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Spring 2005 l Capital University Journal
Fielding Dreams
Former Hornets tackle the big time


Slideshow

The script for “Hornet Football: Beyond the Causeway” is part classic sports film, part Frank Capra movie. Through persistence and happenstance, defying the odds and being at the right place at the right time, it tells the story of Sac State players who’ve advanced to football fame.

They may have had to work harder getting noticed in the beginning than players from “Football U” schools, but that effort has helped them make names for themselves and the Hornet program. Sixteen former Hornets have been on active National Football League roster with two grabbing the NFL’s top prize—a Super Bowl ring—twice: John Gesek with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and 1993 and Lonie Paxton with the New England Patriots in 2001 and 2003. At press time, Paxton’s Patriots were headed to Super Bowl XXXIX, giving him a chance at a third ring.

Players from schools like Sac State that play in smaller conferences have to go the long road more so than a player from Florida or Michigan because scouts focus at the level of competition the player faces on a consistent basis, says Hornet head coach Steve Mooshagian, who was wide receivers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1999-2002.

“Every scout is looking for certain things in a player: speed, high energy, durability. But there are 50 guys who look like him. So the question is ‘What does he do differently?’ They’re looking at how he does in the spotlight, how will he fit in the position within the scope of the game.”

John Gesek caught the eye of the scouts almost by accident. When Gesek, who played offensive line during Sac State’s non-scholarship Division II days, asked his Oakland Raiders position coach what convinced the team to draft him, he found it was hard work—and being in the right place at the right time.

The coach said the Raiders had been scouting another Hornet player but kept seeing Gesek in the background making key plays. “He told me, ‘You kept showing up on film,’” Gesek says. “Other guys bring attention and you sometimes have a lucky break.” From his non-descript start, Gesek went on to win two Super Bowls with the superstar-laden Dallas Cowboys in the early ‘90s, in an offense that included Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.

Persistence of another sort paid off for Ricky Ray. After graduation, the former Hornet quarterback landed a management trainee position with the FritoLay Corporation. But he never gave up on a career in professional football.

His migration between gridiron positions with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets, the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos, and the snack food company earned him the nickname “Frito Ray” in the Canadian press. He guided the Eskimos to a Grey Cup in 2003, their first in 10 years. This season he suited up as a backup quarterback for the Jets.

Shastanative Ray looks back on his days as a Hornet as an important first step into the spotlight. “Coming from a small town to go down and play Division I football, it was big for a kid like me,” he says. “Getting picked by the 49ers changed my whole career. Then in Canada I got the chance to play.” In New York he also met up with a familiar face, rookie tackle Marko Cavka, who was a freshman at Sac State during Ray’s senior year.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a player —even a 260-pounder— stand out. Lonie Paxton was a proud member of the Hammerheads, the Hornet offensive line that helped running back Charles Roberts set the all-time Division I-AA rushing record in 1999. But when position coach Angus McClure suggested Paxton focus his efforts in developing one of the “extra credit” tasks of his game—serving as the long snapper on special teams—he somewhat reluctantly agreed.

That decision helped earn him a Super Bowl ring when his perfect snaps aided game-winning field goals by the New England Patriots in both the 2001 AFC championship and Super Bowl XXXVI. Paxton’s celebratory snow angels and “turf angels” after the scores were replayed again and again as a highlight on ESPN’s Sports Center.

Paxton gives credit to his former teammates for giving him “the fire and drive to be what I am in football.” He also remains close to his former coaches John Volek and McClure. “They had a huge influence on me as a long snapper and going on in my career.”

Other players who made their mark in the pros include:

  • Lorenzo Lynch: Lynch played for 10 seasons in the NFL with three different teams—the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders. With the Cardinals he had the longest overtime interception return for a touchdown in NFL history—72 yards against the Seattle Seahawks in 1995. It’s a record that still stands. Today he is active with the Oakland Raiders alumni association.
  • Charles Roberts: At 5 feet 6 inches, you might not expect Roberts to make a mark in pro football. But he followed a career as the leading rusher in NCAA Division I-AA history by being named the Canadian Football League’s Outstanding Rookie in the league’s east division in 2001. He went on to lead the CFL in combined yards in 2002 and in rushing yards in 2003.
  • Daimon Shelton: Shelton has made a career of making other players look good, blocking for Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor’s 1,223-yard and 1,399-yard seasons and Chicago Bears running back Anthony Thomas’s 1,283-yard season. This season, the fullback, currently with the Buffalo Bills, paved the way for rising star Willis McGahee’s first NFL touchdown. The Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.) says he is “considered one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league.”

Of course, getting drafted by a pro team is one thing. Playing at that level is another.

“Football is as much mental as it is physical,” says Mooshagian. “It requires a lot of prep time to learn the position. They’re not in school any more— school is the job. The classroom is working with the coach. It’s a very competitive profession.”

Paxton says, “A lot of the guys I play with played at schools that were a step away from the pros—Miami, Florida, Ohio State. Even so, for as many backgrounds as we come from you turn out to be the same. Once you get into the pros, it’s not about the schools, it’s about what you can do now and tomorrow. It’s a pretty level playing field.”

“I wasn’t prepared for it at all,” Gesek laughs. “The Division I players had a much better grasp.” He says he did find a level of comfort once he became part of a system. “Coaches know they can count on you and give you the benefit of the doubt.” He even moved with his offensive coordinator at Dallas, Norv Turner, when Turner went to coach with the Washington Redskins.

And though their days at Hornet Stadium have ended, the pros haven’t left it far behind. Paxton keeps in close touch with his former linemen. Ray played with several in his CFL days. Lynch makes frequent Sacramento-area appearances with the Oakland Raiders alumni association. And Gesek looks back on Sac State’s Division II days as the end of an era. “It was a funny situation, unlike now, where it’s very structured. We were just a bunch of guys who played football together.”


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