BRANDON JESSIE DIDN'T find much to like about life after basketball. Adrift without a college degree or a team, he took a construction job to support his family. This was followed by a time of deep personal growth, which is to say he gained weight.

"I can do better than this," he thought to himself while he was painting and hammering nails in the hot Southern California sun.So Jessie, the former University of Utah basketball star, did what any weight-gaining basketball player might do: He auditioned for the NFL.

So what if he hadn't played the game in seven and a half years. Jessie signed a free-agent contract with the New York Giants in March. He is one of four tight ends in the Giants' training camp this week. He has spent the last three months in a New Jersey hotel learning the game and attending minicamp.

"I wish you could have seen this guy on the first day of minicamp in April," tight end coach Dick Rehbein told the L.A. Times. "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."

There are some who believe that, at worst, Jessie will make the Giants' developmental squad this season. At 6-foot-51/2, he weighs 250 pounds - 25 more than his basketball playing weight - which, combined with the agility of a basketball player and good hands, makes him an imposing prospect.

"He really has great hands, that's the thing that jumped out at us right off the bat," Rehbein told the Times. "He has a natural ability to catch the ball."

Jessie wouldn't be the first basketball player to make it in the NFL without any college football experience. He wouldn't even be the first from Utah to do it. Walter Watts, a 300-pound center for the Utah basketball team, made the Oakland Raiders' developmental roster for a season. Manny Hendrix, a guard at the University of Utah, played safety for the Dallas Cowboys for several years. Cornell Greene, a former Utah State basketball player, was an All-Pro defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys.

Jessie, whose father Ron was a wide receiver for the Lions and Rams in the '70s, was a prize football recruit in high school, although, even then, his interest waxed and waned. He quit the sport as a junior, then joined the team midway through the season. He quit again before the start of his senior year to devote himself to basketball.

Jessie was recruited more for football than for basketball. UCLA, Notre Dame and Michigan, among others, called. Utah's Ron McBride made an official recruiting visit to his home. But Jessie, a receiver and linebacker, didn't meet the academic requirements for a Division I school and settled for Ventura junior college instead.

"Everybody was recruiting him, but no one could touch him because of academics," says McBride. "There was no question he could play college football, because he was such a great athlete. The big questions were his commitment to football and whether he was serious about school."

After playing basketball at Ventura for two years, Jessie was recruited to play football for Florida State but chose to play basketball for Utah. He averaged 15 points a game for two years at Utah and hoped to get a job with the NBA, but he was ignored on draft day. Free-agent tryouts with the Phoenix Suns and the CBA didn't pan out either.

He took construction work and hated it. Several months ago, he decided to try professional football.

"I was just laying around getting out of shape," he says. "I was gaining weight - bad weight. So I started running and lifting and eating well. My wife put me on a special diet."

And Jessie's father got him in shape. Father and son spent their evenings training at a local high school field. "I couldn't get better advice than I could from a guy who was in the league 11 years," says Jessie from the Giants camp. "We worked on drills, and then I came out here and we're doing exactly the same things."

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Ron also called his connections around the NFL to arrange private workouts for his son with the Cardinals and Giants. After the tryouts, the Cardinals offered him a one-year contract at the NFL's minimum salary ($131,000). The Giants, coached by former Ute coach Jim Fassel, offered him a two-year, non-guaranteed contract that could be worth as much as $400,000, with incentives.

"They took a big risk," says Jessie. "I haven't played in a long time. I guess Coach Fassel called Utah to get a background check. He knew a lot of people there."

Jessie says the Giants are being patient with him as he learns the game. If that means a spot on the five-man developmental roster, fine. "I'll take anything as long as they keep me around, so I can prove I can play," he says.

Rehbein told the Times that's just a "fallback plan. 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 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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