A modern-day Johnny U

JASON GESSER doesn't wear black hightops or sport a crewcut. And the first joint on the index finger of his throwing hand works just fine. But in so many other ways, he's eerily reminiscent of Johnny Unitas.

The Lord of Baltimore: Johnny U., circa 1961. (AP Photo)
So it's no surprise that the scrappy Gesser is a rising contender for the Heisman Trophy and a finalist for two other prestigious honors, the Walter Camp Foundation Player of the Year and Davey O'Brien National Quarterback awards.

All of which makes Gesser's exclusion from another kudo --- named after the one-and-only Johnny Unitas --- downright puzzling.

If there's any award Gesser ought to be paired with, it's one named after the old Baltimore Colt.

For the past 15 years, the Unitas Golden Arm Award has gone to the senior quarterback considered the finest in the land. How, exactly, that level of excellence is defined is unclear. But it's obvious from Gesser's exclusion that the criteria has little to do with what truly made Unitas so great. Or perhaps the people doing the judging aren't familiar with the magic of Unitas --- or, clearly, the magic of Gesser.

The Hurlin' Hawaiian was among 14 nominees for the award, but was aced out as a finalist by USC's Carson Palmer, Louisville's Dave Ragone, Iowa State's Seneca Wallace, Marshall's Byron Leftwhich and Miami's Ken Dorsey.

Fine candidates all. But anyone who knows the story of Unitas knows it was far more than championships, gaudy statistics and records that made him a legend and,undeniably, the greatest quarterback ever to play the game.

Unitas was perhaps the toughest hombre ever to line up behind center. His ability to absorb punishment and keep on fighting still draws awe from the Merlin Olsens and Alan Pages of the world who dished it out.

Gesser's work this season with banged up ribs is, itself, remarkably Unitas-like. It's akin to ol' No. 19's legendary refusal to come out of a game against the Bears in the fourth quarter after Doug Atkins crushed his nose and swelled his eyes to the point Unitas had to strain just to squint. On fourth down, Johnny U tossed the winning, 39-yard TD pass to Lenny Moore with 19 seconds left on the clock. Unitas walked off the field as if it were standard protocol.

Which is to say that while most observers gringed last year when Gesser, hell bent on getting a first down, opted to go head-to-head with vaunted UCLA linebacker Robert Thomas rather than ducking for safety, Johnny Unitas would have stood up and hollered, "Give 'em hell, kid."

The similarities go on. There's the cat-quick release, the complete command at the line of scrimmage to call the perfect audible, and a body seemingly more suited to baseball. Most importantly, though, there's the unrivaled leadership skills.

Unitas was a field general in every sense. Players --- even coaches --- would have followed him to war. Ice water coursed through his veins. He was Captain Kirk in cleats. MacArthur in a helmet.

Gesser's renown in that category is similarly approaching mythical dimensions. A three-year team captain. A guy who befriends every rookie on the block. A pain-in-the-rear-end who rallies teammates to spend their summers working out at Martin Stadium. A quarterback, in the midst of one of his worst days against a long-time nemesis, brimming with confidence as he takes his club on a 96-yard drive to the game-winning score over Oregon.

That's Jason Gesser.

That was Johnny Unitas.

Gesser has already etched his name atop WSU's record books and he's cracked the Pac-10 top ten in just about every statistical category, with John Elway's DiMaggio-like 77 career TD passes within reach.

And with 23 wins in 32 starts, Gesser has done for WSU exactly what Unitas did for the struggling Colts of the late 50s.

He's done it with grit, determination and confidence --- confidence in himself and everyone around him.

That was Johnny Unitas.

That is Jason Gesser.

The two of them deserve to have their names forever tied together.

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