Brown University's Chas Gessner wasn't born with a football in his cradle. But the native of Hyattsville, Md. sure knew what a lacrosse stick was almost before he could walk. That's not surprising, considering Maryland is a lacrosse hotbed.
That's one reason why the Bears' NCAA I-AA All-American wide receiver still shakes his head in amazement when reflecting on his career.
"Every time I stop and look back, I think how far I came from being a freshman in high school and not even knowing where a cornerback lined up," says Gessner, who was a two-way player at Our Lady of Good Counsel High (Wheaton, Md.). "I started from absolute scratch and tried to learn as much as I could.
"When I got to college, I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could and tried to get better."
Gessner absorbed so much knowledge that he played his way onto the "must see" list of several NFL teams. In the process, Gessner reached career marks he could only dream about as a schoolboy.
For example, Gessner:
- Averaged 11.4 receptions per game, which is third in I-AA history
- Caught 292 passes, which are fourth in I-AA history
- Snared 36 touchdown passes, second in the Ivy League record book and 10th in I-AA history
- Caught 24 passes last October against Rhode Island, which tied a 19-year-old I-AA record held by Jerry Rice
- Twice was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top I-AA player
Now, get this: Gessner didn't earn varsity status at Our Lady of Good Counsel until he was a senior.
"The way our team was, we went by seniority," recalls Gessner. "If a senior was ahead of you at your position, you took a back seat. I played freshman football my first year and JV my second year. I made the varsity my junior year, but we played in a very competitive conference (Metro Area) and I was just picking it up.
"Once my senior year came around, I was in a position to start both ways, at corner and wide receiver. It's like you pay your dues, then you get on the field."
Even when Gessner got on the field, it wasn't like he wore out his cleats sprinting after dozens of passes.
"Our coaches were great," says Gessner. "Our head coach, Tom Kolar, really knew the game and taught me a lot. But we were a running team and I only caught 25-28 passes my senior year."
Still, Gessner earned All-County and All-Conference honors - which wasn't too shabby. But this almost paled in comparison with lacrosse, where he earned All-America accolades.
Gessner followed a similar path at Brown, where he racked up postseason honors in both sports - including I-AA All-America in football and Division I All-America in lacrosse. But Gessner knew that when NFL scouts started showing up at Brown's games, he'd eventually have to make a decision. He had to decide whether to give up lacrosse to concentrate on football - and hence earn a shot at being drafted - or play both sports and forget about the NFL.
"Once I kind of established that I had a legitimate shot to play football at the next level, I had to sit down with people I trusted and make that call," says Gessner. "My family was involved. My (football) coach (Phil Estes) was involved.
"It was one of those things where if I you're going to go for it, you've got to go 100 percent. There weren't any reasons for me not to do everything I possibly could to give myself the best chance."
Gessner admits he has no regrets about his decision. But even though his NFL stock has soared while participating in mini-combines, there's an occasional temptation to pick up a stick.
"For the most part I've been able to keep lacrosse out of my mind because I've been so focused on training," says Gessner. "But I went to a game the other day and wanted to be out there so bad.
"It was tough for me because I didn't want to let any of my teammates down. They understood, but it still kills me."
If there still was any frustration, the 6-5, 214-pounder took it out on himself, and improved his time in the 40 so that he's been timed between 4.51 and 4.53.
"Since the season's been over, I've definitely been thinking about (the draft)," he says. "I've been training to get faster and stronger, because (getting drafted) is my main goal."
But that wasn't the case last fall, when Gessner was giving defensive backs a case of whiplash.
"[The draft] was in the back of my mind, but I really tried to suppress it as much as I could," he says. "I try to set goals for the moment in everything I do. I work best within a system when I have a clear set of goals I can put my mind to.
"I'd sit down at the beginning of a season and say I want to catch X amount of balls every game, or I want to work on different aspects of my game - and keep focused on that. Or I'd sit down and say, 'I've got to pass four classes.'
"Obviously," continues Gessner, "I wanted to get better and take it to another level."
That might happen, even though Gessner wasn't everybody's All-American in high school.