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Yet another stumbling block


Former Washington State and Tennessee Titans quarterback Jason Gesser is facing another tough test. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Washington State and Tennessee Titans quarterback Jason Gesser is facing another tough test. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

If Jason Gesser hasn’t always been the golden child, he at least always seemed to have the map to the treasure.

Undefeated as a starting quarterback in high school. More victories – 24 – than any other quarterback in Washington State University football history. Steered the Cougars back to the Rose Bowl – not after 67 years, but after four, which may have been an accomplishment at even longer odds – and then tried to win it on one leg.

Whatever happened to that guy?

Well, on Thursday night in Calgary, Alberta, he could be seen being wheeled out of McMahon Stadium on a cart, hardly a good sign for any player’s re-entry into relevance.

A week earlier, Gesser had started his first football game since leaving WSU three years earlier. And though it wasn’t an unqualified success, the Calgary Stampeders – his new team in the Canadian Football League – made it to the finish line first against Hamilton, and that’s always been Gesser’s charter.

“There’s always been something special about Jason,” said Stamps quarterback coach Bill Diedrick, who saw it up close when he coached at Stanford during the Gesser years at Wazzu. “Why would you not take a chance on him?”

Gesser spent two years asking himself the same question – first caddying as a third-stringer with the Tennessee Titans, then trying to get them to reconsider having cut him, then auditioning futilely for teams in NFL Europe.

Now the question may be, “What next?”

In his second start Thursday night, Gesser was trying to bring the Stamps back from a 16-7 deficit in the second quarter – to which he’d contributed with an interception that was run back for a touchdown – when he needed a yard for a first down. Having already made a third-down sneak for a touchdown earlier in the evening – that would be fourth down, U.S., with the football exchange rate – Gesser tried it again. But this time an Ottawa defensive linemen fell across Gesser’s left ankle in the pileup, resulting in a severe sprain.

Gesser had moved into the lineup only because the Stamps’ regular starter, Henry Burris, had ripped up ligaments in his left thumb and had to undergo surgery.

Now, with Gesser out, Calgary had to turn to another CFL rookie, University of Memphis grad Danny Wimprine – known in the argot of the Canadian locker room as Wimper, which you’d think the Stamps’ playoff hopes would be going out with, reliant on a third-stringer quarterback and all.

Think again. Wimper held the fort as Calgary prevailed 45-23, the Stamps’ third straight win.

Two of those has Gesser’s stamp on them. Two weeks earlier against Edmonton, he’d relieved Burris and completed all three of his passes – including one for Calgary’s only touchdown – in a 16-11 victory. Against Hamilton, Gesser survived a four-interception night to throw a couple of late touchdowns that produced a 39-17 victory.

“It was just good to get out there,” Gesser said. “It was a hard way to start – I was second-guessing myself too much, trying to be too perfect and just not confident.

“You feel like you have to produce so quickly in this game, having just the two downs to work with. Most of the time it’s a run on first down and you’re throwing on second, and if you don’t get a completion you’re off the field. If you can’t get a rhythm going, the coaches start looking at you and wondering if you can do the job. Finally, I just thought, ‘Man, it can’t get any worse than this,’ and settled down.”

And what fewer number of downs don’t take away, the CFL’s wider field might.

“It makes a difference in the throws you can make and those you can’t,” Gesser admitted. “I found that out the hard way. I tried a wide-field hitch and it got picked going the other way. You really find out how long those throws are and how a corner can get a break on the ball.”

Of course, his real enemy was rust.

Gesser didn’t get a regular-season snap in his 2003 season on the Titans roster – and then couldn’t rustle up any real interest from anyone in 2004.

“I really don’t know what happened,” he said. “I got cut early and sort of hung around trying to get back on the team. But I was trying to get a look with anyone I could and nobody gave me a workout.

“Then I got a call for a workout in NFL Europe. I was competing for the starting job (in Frankfurt) with Akili Smith, but I seemed to get caught up in politics a little. Akili’s a bigger name and I wasn’t allocated off an NFL roster, so I basically got traded to a different team the last week of cuts. I had three or four days with Berlin and it just wasn’t enough of a chance to make it.”

Gesser and his wife, former WSU volleyball player Kali Surplus – they’re parents to 2-year-old Jordyn Kai – returned to Seattle where she’d landed a job with a pharmaceutical company.

Gesser learned his CFL rights were held by the B.C. Lions – but with former Montana star Dave Dickenson and Casey Printers well-established, there would be no opportunity there. That’s where Diedrick came in – lobbying on Gesser’s behalf until the Stamps were able to swing a trade for his rights days before the end of training camp.

“He’s got a very quick release, which I like, but the big thing about Jason is that he’s always been a winner,” Diedrick said. “Even if things structurally break down, he’s able to create something.

“And when you look at what he was able to do the end of his senior season on a broken foot – you can’t ever question the young man’s competitive nature.”

Diedrick thinks Gesser’s skill set is perfectly suited for the Canadian game – which is not necessarily the kind of compliment Gesser is looking for.

“Hopefully, my skills would be good for the NFL – as well as any other league,” he said. “I hope my game can translate and be successful here, but I think I have the ability to play at any level, if I can get the right opportunity.

“It was hard that season I sat around and waited. I’d hear about guys getting workouts who weren’t even on a roster or practice squad because they knew somebody or somebody was their uncle. It was frustrating and it would piss me off, but you have to ride those times out and figure that everything happens for a reason.”

That’s the theory, anyway. As he rode out of the stadium on that cart Thursday night, Jason Gesser found himself with another chance to test its worth.

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