THE PASS CAME and then it went, way too quickly, given everything it meant to Mike Gasperson.
Last Dec. 23 at New Orleans, after nearly three full seasons on the Eagles' practice squad, Gasperson was activated for a game. He ran up and down the field on special teams, and then, suddenly, there he was at wideout, and Donovan McNabb was aiming a short pass to him, Gasperson with room along the sideline to turn it upfield. Except Gasperson looked upfield when he should have been looking the ball in, and it clanged off his hands.
Three days later, the day after Christmas, Gasperson was released, the disappointment cushioned a little by assurances he would return in the offseason.
The day after New Year's, the Eagles asked Gasperson if he wanted to try again, this time as a tight end. Absolutely, Gasperson said, and he set about putting 15 pounds on his 6-4, 215-pound frame.
Last week, the Birds gathered their rookies and what they call "select" veterans - the ones they usually "select" to take all those preseason reps so the real players don't get hurt - for 2 weeks of work at NovaCare. Gasperson, who turns 26 on June 10, was the oldest guy on the field, except for a few players coming over from other teams and needing to learn a new system - like 27-year-old fullback Dan Klecko, or 26-year-old tight end Kris Wilson.
As youngsters in the locker stalls around him talked about how new and different it all was, Gasperson embarked on his fourth go-round with the Birds. To put that in perspective, Gasperson and wideout Reggie Brown arrived the same year. Gasperson has worked and sweated and studied just as much as Brown - while playing in a mere 47 fewer regular-season games and catching only 150 fewer passes.
"Hopefully, when I finally do make it, it'll be that much more exciting and worth it, the hard work I put in," Gasperson said.
Gasperson first signed late in the 2005 preseason, at the recommendation of his coach at the University of San Diego, Jim Harbaugh. That was long enough ago that Jim Harbaugh is now coaching Stanford, and the Eagles assistant Harbaugh contacted, his brother, John, is now the head coach in Baltimore. Gasperson had gone undrafted after suffering a serious knee injury, and he wasn't able to work out until training camp was nearly complete.
The practice squad was the best outcome Gasperson could hope for in '05, given when he signed. By the next training camp, it was obvious the coaches thought he had promise. But not enough promise that they felt they had to put him on the field.
"Being on the practice squad, I don't feel it's a rejection," Gasperson said. "For them to keep me around for 3 years, I feel like they must see something."
Gasperson has a wife and a child now, and he acknowledges it would have been nice to know, 2 or 3 years ago, that he was going to be around this long - he would have bought a condo, settled in. He said his wife, Mandy, a former Chargers cheerleader who has worked as a teacher in South Jersey, understands why he hasn't given up his life on the fringes of the NFL, hasn't made use of his business degree.
"She knows it's just a dream of mine, and it's not like I can stop now and come back and do it later; it's now or never,'' Gasperson said. "She's understanding about that.''
Gasperson acknowledges he thinks "every day'' about what he would do if the NFL string finally snapped. His father, Gary, is in real estate. His brother, Joey, is now a personal trainer back home in Monterey, Calif. He said he finds their careers interesting.
Second-year quarterback Kevin Kolb said he thinks Gasperson is very close to making it here and not having to worry about another career. Kolb and Gasperson became hunting buddies after the QB arrived in the '07 draft.
"He's got the best heart of anybody I've ever met; that's one of the reasons he's so liked around here," Kolb said. "It's just a deal where he has to find his groove. Once he does, he'll fit in. I can see him being just like a Jay Novacek - he's got the same type of body and hands, and feel for the game.
"There's a lot of 'in-between' players, people wonder where they're going to fit. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. The ones that do fit, it seems like [people who didn't think they would end up saying], 'Golly, where did this guy come from?' I think he can be one of those guys.''
The main reason Gasperson was activated last December was to put a big, healthy body out there on special teams, a role in which he will have to stand out to make the team this year. Gasperson said he thought he settled in well there after a rough opening kickoff.
"The biggest thing I take out of that game is that the speed of the game is just so fast. Being on special teams, having the kickoff team run down on you, it's so much different than practice,'' he said. "You simulate in practice having guys run down, but in the game it's so much faster. You've got to pick up things fast."
Gasperson said he doesn't feel his career will be forever defined by that dropped pass.
"First-game jitters. It was a flat route and I just looked upfield too soon," he said. "That's all it is. I don't have bad hands, I have good hands. It's just one of those things; everybody drops a ball.
"I came over to the sideline, coach Reid was like, 'That's your first and last one; you don't get any more of those.' "
File this under "just in case . . . '' - in a crowded NovaCare locker room, where lots of new guys are dressing out of temporary stalls set up in the middle of the floor, unsigned defensive tackle
Kimo Von Oelhoffen
still has a stall with his nameplate and number above it. And nobody is wearing Kimo's No. 66. Either the equipment guys are observing a very unusual period of extended mourning, or a 15th NFL season still could be in the offing for the 37-year-old Hawaiian . . . Cornerback
got some punt-return reps yesterday. Probably not a threat to unseat