HOME'S WHERE HIS HEART IS Back in N.Y., Esiason refuels Jets, resolved to fight son's cystic fibrosis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Each morning and afternoon, for about an hour, 2-year-old Gunnar Esiason must take a treatment of steam mist with drugs to help open his lungs.

Then his father, Boomer, or his mother, Cheryl, does chest physical therapy by patting him on his side and back.

Gunnar has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease characterized by mucous secretions through the body that affect the respiratory and digestive systems. The average life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients is 29.

"You try to keep his mind off the therapy, because sometimes he gets sore," said Cheryl Esiason, a native of Westminster. "Quite often, we run out of the rhymes, then it's time for Christmas carols. He loves the carols. It's a great bonding session."

Said Boomer Esiason: "You are doing something that is going to prolong his life, that is going to save his life, and you're doing it because you love to do it. It's a very rewarding and valuable time for all of us."

Concern for Gunnar's condition has taken Esiason's mind off the coming NFL season. In March, Esiason, a former University of Maryland star, was traded by the Cincinnati Bengals to the New York Jets, a move that created a lot of questions:

* Can Esiason, a nine-year veteran and one of the league's big stars in the late 1980s, revive his career?

* Can he help save the job of his longtime friend, Jets coach Bruce Coslet?

* Does his left arm, worth $3 million a year, still have enough strength and accuracy to throw downfield?

* How will Esiason, from East Islip, N.Y., on Long Island, cope with the pressure of being the hometown hero?

"I'm not worried about the New York media or the fans," said Esiason, who also has an 11 1/2 -month-old daughter, Sydney, who has tested neg- ative for CF. "Bruce Coslet and [Jets general manager] Dick Steinberg have been very generous to us. They have helped me find doctors and hospitals, so all I have to do is play.

"Playing will be like therapy to me. It's what I've lived for and what I want and what I do. There will be no juggling of a schedule, though. No. 1 on the docket is my son. There is no more fantasy land."

Esiason said he got a "real taste of reality" May 6.

That's when the doctor walked into his son's hospital room in Cincinnati accompanied by a pulmonary nurse, and told Boomer and Cheryl that Gunnar's test for cystic fibrosis was positive.

"You never prepare for something like this," said Esiason. "We were there for about 45 minutes, the three of us, but Gunnar was asleep. In that time span, you go through depression, sadness, anger . . . "

Cheryl said Boomer thought briefly about quitting football.

"Boomer was asking so many questions, like, 'What I should do? Should I stop playing?' " said Cheryl Esiason. "Gunnar was lying there asleep like a little angel. I think Boomer quit until Gunnar woke up, and said, 'Hi, Mom and Dad.' That's when we started restructuring our lives, because Gunnar was so innocent and full of hope."

Boomer and Cheryl Esiason were carriers of CF, but neither of them knew it. There was no history of the disease on either side of the family.

One of 20 Americans carries the CF gene, and the frequency of CF is one in 2,000 births. Nearly 30,000 children and young adults in the United States have the disease, according to Cystic Fibrosis Foundation officials in Baltimore.

When Gunnar was about 6 months old, he started developing a cough and wheezing. About a month later, a chest X-ray and a test for CF were negative.

Gunnar was treated for asthma.

"The CF test was done at a local hospital in Kentucky, but it was eight years outdated," said Cheryl Esiason. "It's not even used at a CF hospital now. But a lot more is known about CF now around the country than years ago."

And that's one reason the Esiasons are so positive.

Medical advances in the field -- such as gene therapy to reduce lung complications -- have increased the average life expectancy nearly 10 years per decade since 1960, according to Dr. Beryl Rosenstein, director of the CF center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

On Aug. 10, the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee unanimously approved the drug dornase alfa, which was found to reduce infections and improve the quality of life for stable CF patients over age 5. It was the first new agent drug for CF in 30 years, said Rosenstein.

Since the diagnosis in May, Gunnar has been taking enzymes with his food. He has gained 3 1/2 pounds and grown 2 inches in that time.

He swims three times a week. He likes baseball, basketball and football. He loves to hook up trains, feed animals and watch sports on television with his father.

"A lot of progress has been made in finding a cure," said Rosenstein. "The average life span may be around 30 for those already with the disease, but a child born with CF today can expect to live to be about 40. I think we're about five or six years away from finding a cure."

Esiason, because of a friend and business partner who was associated with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, had been active in fund raising before his son's diagnosis.

But now the disease has hit home, and Boomer Esiason has started a crusade. He has played in numerous charity golf tournaments. Earlier this summer, he helped raise $60,000 for CF research after he got 10 NFL quarterbacks (five from each conference) to participate in the television game show "Family Feud." The show will air in September.

"We all think, 'Why us?' " said Esiason, his voice starting to tremble. "But it happened for a reason, so I can get out and wage the fight and beat this thing in the next couple of years. By the end of the decade, if it's not cured, the life expectancy will be 50-60 at least. But I'm determined to help find a cure."

Downturn in career

Esiason fell from the league's top-rated passer in 1989 to 11th last season. In his past 41 starts, he has thrown 53 interceptions. From 1990 to 1992, only one quarterback was intercepted more often: the Los Angeles Rams' Jim Everett (55).

In 1992, Bengals coach David Shula benched Esiason the last four games for rookie David Klingler.

Something had gone wrong.

"I saw him play last year, and he just looked like he was banged up," said Ernie Accorsi, special adviser to the Maryland Stadium Authority and the vice president for football operations of the Cleveland Browns from 1985 to April 1992. "Now, whether or not he lost velocity because he was banged up, I don't know," he said. "You can only tell that if you're out there on the field with him."

RB But speculation has spread around the league that an arm injury restricts Esiason's motion, causing him to have less zip on the ball.

Esiason denies the rumors.

Esiason and Coslet offer this proof: Esiason captured second place in the long-distance event of the NFL Quarterback Challenge on April 25, throwing the ball 63 yards.

"There is a perception that I'm injured, but I don't know wherthat came from. When the Jets doctors examined me, they said, 'What the heck is that all about?' " said Esiason, 32.

Coslet and Esiason say Esiason had become sloppy fundamentally. Esiason had started to throw sidearm. And because he held the ball too low, his release was slower.

Esiason said he improved in those areas in Jets minicamps.

"Physically, I haven't changed much, but the players around me in Cincinnati did," said Esiason, pointing to the departure of running backs Ickey Woods and James Brooks and receivers Eddie Brown and Rodney Holman. "Then the offensive line started flaking away. The Bengals were more interested in filling the stadium than filling those holes."

Bengals general manager Mike Brown disagreed.

"When things don't go right, players tend to look for reasons beyond themselves," he said.

Coslet simply said: "Boomer got the stuffing knocked out of him."

Houston Oilers general manager Mike Holovak said: "I didn't see any falloff in Boomer's performance last year. The Bengals just went through a tough period. To be honest, I never thought he had a great arm, a real strong arm, in the first place. Boomer beat us with being able to read defenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage from that no-huddle offense. He can still do that and win in New York."

Reunion of friends

So now it's Boomer and Bruce, close friends, student and teacher, together again in a game of professional survival.

Coslet was Bengals offensive coordinator from 1986 through 1989. He helped turn Esiason into the league's MVP in 1988, and Esiason helped lift Coslet through the coaching ranks.

The tandem almost pulled off a victory in Super Bowl XXIII, when the Bengals lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 20-16.

But times have changed.

Coslet is 18-30 in the three seasons as coach of the Jets, including a 4-12 record last season.

"There's no question, this could work well for both of us," Esiason said, smiling. "On the day I was traded, I had the Jets' playbook down in 20 minutes. We're the architects of this system."

Coslet says he sees more in Esiason than a quarterback. He sees a winner and a survivor, a player most major colleges didn't want out of high school and the Bengals didn't draft until the second round.

So Coslet sent former starting quarterback Ken O'Brien to the Green Bay Packers, and has named Esiason the starter over third-year player Browning Nagle.

"I don't think the Jets paid me all of this money to be a backup," said Esiason. "There won't be a lot of pressure on me, because the Jets have brought in some other quality players, like Ronnie Lott and Leonard Marshall. They are committed to winning. I've got something here with the Jets that I never had in Cincinnati, a top-five defense. That makes a big difference."

And so does Coslet.

"I think Bruce [leaving] had more of an effect on Boomer than anything else," said cornerback Eric Thomas, who signed with the Jets after six seasons in Cincinnati. "When we lost Bruce, we never got another offensive coordinator. Sam [Wyche, former Bengals head coach] didn't have anybody to second-guess him or overrule him. That affected Boomer a lot."

Broadway Boomer?

The Jets haven't had a quarterback with this kind of charisma and brashness since Joe Namath.

And now Esiason is back home.

"Every once in a while, I'll get a guy screaming at me across the supermarket about something Boomer did in Cincinnati, and I don't even know the guy," said Boomer's father, Norman Esiason, 72. "I can just imagine what it's going to be like having him play in New York."

Esiason was a three-sport star in sports-crazed East Islip. He was 6 feet 4 by his senior year, and his light blond hair hung down to his shoulders. He drove a candy-apple red and white GTO convertible with wide-rim tires and darkened windows.

He rolled the top down even when it was cold.

He plastered his jersey number, 7, in decals all over the car.

His high school friends often make the trip to his home in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, sleeping on the floor in what amounts to an open house.

"Coming home, coming to the Jets, I'm pretty excited about all of this," said Esiason. "This is a wonderful opportunity."

One that already has included numerous endorsement offers in New York.

But Esiason is focusing on other things. He wants to show Gunnar the town.

"I will take him to Knicks games, I will take him to Rangers games, I will take him to Mets games," Esiason said. "It was what my dad did with me and it worked, and that's what I'm going to do with him, and make sure it works."

THE ESIASON FILE

Name: Norman Julius Esiason

Nickname: Called Boomer even before birth because of all his kicking when in the womb.

Size: 6 feet 5, 220 pounds

Charity work: In addition to fund raising for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Esiason has been a spokesman for the National Arthritis Foundation.

Ringing endorsement: In the Bengals' media guide last year, coach David Shula was quoted as saying about Esiason: "We feel very good about his chances of helping to turn this franchise around in 1992 and beyond."

Ringing endorsement II: In naming him the Jets' starter, coach Bruce Coslet said Monday: "Right now, we have a better chance at being successful with Boomer. That's what I'm worried about: right now."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°