Though it never had a name until now, this club most certainly exists. And it’s impacted the lives of many young men who’ve lined up under center for the Cougars the past three decades.

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Luke Falk was an unheralded walk-on quarterback when he first arrived at Washington State in the summer of 2013 — so anonymous that his biography did not appear in the 2013 WSU football media guide.

Yet, shortly after Falk began his freshman year, former WSU quarterback Jack Thompson contacted Falk’s father, Mike, with a simple message: Have your son give me a call if he ever needs anything.

That was when Falk first realized the uniqueness of his position.

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a scholarship athlete, or that he was buried on the depth chart. He was a quarterback at Washington State, and that buys a guy membership in one of the most unique fraternities you will find in college sports: The WSU Quarterbacks Club.

It’s informal, unofficial, and so under-the-radar that even WSU coach Mike Leach doesn’t seem to know of its existence — “They don’t do a great deal, but they know each other,” Leach says in response to a question of how involved the Cougars’ former and current quarterbacks are in one another’s lives.

Though it never had a name until now, this club most certainly exists. And it’s impacted the lives of many young men who’ve lined up under center for the Cougars the past three decades.

“Some guys have used the word ‘fraternity’ to describe it, and I’d agree with that,” says Connor Halliday, Leach’s first quarterback at WSU who still holds the NCAA record for most passing yards in a game. “We’re not gonna see each other all the time or talk all the time, but any time one of us needs the other, we’re gonna be there for each other. I think that’s the best way to describe it.”

That’s been Falk’s experience. Since the day his father first heard from Thompson, Falk has been in semiregular contact with the Throwin’ Samoan and has gotten to know several other members of WSU’s rich quarterbacking lineage. Jason Gesser is a close friend and mentor, and Falk considers Drew Bledsoe a valued confidant.

Bledsoe was one of the few people Falk consulted last winter when trying to decide whether to leave WSU early for the NFL draft or return for his senior season.

“I didn’t give him advice or express an opinion of whether he should stay, but I talked him through my decision on how I decided what to do, and gave him some decision-making points,” says Bledsoe, who left WSU after his junior season in 1992 and was drafted first overall by the New England Patriots the following spring.

That call was the first of several between Falk and Bledsoe, who is now one of the many supporters in Falk’s corner.

“He’s helped me out a lot,” Falk says. “Really just with his experiences and what he’s gone through, and even some playing tips.”

In the beginning

If this unofficial fraternity of Cougars quarterbacks is a club, then Jason Gesser is president, and Jack Thompson is founder and president emeritus.

All the quarterbacks interviewed say Thompson got it started and remains the heart and soul of the operation, but Gesser has been instrumental in continuing the tradition of quarterback networking.

“It all starts with Jack. Jack was an outstanding mentor for me and all the other quarterbacks that came through,” Bledsoe said. “He really set an example for us of what we should be doing to set an example for guys who come after us. He’s been the godfather of Washington State quarterbacks.”

Some guys have used the word ‘fraternity’ to describe it, and I’d agree with that.” - Connor Halliday

Thompson, who graduated in 1978, was a three-year starter at quarterback for WSU. During his time in Pullman, he set Pac-10 and NCAA passing records and became a Heisman finalist. He also became the face of WSU football, and traveled around the state talking to community groups and representing the Cougars at official functions.

This, more than anything, influenced Thompson’s perception of how a starting quarterback should carry himself, and he decided it was his responsibility to pass those lessons on through the generations.

“Being a quarterback at WSU, there’s more to it. When you’re playing, you’re playing not just for the school, but for that whole area,” Thompson says. “There’s a special attachment that goes with it, and I tried to let them know that — to realize that it’s more than just you. Playing quarterback at WSU is special.”

It seems every WSU quarterback has a Jack Thompson story to tell.

“Jack was one of the first guys to reach out to me,” says Alex Brink, who quarterbacked the Cougars from 2004-07 and is still the only WSU quarterback to win three Apple Cups. “There was a time early on when he said, ‘I’m here as a resource for you. As quarterbacks from WSU, we stick together and look out for each other.’ … Later in my career, heading into my senior year, he reached out and came to Pullman and spent a few days working with me on mechanics and fundamentals. It really helped me.”

Decades earlier, Thompson laid the groundwork for the Cougars in their recruitment of Mark Rypien, who grew up in Spokane a WSU fan in the 1970s because he was a fan of Jack Thompson.

“I just followed Jack. I would always watch him. Every time the Cougars played in Spokane, which they did quite a bit, at Joe Albi Stadium, a buddy of mine and I used to go all the time and follow Jack,” said Rypien, who played at WSU from 1981-85. “I became a huge Cougar supporter — not just in football, but basketball too. I was a Crimson and Gray guy from the seventh grade on.”

Bledsoe was a sophomore at WSU in 1991 when Thompson approached him with a proposition.

“You’re playing really well,” Thompson told Bledsoe. “But one of the problems that can happen when you’re playing well and have achieved a certain status sometimes is that coaches will stop coaching you and think you’re the finished product. I’m gonna be there watching practice, and I’m gonna be critical and talk about things your coaches aren’t bringing up.”

As a young quarterback eager to perfect his craft, Bledsoe welcomed the extra help.

“He would talk to me about footwork and eyes, and some of those things that I may not have been getting from other coaches,” says Bledsoe, who became a four-time NFL Pro Bowler. “It was helpful to have someone like that who was critical in a positive way. He was there a lot.”

Thompson also tried — but with little success — to help steer WSU’s next iconic signal caller, Ryan Leaf, in the right direction. Leaf was one of the most successful quarterbacks to ever play at WSU, but his boorish attitude did not endear him to fans, and his behavioral issues multiplied when he got to the NFL.

Thompson kept in close touch with WSU football through the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 1998, when an undersized, but charismatic Hawaiian quarterback joined the team, that Thompson found a kindred spirit who in time would become the next leader of this quarterback fraternity.

Passing the baton

Thompson first met Jason Gesser at a practice during Gesser’s freshman year and he recognized early that Gesser was a leader of men. Even though Gesser was new to the team, guys gravitated toward him, and he played with a gutsy flair that you couldn’t teach.

“I was just watching him, and he definitely had that ‘It’ factor,” Thompson said. “He’d crack me up because he’d talk smack to the first-team defense as a freshman scout-team quarterback. I loved him right when I met him. He definitely had the attitude.”

Gesser took well to Thompson’s attempt to mentor him, and soon, Thompson was Gesser’s go-to consultant on how a quarterback should run a football team.

“We would sit down to talk, whether it was things I was doing wrong, or just me asking him for advice,” said Gesser, who won two state titles at St. Louis High in Honolulu. “I had a hard time when I first got up here because, quite honestly, I’d never lost. I didn’t know how to lose. That was hard.”

From the little things like how to get players to stay in Pullman for team summer workouts, or how to get a perennially tardy receiver to show up on time, and bigger issues of how a quarterback should comport himself, Thompson became Gesser’s sounding board.

On Nov. 2, 2002, the Cougars routed Arizona State at home and Gesser earned the game ball for breaking Thompson’s 24-year-old school record for career passing yardage.

After the game, Gesser sought out Thompson, who was at a friend’s apartment in Pullman.

“I’ve got something to give to you,” Gesser said, presenting Thompson with the game ball as his mentor tried to hold back tears. “Without you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“It meant the world to me to be able to even do that,” Gesser says. “That’s how much he’s meant, in my eyes, to everybody.”

The Gesser era at WSU yielded back-to-back 10-win seasons, a Rose Bowl appearance, and the emergence of someone whom Thompson could finally pass the mentoring baton to.

The ties that bind

Since Gesser returned to Pullman in 2014 as an assistant director of development for the Cougar Athletic Fund, he has taken on a more active mentoring role, while Thompson floats around in the background.

Gesser and Falk knew each other from Gesser’s days as an assistant coach at Idaho, when he recruited Falk to play for him. Reunited at WSU, they picked up where they left off.

They chat regularly, with Falk consulting Gesser for ideas on team building and leadership skills and Gesser occasionally tossing him suggestions on books to read, stuff he can work on, and ways to enhance team chemistry.

“He’s a sponge, man,” Gesser says of Falk. “He wants to learn as much as he possibly can from anybody.”

With Gesser back in Pullman and Thompson in Seattle, the quarterbacks are more connected than ever before.

The Cougars’ two most successful NFL quarterbacks, Rypien and Bledsoe, have traded favors over the years, helping each other with charity events and such.

Meanwhile, as Oregon-based members of the WSU quarterbacking fraternity who have both coached high school football and started their own businesses, Bledsoe and Brink have been a steady resource for each other.

There’s a special attachment that goes with it, and I tried to let them know that — to realize that it’s more than just you. Playing quarterback at WSU is special.” - Jack Thompson

Brink also has kept in touch with another Cougars quarterbacking legend, Timm Rosenbach, his position coach at WSU. Brink and Gesser call WSU football games together at Martin Stadium, and Gesser’s college roommate and backup, Matt Kegel, also has been around. He’s a regular participant of the Cougars Legends golf tournament fundraiser the athletic department holds every summer.

And, of course, the godfather has been omnipresent. Thompson travels to as many games as he can squeeze into his schedule.

Even the quarterbacks who weren’t always responsive to Gesser and Thompson’s attempts at mentorship have been touched by the bond of brotherhood they fell into at WSU.

In May 2015, on the day Halliday abruptly and inexplicably left Washington’s rookie minicamp to go home to Spokane, he got a text message from Gesser.

Even though he wasn’t ready to talk about it — his only response to Gesser was a short text, “I appreciate it” — Halliday says he’ll always be grateful to Gesser for attempting to reach out to him during an extremely tough time in his life.

“Jason was pivotal in my success,” says Halliday, who has given up pro football after tearing his right rotator cuff while in camp with the Montreal Alouettes this spring, and works in Seattle selling Hammer Strength fitness equipment. “Gesser went above and beyond and he really helped me take that next step in how to grow and lead a team that wasn’t always winning as much as you’d like.”

Halliday has reintegrated himself with the Cougars. He attended a practice in the spring, and he’ll be back in Pullman for the Cougars’ season opener against Montana State on Sept. 2 to take part in an autograph-signing session with Bledsoe at Pullman Regional Hospital.

Even Leaf, the bad boy of WSU quarterbacks, has been on both the giving and receiving end of benefits that come with QB club membership.

Halliday fondly recalls how, during his redshirt year in 2010, Leaf attended every spring practice session, and frequently took him and starter Jeff Tuel to lunch.

But even before that, in 1998, shortly after he was drafted No. 2 overall by the San Diego Chargers, Leaf donated $100,000 to WSU to endow a scholarship in the name of Mark Rypien’s son, Andrew, who had died from brain cancer the year before. (The Andrew Rypien Memorial Football Scholarship is still active, and defensive end Nick Begg was the 2016-17 recipient.).

That gesture touched Rypien deeply and has never been forgotten. He tried to keep in touch with Leaf even as the embattled quarterback fought his demons over the years.

“From the standpoint of him getting his life back on track, I’m honored and proud to tell everyone he’s headed in the right direction,” Rypien says. “He’s had a lot to overcome. He was the ‘next savior’ in San Diego, and he went from that, to just fighting for his life and figuring out his addiction and getting on top of his addiction and being clean and straight and getting in the right direction.”

Though Leaf didn’t take well to Thompson’s attempts to mentor him during his WSU days, Thompson and a couple of other prominent WSU alums wrote character letters of support for him during his court case in 2013, when he was charged with burglary and the stealing of prescription painkillers from two houses in his hometown in Montana.

Leaf spent 32 months in prison and now lives in Los Angeles with his fiancée. He declined an interview for this story, but earlier this year announced he has overcome his addiction to painkillers, and is working as the ambassador for a sober-living community.

In recent months, he’s traveled to colleges across the country, sharing his story with football teams. He has also taken steps to reconnect with his alma mater. This summer, he sought out Bledsoe for a round of golf in Montana, and visited his old coach, Mike Price, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Leaf also stopped in Pullman to visit with the football staff and catch a quick workout in the Cougars’ weight room.

Returning to Pullman “was a big test for him,” Bledsoe says. “And being back in Montana, with all the temptations and that environment that was hard for him, has been a big test. He looks like he’s getting the better of it.”

To a man, the Cougars’ quarterbacks say they want Leaf to know he can come home to Pullman, and that he has their support.

The club will endure

The club Thompson started will not end with Falk.

Falk has taken a mentoring role with his backup, Tyler Hilinski, and he’s already coming up with ways to give back to his school — he’s had discussions with his family about starting a foundation and setting up a fund to give WSU football walk-ons some financial help.

But the next generation of Cougars quarterbacks also boasts ties to some of the old guard.

John Bledsoe, Drew’s son, is in the fold as a freshman walk-on quarterback, and so is Connor Neville, a freshman quarterback from Oregon who played on Brink’s E-Force 7-on-7 team in high school, and was coached by Thompson in an all-star game.

Even Halliday — who admits that in his younger days he never had a desire to mentor anyone — feels a responsibility to keep the fraternity going.

“It goes back to being a Cougar. When I was growing up as a kid, I might not have understood that either,” Halliday says. “But being a Cougar means something… We look after our own. Jason and Jack and Drew Bledsoe led the charge with that and showed us young guys how to do it. When Jack, Jason and Drew are gone and I’m in my 50s and Luke is 55, it’ll be our job to help the young guys. That’s your duty, being a WSU starting quarterback. They’ve done an amazing job of instilling that in us.”

The godfather of quarterbacks at WSU will smile when he reads that from Halliday. He’ll know that his work here is done.

40 years of WSU starting QBs
A look back at the Cougar passers in recent decades.
Years Quarterback
2015-17 Luke Falk
2012-14 Connor Halliday
2011 Jeff Tuel, Marshall Lobbestael
2009-10 Jeff Tuel
2008 Kevin Lopina, Lobbestael
2004-07 Alex Brink
2003 Matt Kegel
2000-02 Jason Gesser
1998-99 Steve Birnbaum
1996-97 Ryan Leaf
1994-95 Chad Davis
1993 Mike Pattinson, Chad DeGrenier
1990-92 Drew Bledsoe
1989 Aaron Garcia, Brad Gossen
1987-88 Timm Rosenbach
1986 Ed Blount
1984-85 Mark Rypien
1983 Ricky Turner
1981-82 Clete Casper
1980 Samoa Samoa
1979 Steve Grant
1976-78 Jack Thompson
Coug QBs in the NFL
Here’s a look at multiple-year starting Cougars QBs who’ve gotten a look at the NFL (and throwing Luke Falk in for comparison’s sake). All statistics are from their years at WSU.
Quarterback Years Gms Passing yds TD INT NFL
Jack Thompson 1975-78 44 7,818 53 49 1st round, (#3 to Cincinnati), 1979
Mark Rypien 1981-85 30 4,573 28 29 6th round (#146 to Washington), 1986
Timm Rosenbach 1986-88 30 5,995 39 37 1st round (#2 suppl. to Phoenix), 1989
Drew Bledsoe 1990-92 30 7,373 46 34 1st round (#1 to New England), 1993
Ryan Leaf 1995-97 32 7,433 59 24 1st round (#2 to San Diego), 1998
Jason Gesser 1999-02 40 8,830 70 39 Undrafted free agent, 2003 (Tennessee)
Alex Brink 2004-07 46 10,913 76 43 7th round (#223 to Houston), 2008
Jeff Tuel 2009-12 31 5,932 33 25 Undrafted free agent, 2013 (Buffalo)
Connor Halliday 2011-14 35 11,308 90 50 Undrafted free agent, 2015 (Washington)
Luke Falk* 2014-17 30 10,888 89 26
Source:  *So far