Gesser hopes pro odyssey ends with AFL home

JASON GESSER, AS A Washington State University undergraduate, passed footballs for more yards and touchdowns than any of his distinguished Palouse predecessors, including first-round draft picks Ryan Leaf, Drew Bledsoe, Timm Rosenbach and Jack Thompson, and the most valuable player of a Super Bowl, Mark Rypien.

Gesser completed his career in 2003 by playing in a Rose Bowl game, an accomplishment that in itself sets him apart from all but Leaf in the "modern" era of Cougar football. That he faced a hungry horde of Oklahoma defenders while limping on a gimpy leg that January day in Pasadena was symbolic of another Gesser trait: fearlessness in battle despite being comparatively small in stature.

As a leader, Gesser, 6-feet-1 and 200 pounds, had no peers. He is the only Cougar to ever be elected a team captain three times.

But what has happened to Gesser since those glory days of 10-win seasons and bowl-game appearances has defied the logic of natural progression –- if there is such a thing -- from college star to professional standout.

Gesser, in three-plus years, has experienced the alphabetical gamut of grid, from NFL to CFL to AFL while seeking stability in the National Football League (Tennessee Titans), Canadian Football League (Calgary Stampeders) and Arena Football League (Utah Blaze).

"Things happen for a reason,'' Gesser said the other day prior to what became Utah's first (and only) AFL playoff game during which the ex-Cougar was the backup to veteran Andy Kelly. "Maybe all this journeying and meeting people and me landing here (Salt Lake City) is a reason. I'm still enjoying playing football."

When Utah went up in flames, 57-34, it meant the Blaze season was over. Gesser said he was looking forward to coming home to Puyallup to join his wife, one-time Cougar volleyball player Kali Surplus, a pharmaceutical representative, and their daughter, Jordan, who will be 3 next month.

But if things work out the way Gesser hopes, he will be re-signed by the Blaze. If not, he would like to join another AFL team. He likes the short-field indoor game.

"It's a quick-release game. It's an accuracy game,'' Gesser said. "The speed of the game is so much higher. It's a high intensity, high pressure game. You're trying to score every time you get the ball.

"I like the pressure. I like the intensity of it. The fans love it. They're right down on the field with us. You can celebrate with them. It's just a lot funner game."

Gesser finished No. 7 in Heisman Trophy balloting in 2002.

Gesser began the season as the understudy to Joe Germaine. When Germaine got hurt in mid-season, Gesser was the starter for four games, during which he completed 89 of 145 passes (61.4 percent) for 1,092 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had a quarterback rating of 104.1, well below the 123.7 of Germaine.

Gesser did what he did despite suffering a broken elbow in his first game as a starter.

"I had to play with it for three weeks,'' Gesser said. "I was trying to do everything I could. But for whatever reason we weren't winning so the coach (Danny White) decided to give me a rest and that's when they brought Andy Kelly in."

PLAYING WITH INJURY is nothing new for Gesser, who often has backed up his belief that "you don't leave the field unless you have to be carted off."

Gesser began his post-graduate football career as a free-agent signee with the Tennessee Titans in 2003. He was with them for that season, through off-season conditioning, the mini-camps, exhibition games and until just before the start of the 2004 campaign, when he was cut.

Gesser was left disappointed.

"I had been doing good in mini-camps,'' Gesser said. "In training camp I was doing about 10 times better than the year before. Me and Billy Volek were splitting most of the reps because (Steve) McNair would practice about half the time."

Gesser said his chances of making the final roster were believed enhanced when another quarterback was brought in and then cut.

"So I thought everything was going good,'' Gesser said. "I led the team back in a couple of fourth quarters."

But Gesser lacked experience, an ingredient the Titans' coach, Jeff Fisher, thought was particularly important because he was worried about losing McNair and Volek to injuries.

"And you're a young guy,'' Gesser said in recalling what Fisher told him. "We can't have a young, third-string quarterback right now. We need a veteran third-string quarterback."

So Doug Johnson, a seven-year NFL vet, was hired to replace Gesser.

Gesser holds the WSU career passing record with 8,830 yards. He was the Pac-10's Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2002.
"It was just timing and the situation and that's how the NFL is,'' Gesser said. "If you're not in the right place at the right time … I don't think it mattered how well I did in that preseason. It was just that I didn't have any playing experience."

He didn't play in 2004. Early last year he took a shot at NFL Europe but didn't stick. He then landed with Calgary of the CFL. "I liked it a lot,'' said Gesser of playing up north. "I played in a handful of games."

But, guess what? He suffered an injury, one which Gesser called a freak accident.

"I went in on a QB sneak and the (defensive) end came down and landed right on my leg,'' Gesser said.

Injured were his left knee, foot and shoulder.

"The doctor said I was lucky to even be walking."

GESSER, WHO WAS FORMALLY released by the Stampeders a couple of weeks ago, came home long enough for he and Kali to buy a house in Puyallup before he left for the Utah Blaze training camp in January.

Gesser runs to daylight in '02.
Now, he hopes to use the summer to further enhance the career – coaching – he eventually hopes will be his profession.

"My dream is to become the head coach at Washington State someday,'' Gesser said.

For now, he's planning on being at WSU's summer camp and at a summer camp at UTEP, where his former Cougar coach, Mike Price, now is the head coach.

"And just hold a bunch of quarterback camps in the Seattle area with Jack Thompson,'' Gesser said. "We've been talking about things like that."

Gesser said he loves coaching.

"I love giving back the knowledge I have,'' he said. "I'm starting to feel better about watching a kid improve than winning the game. I really have a passion for it. I'd retire from playing football if I had a chance like that."

Until then, he hopes the Arena League becomes his football playing home, and not as a route back to the NFL.

"I'm not 6-4, 6-5 and 235 like every other quarterback in the NFL,'' Gesser said. "I know for me to get another look I'd have to have two, maybe three years (in the AFL)."

Gesser said he has gotten used to being reminded that he is not 6-4 or 6-5 and 235.

"It's actually nice to see that in the Arena League you've got a handful of quarterbacks 6-3 and up but everybody else is about 6 foot to 6-2. I don't feel like I'm a midget anymore."

At last, a league that's just Gesser's size.

The modern-day Johnny U

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