Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, who nearly gave up football in high school, has become a standout.
Gesicki enjoyed the finest season by a Penn State tight end last year and will begin his senior season as an All-America candidate.But if it wasn't for Danny Higgins, college football might never have known about Gesicki.
Gesicki began playing football in seventh grade and, being one of the tallest players on the team with above-average athletic ability, was put at quarterback. He played that position for three seasons, including as a freshman at Southern Regional High in Manahawkin, New Jersey.
But when he got to his sophomore year, Higgins was a year older and a better quarterback and was installed as the starter.
Gesicki was so disconsolate that he considered giving up the sport.
"I was thinking to myself, 'OK, I'm going to stop playing football and focus on basketball,'" he recalled. "That was my thing, anyway. Growing up, I always thought I was going to be Vince Carter. That was my man. I had season tickets to the (New Jersey) Nets. I watched basketball. I played basketball.
"Then my coach (Chuck Donahue) said, 'How about trying wide receiver?' It worked out. It was a great decision."
Gesicki wound up as the all-time leading receiver in school history and one of the most highly-touted tight end prospects in the country. He chose Penn State over Ohio State, Wisconsin, Florida State and others.
After making just 24 catches in his first two seasons, the 6-6 Gesicki thrived in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's scheme last year, finishing with 48 receptions for 679 yards, both school records for a tight end.
He considered skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft before he decided to stay, joining eight other returning starters on offense for the Nittany Lions.
"I just knew I had room to grow," said Gesicki, who will join the rest of his teammates Monday for the start of preseason practice. "[Penn State coach James Franklin] said, 'If you could improve from a fourth-round or fifth-round pick to being a first- or second-round pick, it's a no-brainer. Why would you leave?'
"On top of that, I know how successful we can be knowing the guys we have back and the opportunities we have in front of us. It was a no-brainer."
Penn State TE Mike Gesicki returns as the Big 10's leader among returning tight ends in yards per route run. Could he increase that in 2017? pic.twitter.com/rqRhmVXOGg— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 16, 2017
With Gesicki, running back Saquon Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley, a deep corps of wide receivers and an improved offensive line, the Nittany Lions hope to repeat as Big Ten champions and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"We're a more mature team," he said. "We've been through the fire. We've been through the success. We've been through it all. Now we know what it takes and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach our goals."
Gesicki very well could have been referring to himself.
He'd be the first to admit that he struggled in his first two seasons at Penn State, not only with production but also with his commitment. He would be one of the first players to leave the practice field, unwilling or uninterested to put in the extra time and work to improve.
That changed halfway through the 2015 season when Gesicki dropped a perfect pass from Christian Hackenberg with no defender near him inside the Ohio State 20 in the first quarter. He had also dropped several other passes that year and in 2014.
But the one at Ohio State continues to motivate him, almost two years later. He stopped being one of the first ones to leave the practice field and started doing extra work on the blocking sled every day, hitting it about 80 times.
"I can say the sled is one of my best friends," Gesicki said. "I spend a lot of time with it. When I'm out there, I'm trying to make the most of it. I stay 20, 25 minutes after practice. If I do that four practices a week, that's an extra hour-and-a-half of productive work each week."
He also dedicated himself in the weight room, where he lifts 415 pounds in the bench and 380 in the power clean, second on the team behind Barkley's remarkable 405. He's increased his weight from 215 as a freshman to 253. He's run a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash.
A former high school volleyball player, he also won the unofficial team dunk contest.
"Working out, lifting, running and jumping are things I consider my strengths," he said.
Penn State took advantage of Gesicki's talent and athleticism last season. He made a one-handed grab for a 52-yard gain against Temple. He caught touchdown passes against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.
But he's most proud of the 45-yard touchdown catch he made between two defenders against Michigan State in the regular season finale. He showed off his basketball and volleyball skills to make the play.
"I'm the football player I am because of playing several sports growing up," Gesicki said. "I (even) ran track in middle school. Sports has always been a big part of my life.
"When you have an opportunity to be an even better athlete by playing all these other sports, I think the sky's the limit."
Just like the future is for Gesicki, who's rated the No. 2 tight end in the country by Lindy's and Phil Steele preseason magazines.
"He's going to make a play when the team needs it," Penn State tight ends coach Ricky Rahne said. "I think that and having a great attitude are important. He's very good at taking responsibility for things, and that trickles down to the rest of the group."
Gesicki watched the NFL draft with great interest and saw that five tight ends were taken in the first two rounds, but he has no regrets about staying.
"I'm happy with my decision," he said. "I'm happy with where I'm at. I know it was the right decision for me from an academic standpoint and from an athletic standpoint and ultimately for my life."
Gesicki's life would have been very different if he had given up football in high school after losing the quarterback job to Higgins, who went on to throw for 6,091 yards and 47 touchdowns at Division III Bridgeport State in Massachusetts.
"He was a very good quarterback with a good arm, and he was a great competitor," Gesicki said. "I still talk to him. He always texts before games: 'Hey, man, just remember who threw your first touchdown pass.' "
Gesicki can only imagine what it would have been like to play quarterback in college.
"I don't know if I would have wanted to do that," he said. "I like catching touchdowns. I'm sure throwing them is great as well. If Coach Moorhead wants to put in a tight end pass, I'm cool with that.
"I like catching the ball and making plays."
This article is written by Rich Scarcella from Reading Eagle, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.