Chuck Donohue, Southern Regional head football coach, walked out of the high school weight room like he would any other day — but what he saw nearly a decade ago surprised him.
Donohue peered across the street and saw a bicycle propped up in the grass. He glanced at the middle school football field and noticed a sixth-grader by himself.
“He is punting the football, chasing it and punting it back,” Donohue said, still shaking his head. “That’s the first thing I remember about Mike Gesicki.”
It was the first impression Gesicki made on Donohue — but certainly wasn’t the last.
Gesicki, Penn State’s star tight end, is the No. 1 player at the position on CBS Sports’ 2018 NFL draft board. The senior is a Mackey Award candidate and was named second-team All-Big Ten in 2016.
But before Gesicki made one-handed catches and bodied defenders in Beaver Stadium, he was doing the same in New Jersey for the Rams.
Gesicki was a multi-sport star in football, basketball and volleyball and a role model — and everyone at Southern Regional knows him as such.
“He’s never going to ever think woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Donohue said, standing next to a framed Gesicki photo in the Southern Regional athletic director’s office. “He’s not that type of kid.”
However, he was the kind of kid who dunked in middle school. Yep, middle school.
Gesicki was the Vince Carter of New Jersey eighth-grade basketball — and Eric Fierro was happy to have him.
“We thought, hey, you might coach for 30, 40 or 50 years and get a guy like this once or twice,” Southern Regional’s varsity basketball coach said. “Let’s be ready.”
Gesicki made his presence felt as a sophomore, averaging a double-double (13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds per game). As a junior, he tallied 19.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Gesicki’s final season on the basketball court was memorable. He averaged 20.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals per contest over 25 games, and led the Rams to an 18-9 record and a trip to the state semifinals.
Gesicki finished his career as the Rams’ all-time leading scorer with 1,867 points. He earned the MVP of the East/West Basketball All-Star Game and was crowned champion of the 2014 state dunk contest.
Fierro is convinced Gesicki could’ve gone Division I in basketball — and as the 2013 New Jersey player of the year, volleyball was an option at the next level, as well.
But Gesicki’s dominance was most felt on the football field, and it started with an obvious decision.
Gesicki was the starting quarterback for Southern Regional’s freshman team. But Donohue and Fierro — the latter having seen his leaping ability on a daily basis — moved him to wide receiver to start his sophomore campaign.
“We thought, let’s just see how it plays out,” said Fierro, who also serves as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach. “It played out. After a couple days of practice, there was no looking back from there.”
Added Donohue: “We knew his raw athletic ability was coming. ... Moving him to wideout was a no-brainer.”
After getting comfortable at the position as a sophomore, Gesicki and his 6-foot-6 frame went to work. He was named first-team All Shore as a junior after tallying 50 catches, 954 yards and nine touchdowns and leading the Rams to a NJSIAA runner-up finish.
Donohue wasn’t surprised by Gesicki’s breakout campaign.
“Not at all,” the coach said, standing steps away from Southern Regional’s weight room. “... He goes after the ball. When you put it up for him, he will go get it.
“He’s going to win because he’s got instincts.”
The same instincts he’s using at Penn State.
Gesicki enters his senior season in Happy Valley as arguably the Nittany Lions’ best pass-catcher. He ranked second on the team in receptions (48), receiving yards (679) and receiving touchdowns (five) in 2016 behind only Chris Godwin, who left for the NFL.
His success — the stellar touchdown grab against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, for example — has been witnessed by Penn State fans and most of the country by now.
But Gesicki’s prosperity means more to the people of Manahawkin.
“I want to be just like him,” Rams sophomore tight end J.T. Cornelius said after a mid-summer workout. “I watch every Penn State game.”
Cornelius’ mother teaches math at Southern Regional and had Gesicki in class. Whenever the Nittany Lion returns to southern Jersey, which is frequent during the offseason, he gives Cornelius and his teammates advice.
Pass-catching tips, words of wisdom, weight room suggestions — you name it, Gesicki provides it for the younger Rams.
“He knows where home is,” Southern Regional senior wide receiver Robby Gagliardi said. “He knows where he grew up. He wants to come back and help.”
Added Cornelius: “When I first met him, that’s how he was.”
It’s how Gesicki’s always been.
It hasn’t all been easy at Penn State for Gesicki. The Southern Regional star had five drops and only 13 catches in 2015.
But Donohue, who speaks with the tight end once a week, knew he would come out of his slump.
As Donohue said, Gesicki isn’t the kind of kid who’ll have regrets. He’s not the player who’ll think one day, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Gesicki’s work ethic — the values he instilled in himself at Southern Regional — propelled him to Penn State, through hardship in Happy Valley, and now on the cusp of the NFL.
From the day Donohue saw him booting punts nine years ago, the Rams coach has never been surprised by Gesicki.
And as the tight end prepares for his final season at Penn State, Donohue fully expects Gesicki to thrive.
“He trains like an animal,” the coach said. “He is a kid that took athletic ability and work ethic and made himself into the player he is right now.”