WR Chas Gessner has used his size and speed to make a run of big plays in Bucs training camp
Chas Gessner knows there's something out there for him in professional athletics.
So far, that something has just eluded his grasp.
Gessner was an All-American lacrosse player at Brown but didn't see a particularly lucrative future in that sport, his first love. He gave it up as a senior in order to concentrate on football and the NFL.
He went to training camp with the New England Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2003 and made an immediate impression, but landed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. He went over to NFL Europe and earned all-league honors the next spring but just couldn't crack a very deep Patriots receiving corps. He got another shot with the Jets in the summer of '05 and had essentially locked up the fifth receiver spot, only to see New York make a last-minute decision to keep only four.
On Sunday morning, Gessner was on the football field again, running down the sideline in his newest practice uniform, that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A pass hung in the air over his head, and just like those opportunities with the Jets and the Pats, it appeared to be just out of reach.
The pass, and the moment, had so much promise – it was a beautiful pass by Chris Simms, really, and Gessner's route had been perfect – but it was going to be just a half-yard too long. Maybe if he laid out, but that's always a risky proposition.
At the last instant, Gessner reached out, far out, and grabbed it. The move caused him to lose his gait, but not his footing. It wasn't out of his reach after all. He pulled it in for the practice equivalent of a touchdown…then went on to the next rep.
Maybe this opportunity, this chance to stick with the Buccaneers, isn't out of Gessner's reach, either.
The Bucs might have their deepest group of receivers ever in this year's camp, and as always there are only so many spots to go around. As good as this undrafted Ivy Leaguer has looked, others like David Boston, Edell Shepherd and Paris Warren have had strong camps, too. But Gessner isn't making it easy on the Bucs' coaching staff, stringing together one good practice after another and looking like the type of big, physical receiver that can excel in Head Coach Jon Gruden's attack. Now, should Gessner start believing in this opportunity, that it's in reach? Will he be able to make that long grasp at the last moment to grab it? Will the opportunity still be there in the end?
"What I've learned to do is hope for the best and expect the worst," said Gessner. "That's how I approach it. I'm hoping to make this team. That's what I want to do, that's my goal. I'm not going to set my goals any lower than that. But at the same time I've got to understand the situation, and I understand that there are only certain things I can control.
"But as far as I'm concerned I'm going for it."
So there you have it. You go for it; you reach as far as you can. Until they tell you there isn't a spot in the rotation for you anymore, you take your reps and make the most of them. Gessner has certainly done that over the first week-and-a-half of training camp, drawing eyes his way despite that crazy depth at his position.
"Every camp, I've gotten better as a player," he said. "Every offseason I've gotten better. I've learned so much. I've been so lucky to be around [great receivers]. I started out in New England and I was around Troy Brown, David Givens, Deion Branch. I went to the Jets and was around Wayne Chrebet, Laveranues Coles, Santana Moss. These are all big-name guys, big receivers in the NFL, and I was able to pick up a lot along the way. I think that's one of the strengths of my game, that I'm able to pick up on things and really be coachable."
That's not all the coaches like. In fact, it's easy to see why Gessner believes he has a future in athletics, and why NFL teams continue to leave that door open. At 6-4 and 215 pounds, he's one of the biggest receivers on the field for the Buccaneers, but he has also gotten deep more regularly than anyone not named Joey Galloway this summer. He eats the ground with his long stride and can leap and make adjustments in the air. He has long arms and long hands. Gruden marvels at his physical conditioning, calling him a "freak."
"He's a good player," added Gruden. "He makes plays. He's a functional guy in different positions. He plays pretty good special teams. He's practiced well; we'll see how he plays in a game. He's done a good job. You've got to give him credit. He's worked hard. He's a bit of an obscure guy coming in here and he's gone wire-to-wire here with a lot of good players. He's doing well."
Gessner wasn't obscure in the world of lacrosse, helping his junior-year team to a spot in the nation's top-10 rankings. He was well-known in Division I-AA football, too, as a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top player at that level. He had 114 receptions in 10 games as a senior and 292 overall in his Brown career, the second-highest total in Ivy League history. In one game against Rhode Island in 2002, Gessner caught 24 passes, tying the I-AA record set by another obscure Mississippi Valley State receiver by the name of Jerry Rice.
In high school, Gessner played football, lacrosse and basketball for awhile before giving up the latter sport to concentrate on the first two. At Brown, he continued to play both sports despite resistance from the football staff. After excelling in both and then coming back and still producing as a sophomore on the gridiron, the football coaches reluctantly gave up their resistance and Gessner continued to chase both dreams. Though, as mentioned, he eventually gave up lacrosse to pursue football, he still thinks the crossover helped him in both sports.
"Absolutely - hand-eye coordination, agility," said Gessner, noting the similarities between the two pursuits. "Lacrosse is a tough sport; you've got to take a lot of hits, you've got to be ready to give hits. You've got to run. I played midfield and it was just all running. I think it was great cross-training for me.
"I don't regret playing two sports. I think I would do that again. It was a whole new set of people, a whole new set of friends, a whole new set of goals for me as an athlete and as a person. I think it definitely challenged me. I was at an Ivy League school, juggling athletics and academics, and I think it made me a better person. I think it made me a better athlete overall, so I would do that again."
At the time, it was hard to let go.
"I miss it all the time," he admitted. "I had grown up a lacrosse player. If I could make as much money playing lacrosse, maybe I'd be doing that. I thought about [pursuing] it. That was my first love. But [football] is all I think about now. This is what I'm going for and I'm not really thinking about that."
Gessner has been close enough in the past to know what it takes to overcome the long odds he faces. He has clearly shown enough to be a difficult decision for the coaches when the roster cuts arrive, but he needs to make it more difficult for them to let him go. That means increasing his value in every area possible, particularly on special teams. Any camp long shot who wants to win a spot at receiver, running back, defensive back or linebacker is going to have to prove he can contribute on special teams, too. Accordingly, Gessner is working very hard on that part of his game.
"I try to do a little bit of everything," he said. "That's the thing: 'The more you can do.' I'm really trying to show that I can be tough and physical and do a little bit of everything and be able to be plugged into different spots on special teams. I guess it's going to come down to these preseason games, going out there and playing hard and making plays on special teams as well."
And grasping that opportunity when it arrives. Gessner has been doing that on a smaller scale every day in practice, hoping that, when that roster spot is up for grabs in a few weeks, it will be close enough for him to reach out and grab it.