It was the sign of the times last year when Jason Gesser was rooming with teammates Lamont Thompson and Fred Shavies, noted defensive guys. Mind you, not just any defensive guys -- Shavies, at 6-2, 260 pounds, is a starting defensive lineman for the Cougars, like the ones who are supposed to be attempting to crush the quarterback -- which the 6-1, 200-pound. Gesser happens to be. Thompson was the starting free safety (and would eventually be the Pac-10's career interception leader), who is supposed to be intercepting the passes the quarterback throws if he is lucky enough to escape the defensive linemen.
In the not-too-distant past of testosterone-laden college football lore, the defensive guys never hung out with the offensive guys. It was like responsible corporate accounting these days; it just was not done. Even if you were on the same team. In less enlightened times, that type of bunking arrangement could bring accusing whispers of favorable treatment in the form of light hits or inexplicably dropped interceptions. Last year, in an indication of how the times and people -- both players and coaches -- change, it was no big deal for the star QB to be rooming with the star DB and one of the chosen hit men on the defensive line.
"Last year, it was me and Lamont and Fred," says Gesser, "and this year it's me and Mike [Bush, starting WR] and Devard [Darling, starting WR] and Jermaine [Green, starting RB]. But it doesn't really matter who it is, we're all out there together. We're all trying to help the team win games and make ourselves better along the way, so I never thought about whether guys were on offense or defense -- it was mutual respect, because we knew we were all out there going through the same stuff. "
It was also an indication of how far team unity has progressed since the dark days of the post-Rose Bowl years of 1998, 1999 and portions of 2000. Back then, it seemed that head coach Mike Price and the Cougars had, indeed, made some sort of satanic pact that they would endure two horrific years of football in exchange for a single appearance in the granddaddy of them all.
But most of that was beyond Gesser's control. While the Cougars were plowing through opponents in their 1997 dream year, Gesser was making himself gold-plated in the Hawaii prep scene -- where he went 24-0 as a two-year starter. Then came the inevitable recruitment frenzy, and Jason Gesser became a direct product of the Cougars' rosy spree.
"I was thinking a lot about going to Cal," recalls Gesser, now a senior. "It was my first trip, and I really liked it there. I went on some of my other trips [to Utah and Washington], but when I went to WSU, it just felt right. Coach Price and Eric Price [Gesser's position coach at the time] made it feel like the right situation for me. And with the Rose Bowl and all the quarterback history, everything just seemed to click."
Gesser cancelled his remaining trip to Kentucky, signed on the dotted line with the Cougars and immediately went into Operation Redshirt in 1998. Then, as a redshirt freshman in 1999, he saw action in six games with a thumb injury limiting his playing time.
In the final game of the season, with his thumb not yet fully 100 percent, Gesser was a surprise starter against Hawaii (a gift from Price in return for Gesser signing with the Cougs). It was a homecoming, and he played in front of family and friends as well as against many of his ex-prep foes. Gesser helped the Cougs gut out a 22-14 win against the Rainbow Warriors (who would go on to defeat Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl that year). So, with his first collegiate win as a starter under his belt, Gesser was 25-0. Suddenly, everything was clicking just like he was told that it would. That clicking sound stopped abruptly in the 2000 season opener against Stanford.
"That was the roughest moment of my career," Gesser acknowledges of the 24-10 loss to Stanford, which represented his first loss as a starter since eighth grade. "I was pissed, I was swearing up a storm. But it was a learning experience; I was young, and I didn't know what I was doing yet."
Since that time, it seems as though the young Mr. Gesser has become Gesser the Elder. Surely in age and physical stature he has matured, but in the most important part of his body -- his head -- he has come a long way.
"Being patient, understanding a different role and having trust in the coaches to let them develop me into a better person and player," Gesser recites as what he has learned over the past two years. "I had to understand all the aspects, not just one aspect of what I was supposed to be doing. And I had to lead by example; I had to remember that I couldn't be a person I was not."
The person Jason Gesser is not is a person who cares about his pre-season hype as the best quarterback in the Pac-10, the Heisman award he has been mentioned for and the WSU career passing records he is likely to break. He is still the same person who stepped from those sandy tropical islands to the Palouse wheat fields nearly five years ago. Hype has not corrupted Jason Gesser.
"Not too much has changed," Gesser admits nonchalantly. "I still wear my sandals and surf shorts, and the people I've met since I've been here have been great. It's very similar to the people I've known in Hawaii. As far as the hype is concerned, I've been dealing with the hype the same way I've always been dealing with it. I never read, watch or listen to anything about me. It's either going to build you up or bring you down, and in the end, no matter what they say, you still have to go out on the field and get things done."
Along the way, Gesser has, of course, developed some personal thresholds. The sandals and surf shorts? Those come off when the temperature dips into the 50s, Gesser reports. But the primary threshold was breached after that fateful Stanford game. Everybody -- including and especially Jason Gesser -- knew he had talent. But how to keep from squandering it after such an emotional outing? Gesser has always had plenty of support from the football intelligentsia, beginning with his high school coach, Cal Lee at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, to Eric Price, Mike Price and finally, to those he was attempting to overtake in Wazzu's record books. The question now was, could tap that support after his first loss?
"Ever since eighth grade, my high school coach and me have been tight; he is the person I've been closest with," explains Gesser. "Sometimes he's a father figure for me; sometimes he's like a brother or an uncle -- except when he yells at me, then he's like a father again. I talked with everybody after that game, and it helped me get a perspective of what was going on out there. I was mad, but after talking about it, I was able to use it as a learning experience."
Except for an ugly 38-9 loss to Oregon State later that year, when team dissension caused by now-departed running back Deon Burnett began to shred the Cougars' offensive unity, the Stanford game has been his worse loss in his career as a starting quarterback for the Cougars. Since that time, the only complaints about Jason Gesser revolve around his reluctance to run out of bounds or "take a dive" as quarterbacks are instructed to do when encountering onrushing linebackers or linemen who outweigh them by 20 to 120 pounds. This ultra-competitive streak to gain as much yardage as physically possible has endeared him to his offensive teammates but has also been the source of numerous injuries that have kept him out of games. For his part, Gesser is not concerned about his injury-prone competitive demeanor.
"Injuries are part of the game. Sometimes you have to play hurt. Where I have to get better is learning how to eliminate taking the extra hits," says Gesser, as if it came straight out of Mike Price's mouth.
But then there are the times -- such as last year's Apple Cup, lost by the Cougars 26-14 -- when Gesser takes some extra hits and doesn't advertise it. Gesser played the majority of that game with a fractured hand, but neglected to relay that information to Price. Head coaches generally like to avoid injuries to their high-profile quarterbacks, so Gesser, a communications major, has learned his lesson and will communicate that type of information next time, right?
"Well, it just depends on the situation..." Gesser says, trailing off into doubt as sure as there are surf shorts wrapped around his waist and sandals on his feet.