Boomer’s Still Battling

In A Boy Named Boomer published in 1995, Boomer Esiason offers children a few lessons from his childhood, like the importance of giving others a chance. He tells about choosing a kid who was always picked last for the neighborhood baseball game. This kid struck out, was tagged out and dropped a fly ball. But the experience was meaningful for Boomer. “It made me work harder—and be a better player,” he writes. “After that, I always picked the weakest player to be on my team. I hoped that one day someone would pick me for something I’m not good at.”

The book’s lessons on how to be a stand-up guy may be aimed at second-graders, but they speak to the kind of character that molded Boomer Esiason into the competitor and father he is today.

Norman Julius “Boomer” Esiason was born April 17, 1961, in West Islip, N.Y. His nickname, given in utero by his mother—who said he never stopped kicking—stuck throughout his childhood, his days as a University of Maryland quarterback, and his stellar National Football League career. Today he’s in broadcasting on CBS-TV and on radio.

But none of these career highlights could diminish the painful news that rocked Esiason in 1993, when his 2-year-old son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. “My initial thought was, What would my dad do?, and he was the first call that I made. He basically said, ‘You know what you have to do. It’s your responsibility. You have to be there for him; you have to be there for your wife. You have to be there for your entire family. There’s no stepping down from this; there’s no walking away from this. There’s no compromise—this is something that has been brought to you in your life.’

“Here’s a man who lost his wife whom he loved and adored when I was 7 years old…. I’m thinking he’s imparting this wisdom to me, and I’m saying to myself, If he can do it, then I certainly can.”

After his mother, Irene, died of lymphoma, Esiason recalls being loved fiercely by an extended family and by his father, Norman Esiason, who filled the void.

“It was my father who sacrificed for me,” Esiason says. “Not only getting up and going to work every single day but always coming home, always making sure that dinner was on the table. I was very fortunate to have a man as a father who recognized responsibility, dedication to his family. It’s something that stuck with me forever. I had two sisters seven and eight years older than me, girls in their mid-teens—and they pitched in. There was my grandmother, my aunt, my grandfather, my mother’s parents who were like a second family to me.

“I think they all recognized how difficult it was going to be for me as a 7-year-old to grow up without a mom. They all went to great lengths to make sure I was loved, that I was cared for and I pretty much got whatever I needed, although it was a pretty simple life. I think it was that family structure that made me who I am today.”

Esiason had other strong mentors, too, including his high school football coach, Sal Ciampi, at East Islip (N.Y.) High School. “When I think of a high school football coach, I think of a maker of men,” says Esiason, still handsome and fit enough to bike 20 miles a week and play hockey like a man half his age. “In high school athletics today, you think of parents on the sideline screaming at the coaches, but nothing could have been further from the truth [in my life]. My father and my high school football coach had great admiration and respect and love for one another. They loved being with each other.

“My father played football in college. My high school coach was a Division One All-American. I have often compared him to George Patton. He was my homeroom teacher for 10th, 11th and 12th grades. I had to be in school on time every day; he had to see my report cards before my father saw them. If I got into trouble in school, he was always the first one who was called; he was always the first one to reprimand me. He was the one who threatened me that if I wanted to play, there was another part of my life I had to respect. You had to respect the teachers; you were not going to go skating through life because you were a good athlete. You were going to have to learn what it means to be not only a good athlete but a good person.”

Some people thought Esiason wasn’t college quarterback material. But Esiason drew on his own sources of inspiration to disprove those who thought he’d wash out in college.

“I always remembered that my father was a World War II veteran, that my high school football coach put in all those summer days [with me and the team] when I practiced, in the weight room, running around the track. We committed to each other—to the family that we were as a football team—and I think of the sacrifices that both of these men made. It gave me a perspective as I grew up about what sacrifice meant. Or what real work meant. I like to think that’s how I was rounded: by the toughness of two men who understood when to be tough, but also understood when to be caring and when to be sensitive to who I was as a young man.”

In appraising the men who shaped him, Esiason speaks to the qualities that make a winner, the “pride, the character, the commitment, the effort.”

“All those words sometimes ring hollow… but I always told my kids when you do something you are all in. You are all in. That means you are committed to the coach, to the team, no matter what the situation you are in, whether you are winning or you are losing, whether you are playing or you are not. You are going to sacrifice for the good of the team. My kids played team sports because the virtues in team sports require dedication, commitment and an unselfish person, somebody who is passionate about what they are doing.”

In reflection, his stumbling block in football occurred when he was a 10th-string college quarterback. “I think I had to overcome who I was. It’s hard for me to explain this, but I was so confident and headstrong and in some ways disobedient. I was like a bucking bronco for my first 2½ years at UM [University of Maryland]. I was difficult to deal with. I was a terrible student and when I look back upon that, it coincides to when I wasn’t playing. If I wasn’t playing, I didn’t have an outlet. And if I didn’t have an outlet, I was trying to run from whatever the issues were. Who I was as an 18- and 19-year-old really held me back.… When I look back at it, my biggest obstacle was the way I thought of myself. It’s a very humbling experience. From the fall of 1979 to the fall of 1981, I was a disaster.”

But he turned disaster into triumph by breaking a passing record in the first game he started in college—as a sophomore quarterback. “I felt so proud and then so complete that I did something that nobody thought I could do. So that first game against the University of West Virginia for me was letting me know that I did belong and that I earned it.”

An All-American, Esiason went on to set 17 school records for passing and total offense at the University of Maryland. He led the Terrapins to the Atlantic Coast Conference title, and in 1984, the Cincinnati Bengals chose him as the 37th player in the NFL draft. This led to another career highlight: defeating the Buffalo Bills for the American Football Conference Championship and a Super Bowl berth. His personal achievements include NFL Most Valuable Player in 1988 and being selected four times for the Pro Bowl. After leaving the Bengals, he played for the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals.

Esiason was poised to give it all up after his son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, however. The now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover story by Gary Smith, with Esiason holding his tow-headed son on his shoulders, bore witness to the athlete’s pain and thought processes. An excerpt:

On first hearing the diagnosis, Boomer had decided to retire from football and to always be with the boy. But now he was off at war again, and somehow it was the boy, instead, who was always with him. After his first three games as a Jet, Boomer was 68 for 94, for 909 yards and five touchdowns, leading the National Football League in completion percentage and average gain per completion, posting the same kind of glaring numbers that had made him the league’s MVP in 1988. Every pass he completed was a spiral hurled into the future, a message his son would read one day: NEVER GIVE UP! Every touchdown he threw meant another microphone to speak into and tell the world about the disease that afflicts 55,000 people, another chance to explain about the mutated gene that causes so much thick mucus to clog the lung walls that they become a haven for infection, limiting the average CF patient to a life of 29 years and killing three people every day. “I am going to be the biggest enemy that this disease has ever had,” Boomer said. “We’re going to beat this thing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re going to beat it.”

Cystic fibrosis, or CF, also obstructs the pancreas so natural enzymes can no longer help the body break down and absorb food. People with CF have to have their lungs cleared one to four times a day through chest percussion therapy; they’re susceptible to complications such as pneumonia, bowel problems, fevers and chronic respiratory failure. In the 1950s, CF children often never made it to grammar school age, but now average life expectancy is the late 30s.

Esiason rattles off the terrible facts. “It’s a genetic disease that affects three aspects of one’s body…. It’s an everyday fight against chronic lung infections. They have to do a number of treatments to keep their airway passages as clean as possible. They have to take pills to help them digest food. Their immune system is compromised because they aren’t digesting the food properly, so they have to take nutrient supplements. You can never take a day off. It’s 24/7/365.” And it affects fertility in males, he adds. “Most likely Gunnar is sterile.”

The Esiasons launched the Boomer Esiason Foundation in 1993 to raise money for research to fight CF and to offer programs for families struggling with the disease. There are fundraisers, marathons, even the opportunity to secure a transplant grant or a scholarship. The former quarterback’s work on behalf of young people with CF has been an awakening for him.

“When Gunnar was diagnosed and we were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the number of people who reached out to us—people from our past—it was absolutely amazing, and part of that is the inspiration to continue this fight publicly. When I think of all the things we have been through over the years with our foundation and with Gunnar, I am so inspired by the beauty and the unselfish nature and the giving nature of people. It really, really has touched my heart.”

Esiason retired from football in 1997 and went into broadcasting as a color commentator for ABC’s Monday Night Football from 1998 to 2000, followed by his current role as a Westwood One radio analyst for Monday night games. Esiason also is an in-studio analyst for The NFL Today on CBS-TV and co-hosts the Boomer & Carton morning show on WFAN Radio in New York and the Madison Square Garden Network.

But his biggest job is his ongoing war on CF. Esiason routinely shares what he’s learned with other families suffering from the disease, and acknowledges that it takes the proverbial village to fight it.

“My wife, Cheryl, is a superstar. And most CF moms are—they really immerse themselves in their children’s lives. When Mother’s Day comes around in our house it has a very, very, very special meaning—because of the sacrifice Cheryl has made for Gunnar. Gunnar’s been lucky because he has had two parents who are active in every aspect of his life, from a physical standpoint in dealing with the disease to a mental standpoint. I always tell this to other CF parents: They have to understand that these kids are not going to have to bear this burden by themselves. The parents and the siblings and the aunts and the uncles and their friends all have to have a little piece of this fight.”

That fight has become central to Esiason’s life. People used to ask him what his goal in sports was, and the quarterback always replied, “to win the Super Bowl.”

“But after Gunnar was born, although that goal was still prevalent, in the big picture in life my goal is to make sure Gunnar outlives me and has the distinct honor—and I do believe it’s an honor—to become a father himself. And hopefully have the bond with his son that I have with my father and that I have with my own son.”

Today, Gunnar Esiason is a senior at Boston College. He plays hockey; he is doing well. Still, like most parents of college-age kids, his dad has concerns. “One of the biggest things you worry about when they go away to school is if they are going to take care of themselves. It’s a heavy load. It’s every day. It’s about an hour and a half every day he has to take care of himself. Plus he was in a dorm room, which was an incubator for disease and everything else. So it was rough for the first two years…. He’s living off campus now with buddies and he’s fighting the good fight. He respects his role in the CF community—he’s been the face and voice for CF kids and he’s been educating kids from the time he was in grade school talking about it, to in high school talking about it, and now in college talking about it.”

It’s what you would expect from the son of Boomer Esiason, grandson of Norman Esiason—that commitment, that passion, that responsibility. “For Gunnar to take on what he has taken on and to set the example that he has set… he could win 10 Super Bowls, and I wouldn’t be any prouder of him than I am today.”

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