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CHANGING of The GUARD

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Getting between a football and 11 angry men wasn’t his first career choice. And the last thing Brandon Jessie planned on was hitting people for a living.

But an opportunity with the NBA wasn’t knocking for the former University of Utah swingman and Orange County prep standout, so Jessie tried another door.

Football is now Jessie’s field and the NFL is his workplace. The New York Giant rookie tight end, son of a former all-pro wide receiver with the Rams, is learning the business faster than he and his new bosses expected, although everyone cautions not to expect too much too soon.

“If anyone had told me a couple of years ago that I’d be doing this today, I would have just figured they were crazy,” said Jessie, who lives in Costa Mesa with his wife and two children.

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“It still seems kind of crazy to me at times, like I’m not the one out there doing it. But I guess I am.”

He had better be, or the Giants are going to want their money back.

They signed Jessie, 23, to a free-agent contract March 17 after he impressed them during a private Giant Stadium workout. Team officials were initially intrigued by Jessie’s size--he’s 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds--and basketball background. His success in agility and receiving drills sealed the deal.

“He really has great hands, that’s the thing that jumped out at us right off the bat,” said Dick Rehbein, the Giant tight end coach. “He has a natural ability to catch the ball. You could also see he’s a big, fluid athlete. He showed deceptive speed and a good change of direction, but his hands were really the thing.”

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The Arizona Cardinals were similarly impressed when Jessie worked out for them in Tempe in March before his Giant audition. The Cardinals offered Jessie a one-year deal at the NFL minimum salary of $131,000. The Giants gave him a two-year package that, with performance incentives, could pay him $400,000.

Although Jessie’s situation isn’t exactly common, it’s not as unusual as some might think. In fact, Jessie isn’t the first basketball player from his alma mater to make such a transition. Former Utah guard Manny Hendrix played defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys from 1986-92.

“The Giants have been great,” Jessie said. “I’ve been learning a lot of new stuff, and everyone has been real patient.”

Jessie remained in New Jersey from the day he signed until the end of June to participate in the team’s off-season training program. He lifted weights, worked on receiving techniques and studied football terminology.

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NFL rules typically limit teams to one minicamp in the off-season unless a head coaching change has occurred since the previous season. Coach Jim Fassel, who grew up in Anaheim, was hired in January, so the team was permitted to have three minicamps and 14 additional days of voluntary workouts. Jessie used the time well.

“I wish you could have seen this guy on the first day of minicamp in April,” Rehbein said. “Stuff that you take for granted as a coach, just expecting that your guy will break the huddle and know where to line up, you couldn’t do that with Brandon.

“I had to go step by step by step with him. He concentrated on what he had to do, he studied hard and he applied himself.”

No one is more pleased by Jessie’s improvement than Jessie.

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“You don’t realize all the stuff you have to learn to play football until you have to learn it,” he said. “I don’t know if that makes any sense, but you would understand if all of a sudden you were trying to play in the NFL.”

This definitely didn’t begin as an all-consuming quest for Jessie. He figured he was headed for the NBA after a solid career at Utah, where he averaged 15.2 points over two seasons and was selected All-Western Athletic Conference. That followed two highly productive years at Ventura College, where Jessie was selected the co-state player of the year as a sophomore.

But on draft day, Jessie’s phone was silent. He had a tryout with the Phoenix Suns that went nowhere fast.

From there, he basically spent the next year trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. And Jessie needed to get going because his family was growing. Jessie and his wife, Harper, have two daughters, Kiana Beau Jessie, 2, and Braxton, 4 months.

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The NFL seed was planted during a phone conversation in December with then-California All-America tight end Tony Gonzalez, a boyhood friend from Huntington Beach. Gonzalez told Jessie he needed to “come back” to football, that he still had what’s needed to make it to the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs chose Gonzalez with the ninth overall pick in the NFL draft.

It was a pep talk, and it made Jessie feel better, but Gonzalez’s words were grounded in substance. Jessie was an outstanding high school football player at Huntington Beach Edison High before giving up the sport midway through his junior season to concentrate on basketball.

Once Jessie decided he wanted to give the game another shot, he needed to get a foot in the door. As it turned out, having a former all-pro in the family doesn’t hurt.

His father, Ron, played for the Detroit Lions and Rams from 1971-79. Ron began working the phones and Brandon soon had his start. But Ron is quick to point out that he didn’t get a Brandon a job. He only gave him a chance.

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“He did all the work,” Ron said. “He was the one working hard in the off-season conditioning. He was the one who had to perform. That’s the only thing anyone cares about.”

Jessie said his work ethic has improved since signing with the Giants. He wasn’t the last guy to leave the weight room at Utah, which he reluctantly acknowledges might have hurt his prospects at an NBA career.

“Brandon now realizes how much you have to put into being a professional,” said Rick Majerus, his coach at Utah. “Brandon has found his work ethic and that’s what will make the difference for him [in football].”

On Thursday, Jessie will report to the Giant training camp in Albany, N.Y., and begin working in full pads for the first time since high school. His contract is not guaranteed, but based on what team officials have seen so far, he is expected to at least make the developmental squad. Teams can carry up to five such players, who are not on the active 53-man roster.

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“But that’s really just a fallback plan for Brandon,” Rehbein said. “I know he’s setting his sights higher than that because we’ve talked at length about what he has a chance to do. He wants to play and contribute and that’s going to be his ultimate goal this season.

“Now don’t get me wrong, Brandon has had his good days and his bad days. I’m not touting him for rookie of the year or anything like that, because he still has a long way to go. But he’s come light years in a very short period of time, and he’s done some things athletically that have really caught a lot of people’s attention.”


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