The following story appears in our Blue White Illustrated 2017 Penn State Football Season Preview Edition, printed and mailed to our subscribers this week, appearing on newsstands all over Pennsylvania on July 18.
By Nate Bauer
Mike Gesicki is intimately familiar with the story of Mike Gesicki.
Short version: He was a supremely gifted high school athlete who excelled in football, basketball and volleyball and chose to play the first of those three sports at Penn State. He played a bit as a true freshman, and his undeniable potential, coupled with his glowing high school resume, raised expectations. Then came a puzzling sophomore campaign marred by drops at critical moments.
Determined to never again experience the same crushing lows, Gesicki went through an off-season of deep introspection and dedication to the game. His approach produced a remarkable turnaround in 2016, as he set a number of school records by coming down with seemingly every ball that was thrown in his vicinity. It had all the hallmarks of a feel-good comeback tale, and a lot of people relished it. But not everyone.
The truth is, Mike Gesicki hates the story of Mike Gesicki.
Approaching his final season with the Nittany Lions, the senior tight end knew what was coming when he sat down to be interviewed for this feature story. Asked to guess the topic of conversation, he predicted that the story would be about the depths of the 2015 season and the resurgence that followed last year. It’s what fans care about, he said without reservation, but he’s already spent too much time and energy explaining a segment of his career that he would prefer had never happened.
“I was tired of 2015 right when 2015 ended,” he said. “But that’s what everybody wants to talk about. That’s what everybody hears about. I’ve literally read maybe two articles since then and they said, ‘Mike Gesicki had a great 2016 after he couldn’t hang onto the ball in 2015.’
“It seems like every single article starts with something like that or talks about something like that. And it seems like the only person that has been able to move on from that is me.”
Arriving at Penn State out of Southern Regional High in Manahawkin, N.J., Gesicki wasted no time making his mark. As a backup to Jesse James, Gesicki caught 11 passes for 114 yards while appearing in all but one game that season.
The effort was notable enough to earn him a spot on the Big Ten Network’s All-Freshman Team. And given the role of the tight end in Penn State’s offense under the direction of then-coordinator John Donovan, Gesicki appeared poised for a breakout in 2015.
From the outside, the reasoning had as much to do with the other members of the position group as it did with Gesicki himself. After ranking third on the team in receptions with 38 for 396 yards and a team-high three receiving touchdowns, James opted out of a final season of eligibility at Penn State, choosing instead to pursue a career in the NFL. Fellow tight end Adam Breneman had missed the entire 2014 season with an injury, and although he appeared ready to return in 2015, those hopes were dashed during preseason camp when it was announced that he would again be forced to sit out the season.
Suddenly, the one and only viable pass-catching tight end on Penn State’s roster was Gesicki. He was assured of a major role in the offense, and the hopes surrounding his sophomore year grew exponentially.
His production didn’t follow suit. Gesicki finished with only 13 catches for 125 yards and a single touchdown, his year marred by the notable receptions he didn’t make, even though they were relatively few in number. Early in the season against Buffalo, he dropped two surefire touchdown passes on the same possession. A month later, Gesicki again found himself a wide-open target against Indiana, only to have the likely touchdown pass slip through his hands. When he suffered another drop in the open field in a midseason loss at Ohio State, he was as baffled as he was disappointed. “What’s going on?” he asked himself. “Why does this keep happening to me?”
A four-star prospect as rated by Rivals.com, Gesicki quickly dismissed one possible answer: that maybe his talent had simply been overrated coming out of high school. He decided instead that he had misunderstood the amount of work necessary to reach his elite potential, so he doubled down on the opportunities that were available to him. Or, as he now describes the process, he was able to mature.
“I was able to use the experiences that I went through, and I changed the way that I went about my daily work to get where I wanted to go my junior year,” Gesicki said. “I went from not staying after practice at all, not coming in at 10 o’clock at night... to just going all out and spending every second of my day thinking about how I’m going to get better and what I’m going to do.”
Gesicki and the rest of Penn State’s offense received another boost when Joe Moorhead joined the coaching staff as coordinator immediately after the 2015 regular season. Although Moorhead hadn’t seen firsthand the difficulties that the tight end had gone though, he did see the results of Gesicki’s determination to improve, and he knew he wanted to create an environment in which past struggles wouldn’t impede future development. Moorhead was confident that Gesicki could be a major asset, and as it turned out, that confidence was not misplaced.
Starting each game of the Nittany Lions’ 2016 Big Ten championship season, Gesicki exerted a tremendous influence. With 48 receptions for 679 yards and five touchdown catches, he finished second on the team in all three receiving categories. He was tops in receptions among tight ends in the conference, was a second-team All-Big Ten selection and set school records for both single-season catches and receiving yards by a tight end.
“It’s pretty cool,” Moorhead said. “To me, it was very rewarding to see a kid who had gone through a lot and had taken a lot of criticism for his performance to come out and have the type of season he did through how hard he worked. On top of everything he did as a player and his production, it was great to see him be able to bounce back and start playing at a level that everyone had anticipated with him coming in. Great for the kid.”
Determined to be an elite tight end for the Nittany Lions, Gesicki doesn’t view his story as a comeback. That implies a plot twist, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s been adhering to the same goals and standards that he brought with him to Penn State three years ago.
“People could use that, the underdog story and all that kind of stuff, but I don’t really consider myself that,” Gesicki said. “The expectations that I’ve held myself to in terms of individual work ethic and the results that I want to see haven’t changed.
“I think coming in here, people had high expectations for me and I had high expectations for myself. After that season, people’s expectations were lower than the ground and mine were still through the roof because I knew what I was capable of. I just had to go out and do the little things, work on my craft and just get some confidence going back my way. I knew I was going to be fine and would be able to put it all together.”
To see the other stories featured in our 2017 Penn State Football Preseason Edition, check out the entire preview, HERE!