Darkness had descended on one of the nation’s most fabled football stadiums, but down in the north end zone, there was only light, sweet light. It seemed to spark from the synergy between several thousand exuberant Washington State University fans at the Rose Bowl and the smile on the face of the most successful quarterback in the history of the school.

And they chanted buoyantly and clapped between the cheering: “JAY-son GESS-er . . . JAY-son GESS-er . . .”

Yes, there may have been better quarterbacks than Jason Gesser at WSU.

Jack Thompson was a prototype of his era–big, strong, able. Timm Rosenbach could beat you throwing and running. Mark Rypien would become a Super Bowl MVP. Drew Bledsoe’s combination of height and arm was almost revolutionary, and it took him to a Super Bowl. Ryan Leaf could see everything developing and then strike.

For a combination of being formidable and fortuitous, however, none of them matches Gesser, who leaves Washington State as the quarterback who won the most. He had to stay longer than most of them to do it, he had to have good players around him, but Gesser walked out of more stadiums happy than any of his predecessors. He leaves WSU having helped author consecutive double-digit-victory seasons.

He had said the Rose Bowl would do it, that successfully guiding a team to the best bowl game would fulfill all his goals. And now, after WSU’s 48-27 victory over UCLA [December 7 in Pasadena], a rose clenched in his teeth, a white cap commemorating a Pac-10 championship, his celebration photograph about to grace the sports cover of both the Los Angeles Times and Daily News, Gesser’s race was won.

“When he was young, seventh or eighth grade, he used to set goals for himself,” said his dad, Jim, from Honolulu. “The goals he set were amazing.”

He wanted to throw 80 touchdown passes in high school. One year he set out to have no interceptions. He threw one.

But WSU fans shouldn’t dwell only on the numbers–the 24 victories he started, the school-record passing yards. They should never forget the day he dragged his right leg onto the storied Rose Bowl turf and laid it all out there, just because that’s what he does.

“That guy’s all heart,” said offensive guard Billy Knotts. “There’s no give-up in Jason Gesser.”

Given the importance and the national stage, Gesser’s day might have been the college equivalent of Willis Reed’s lamed-legged performance in the NBA finals of 1970, or Kirk Gibson’s off-the-bench, bum-wheeled bomb as the Dodgers beat Oakland in the 1988 World Series.

But then, so much about Gesser didn’t seem to add up, starting from the time he arrived at WSU. How was a kid from Honolulu going to adjust to life in Pullman?

“I remember when I first chose this place,” he says. “Even the people in Hawaii said, ‘Why’d you choose Washington State? It’s in the middle of nowhere.’ My reason was simple enough: I knew this was the right place for me.”

He sometimes seemed fragile, but he was always throwing his body at yard-markers, at safeties, at whatever got in his way. He and others recall his defining moments as late in that freshman season of 1999, when he had a bad thumb but led a team of meager capability to a victory at Hawaii.

On one play, he dove for the chains and in his words, “got cleaned in the ribs.” Wincing back to the huddle, he had established a tone. Safety Billy Newman told him that from that moment forward, everybody in the program knew that nothing less than a best effort would do.

He led. He was a rarity in college football, a three-time captain. He walked the walk.

“Just the way he’s handled this football team,” says offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller. “In every phase, he’s a leader. You want a place to stay, you stay with me. You don’t have a ride, I will pick you up.

“I think that’s his legacy. I’ll always be able to use Jason with the younger players in the program now. I’ll talk about his commitment level.”

In the program’s bleakest hours, Gesser seemed at his best. Against a revived Cal team in late September, when WSU’s season could have died an early death, he had a dislocated rib, and he threw for 432 yards.

Rien Long’s simple assessment of his teammate after the Rose Bowl-clinching game? “He’s a hero.”

Levenseller says Gesser was unmatched at preparation among the WSU quarterbacks he’s been around. It would enable him to establish before the snap what was going to unfold.

Sometimes that would lead him to a terrible, perplexing throw. But that’s what happens with competitors–they give it a shot. A couple of times, Gesser made public utterances that were intemperate–the officials cost the Cougars the Oregon game in 2001; something to the effect that they would have won the 2002 Apple Cup if he’d been able to remain upright. He was indomitable.

In school, he gravitated toward broadcasting. His favorite class was 465, “the best hands-on experience you could ever have,” taught by WSU’s longtime public-address announcer Glenn Johnson. It was a newsroom brought to life, in which 12 to 15 students put on the news, sports, and weather.

By the time his senior season began, Gesser had already walked through May graduation ceremonies and was only three hours short of a degree. It provided him the perfect dry run to become a coach, to spend hour upon hour in the film room and looking at formations on the dry-erase board, doing what coaches do.

“I’d say sometimes I should be getting paid for all the stuff I’m doing with them,” Gesser said good-naturedly. He estimates his weekly investment–practice, weight room, film study, and meetings–at 45 to 55 hours.

Now, his horizon is wide. He talks about wanting to play pro football. Then he’d like to be a color commentator. And he wants to coach. Is he big enough for pro football?

“I think so,” says Jim Gesser. “We’re all cheering for Drew Brees [San Diego Chargers] this year. Jason is a little bit smaller, but they’re both the same kind of quarterback. Then there’s [Jeff] Garcia [San Francisco 49ers] out there. Where’d he come from? Nowhere.”

Jim Gesser’s son is asked what part of the football experience has been best, what little slice of it he would like to hang onto.

“I think it’s playing against somebody, having a big game, where it’s hard-fought, and the defense stops them, and we go out to run ‘Victory O,’ ” said Gesser, referring to the kill-the-clock offense.

“You’re kneeing the ball down and you know they can’t do anything about it. Your sideline is going crazy, your huddle is going crazy, the stadium’s going crazy. I’ll always cherish that.”

Jason Gesser got to do that a lot. But when you recall the victories, also remember the valor.

Bud Withers (’70 Comm.), is a Seattle Times sports
writer. He is the author of two books:
Ralph Miller: Spanning
the Game, 1990, a biography of the late Oregon State University
basketball coach; and
BraveHearts: The Against-All-Odds Rise of
Gonzaga Basketball, 2002.