Hamilton, Gesicki turn seasons around at Penn State

Persevering at PSU

DaeSean Hamilton celebrating a Big Ten championship was a major improvement over a September that saw him drop a critical pass in a loss to Pittsburgh.

STATE COLLEGE – We don’t become the people we are today without going through some tough times and making mistakes. That’s true in all walks of life, and it’s no different with athletes.

One difference, though, is that when an athlete makes a mistake, it’s there for everyone to see.

Two players instrumental in Penn State’s success this year, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, know plenty about dealing with and overcoming adversity. They dropped the ball — pun intended — in some costly situations, but instead of letting those plays define them and their careers, Hamilton and Gesicki continued to work hard, stayed strong mentally and are big reasons why the Nittany Lions are 11-2 and headed to the Rose Bowl against USC.

“As long as you show up to work and have a positive attitude and you’re just ready to go to work every single day and have that right mindset, then things will fall into place,” Hamilton said.

It’s also important not to dwell on the past, but to learn from it, even embrace it.

“I’m appreciative of everything I’ve gone through and how it’s shaped me to be who I am today,” Gesicki said.

Hamilton true leader

Penn State fans know the play all too well. Down 42-39 at Pitt in week two, Trace McSorley lofted a deep pass down the right sideline to Hamilton, a sure-handed junior receiver who had a step on his defender.

It looked like it would go for a touchdown.

But Hamilton failed to make the grab, PSU lost, and that defeat ultimately kept the No. 5 Lions out of the College Football Playoff.

Earning tons of respect, Hamilton came out to talk to the media after the game. He didn’t have to, and many athletes would have bailed.

Hamilton tried, unsuccessfully, to fight back tears when asked then how long he will remember the drop.

“Forever,” he said. “I’ve got to put it behind me, but I’ll never forget about it.”

McSorley did his part to support his friend and teammate.

“I talked to him after the game in person,” the quarterback said. “And I sent him a text saying he was one of our leaders and we’re going to need him for the rest of the year, and that one game wasn’t going to hinder how our season went. Just tried to keep him up, keep his confidence up.”

Which is the same thing Hamilton does for all of his teammates when they need him.

“I’m really impressed with DaeSean’s ability to handle everything he’s been through,” receiver Chris Godwin said. “He’s the leader in our receiver room, and he’s the guy that everybody goes to whenever we’re struggling. He’s always the guy that keeps everybody steady.

“He’s definitely our vocal leader, and he’s been through it all, so he’s a guy that we all kind of lean on.”

Hamilton caught 82 passes as a freshman in 2014, second most in PSU history behind only Allen Robinson’s 97 in 2013. But production-wise, it’s been a different story for Hamil­ton since that huge 2014 season, as his receptions total dipped to 45 in 2015 and just 34 this season.

Many receivers would have a very difficult time, inwardly and outwardly, seeing their numbers drop so much. Not Hamilton, known by everyone as a team-first guy.

“Obviously those type of things are nice — stats and things like that — but as long as we’re winning, that’s really the most im­portant thing,” Hamilton said.

He’s always been extremely supportive of his teammates, and they were as well for him after the Pitt game.

“They did a lot for me,” Hamilton said. “Those guys were the ones that I could fall back on. They saw the struggles, they saw everything that I was going through, and they just made sure I didn’t change anything I was doing, made sure I was always on top of everything, on top of my game.

“Having those guys to fall back on made it a lot easier.”

McSorley continues to be impressed with how Hamilton responded to the adversity, never losing sight of the big picture.

“He kind of had that mindset on his own that this is how our season is going to go,” McSorley said. “I remember after I texted him and said we’re going to get back and end up winning the Big Ten championship. He responded to me and said,’I expect nothing less.’

“So that was kind of his mentality that after that game he wasn’t going to settle for anything less than helping this team win a Big Ten championship. That’s exactly what he did. He came in, he led, he was one of the hardest workers out there, more of a lead by example kind of guy.”

Hamilton actually had a good day at Pitt before the drop and finished with eight catches for 82 yards. Then he was kind of a forgotten man for a while, catching only 10 passes over the next seven games.

When the team needed him, though, Hamilton’s number was called by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead on a flea-flicker pass with PSU trailing at Indiana in the fourth quarter. Hamilton pulled it in for a 54-yard TD, one of the biggest of his career as that helped the Lions come back from a 10-point deficit late.

“He’s just consistent,” McSorley said. “He’s one of the hardest workers on this team. It doesn’t matter if he’s having a good day or a bad day, he’s going to come in and give 100 percent of what he has and get better every day. That’s been his approach over the last three years since I’ve known him.”

Things came full circle for Hamilton in the Big Ten championship game. He hadn’t caught more than three passes in any game since the loss at Pitt, but he had a huge night against Wisconsin, catching eight balls for 118 yards as the Lions rallied from a 28-7 deficit for a 38-31 win.

“That’s huge coming full circle, with it being kind of a long time span before he had a real big game like that,” McSorley said. “Just how we was able to keep persevering and keep being consistent and keep grinding throughout the entire season, for it to pay off in the Big Ten championship like that for him was awesome to see.”

Few people know what Hamilton has been through better than Godwin.

“I was really proud of DaeSean. I think we all were,” Godwin said of the Big Ten title game. “But I was especially proud of him because I’ve been here through everything, and I’ve seen all the things that he’s been through, his trials and tribulations.

“To see him perform so big on such a big stage, I wasn’t surprised by it by any stretch of the imagination because I see how hard he works and the talent that he has. But it felt good to have him get back to his old form.”

Which is ironic, in some ways, because Hamilton was able to return to his old form by never really changing in the first place.

“I really haven’t taken any steps or done anything drastically different,” he said. “I’ve always just stayed my course, came to work every single day and just made sure I kept the same attitude no matter what was going on throughout the years, if things were going my way or things weren’t.”

Gesicki’s great year

Gesicki had a rough 2015 season. He was a largely unreliable receiving target, dropping five passes, many in crucial situations.

He actually didn’t know the number was five until told by a reporter earlier this month.

“You would have thought it was about 50 the way everybody was reacting and talking about it,” Gesicki said.

True, he became the target of heavy criticism, but all of that is in the distant past now that he bounced back to have a fantastic junior year.

Gesicki had just 24 catches combined the past two seasons, but this year he set PSU season records by a tight end with 47 catches for 668 yards, and he grabbed four touchdowns. He wasn’t charged with any dropped passes, and on a lot of his receptions he showed good athleticism by making some difficult grabs in traffic.

“He’s stepped up big time,” Hamilton said. “No one really expected this out of him, but we all knew what he was capable of.”

If he could go back and do it all over again, Gesicki wouldn’t change a thing about last year.

“I said it before (this) season that I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me, and people were looking at me like I was crazy,” he said. “Obviously nobody enjoys (struggling), but it’s a time that has helped shape me to who I am today and the player that I am today.”

One thing Gesicki didn’t do was let all the criticism get to him last year. That was an important first step in maintaining his confidence.

“If you buy into it and listen to what everybody is saying, then you’re going to have to recover mentally,” he said. “I got to a point last year where I didn’t care what people were saying. I didn’t listen to what people were saying. I blocked everybody out.”

Once the offseason rolled around, Gesicki dedicated himself to working as hard as he could to have a bounce-back year. He was even obsessive about it.

“There would be times in the summertime I would be laying in my bed probably like 11 o’clock at night and be so afraid that somebody was outworking me or somebody was doing something that I wasn’t at that time,” he said.

“So, I’d go in the room next door and say,’Hey, Tommy (Stevens), you want to go throw?’ I’d go upstairs and say,’Saeed (Blacknall), you want to go catch for a little bit?’ I just didn’t want an opportunity to pass me by, because you don’t get this game forever, so I want to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Something else Gesicki had in his favor was a good friendship with former PSU tight end and current Pittsburgh Steeler Jesse James. They still talk a few times a month, and Gesicki called James “a huge mentor to me.”

Gesicki will be an NFL tight end someday, and he talks with James about the differences between playing the position in the college and pros.

“For me, I go up against (Garrett) Sickels every day in practice, and he goes up against James Harrison,” Gesicki said.

The pros will have to wait another year, though, as Gesicki announced Thurs­day that he will return to Penn State for his senior season.

“I am looking forward to wearing the Blue & White another year and playing with my teammates, best friends and more importantly, my brothers here at Penn State,” Gesicki wrote on Twitter. “I truly believe we have a solid foundation and the future is bright for the Blue & White.”