 touchdowns and rushed for 3,192 yards and 39 touchdowns, and he also became the first player in school history to eclipse 8,000 yards of total offense for his career. 

“I remember his first day at practice with us, we threw him in at quarterback and there was no way he knew the plays because it was his first day,” Sampson said, “and he still took the team he had right down the field and scored. He was just back there playing ball, so you could see his talent and skills even then.” 

“As a freshman, you noticed he had ability, obviously,” said Bartic of Michael, who was starting at cornerback by the end of his freshman year, “but he also was never scared to jump in drills, even if he wasn’t the best guy or wasn’t going to win the drill. He never backed down from anybody and he was always looking for competition, always looking for a challenge.

“When your best all-around football player on offense and defense…when he’s that competitive, I think it spreads to everyone else.”

Michael’s competitive swagger and spirit as the Polar Bears’ leader has aligned perfectly with a Fairmont Senior program that has eaten up competition during its rise to becoming one of the state’s top teams year in and year out over the past decade.

He routinely spars with Sampson in sprints at practice — “he’s yet to beat me, but he’s come close,” Sampson cracked.

He had a famously “heated” duel with associate head coach Mike Mainella in a Skelley Drill during a practice his junior year, Sampson recalls. And in the weight room, he’s always trying to one up everybody else, even if no one’s keeping track but him.

“I remember one time in the weight room we didn’t tell the guys we were counting their reps — we were doing it kind of secretly — and every set of Gage’s that I counted, he was doing one or two extra reps than he was supposed to be doing…and that was as a sophomore,” Sampson said. 

Michael’s thirst for seeking out competition typifies the standards he sets for himself and the Polar Bears. There are no shortcuts to greatness, no ifs, ands, or buts on the path to a championship. 

“He doesn’t make excuses,” Bartic said. “Injury, weather, a bad call, whatever the case may be, he never allows excuses to justify a poor performance — he always owns up to it and takes the blame. Even when he broke his foot last year, he didn’t use that as an excuse when we lost (to Bluefield in the semifinals).” 

That rigid level of self-accountability combined with maniacal competitiveness acted as the foundation that drove Michael and the Polar Bears back to the top of Class AA in 2020, when they defeated Bluefield in a state semifinal rematch at Mitchell Stadium that ultimately served as the Class AA state title game following the cancellation of the Super Six Championships due to COVID-19. 

“To see a kid who you’ve gotten that close with and you understand what he puts into the game, to see him leave as a champion, it’s very gratifying,” Sampson said. “I’m just really relieved and happy for him that he was able to do that.” 

“To go out as a senior as a state champion,” Michael said after the win, “it’s just an amazing feeling.”