FEDERAL WAY — From the sideline, he looks a lot like other high-school football coaches.
Young and lean, with a few days' growth on his face, he shouts words of encouragement as he works with a promising quarterback throwing timing passes that float into receivers' hands.
The pupil is eager to impress, because this is no average coach. He is Jason Gesser, the record-setting quarterback from Washington State who plays professionally in the Arena Football League and now is an assistant coach at Federal Way High School.
"It's pretty awesome," senior quarterback Donny McConnaughy said. "It was just three or four years ago I was watching him play in the Rose Bowl and Apple Cup."
Gesser led the Cougars to the 2003 Rose Bowl his senior year and ultimately hooked up with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, although he never played in a regular-season game and was cut the following year. He signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in 2005. After the season, Calgary agreed to let him play with the Utah Blaze of the AFL, which has a January-to-June schedule.
But when it was time to return to Calgary, Gesser decided his family had to come first.
Gesser, 27, and his wife, Kali, have a 3-year-old daughter, Jordyn, and live in Puyallup. Kali, who is a pharmaceutical sales representative, convinced Jason not to return to Calgary.
"I really didn't want to go back," Jason said. "I like Arena ball a lot better than the CFL."
It didn't take Gesser long to fill the void. John Meagher, Federal Way's head football coach, decided during the offseason that the Eagles' passing game needed help and called every college program in the state looking for a quarterbacks coach.
Offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller fielded Meagher's call to WSU and immediately checked with Gesser, who was in Pullman for a golf tournament. Gesser was game, Meagher was ecstatic and the details were worked out in time for Gesser to join the Eagles for their minicamp in June.
Gesser, who battled injuries with both Calgary (ankle sprain) and Utah (broken elbow), sees this as a step toward his ultimate goal — coaching at the college level, preferably wearing crimson and gray.
"This basically is my passion right now, coaching," said WSU's leader in career passing yards with 8,830 and holder of more than a dozen career records for the Cougars. "My dream is to get back to Washington State and end up being the head coach there. I figured I had to start my journey somewhere."
Meagher gave Gesser an unusual sales pitch.
"We're not going to make you rich," he told him. "We're not necessarily going to teach you more about the X's and O's of the game. But we can teach you how to coach."
Meagher was immediately impressed with the way Gesser interacted with his players.
"He jumped right in and got to know the kids," Meagher said. "And, of course, the kids were just blown away, especially the quarterbacks."
Meagher said his goal all along has been not to throw the ball more — although Gesser constantly campaigns for it — but to throw it more efficiently. Federal Way has been run-oriented the last several years and last season threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
McConnaughy has been like a sponge as he learns from Gesser, who played with WSU in the 1999 to 2002 seasons.
"He knows a lot," McConnaughy said of his mentor. "I'm 10 times better than I was. He's helped me so much."
Gesser insists he is learning, too.
"It would be a shame for me to come out here and not get anything out of this and think I already know everything," he said. "I've learned how to relate to kids and how to get messages across. You can know the game in and out, but you've got to be able to convey that to your kids."
Gesser recently signed a two-year contract with the Salt Lake City-based Blaze, for which he started four games last season. He says that playing football still has priority over a full-time coaching career — for now.
"I'm going to play as long as I can," Gesser said. "If I get another opportunity in the NFL, great, but if I don't, I'm not hanging my hat on that. Actually, I'm kind of playing until I get a call from Washington State that says, 'Hey, we need a quarterback coach over here.' "
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