With one exception, blond-haired Gunnar Esiason is like almost any other 4-year-old boy. He's big on the birthday party circuit, likes to have friends over, and is active in all kinds of sports.
The exception is a flawed gene that makes all the difference to him and his parents, Boomer and Cheryl Esiason.
Gunnar is one of approximately 30,000 Americans afflicted with cystic fibrosis, a deadly genetic disease that attacks the respiratory and digestive systems of children and young adults.
The defective gene controls the flow of mucus in the body. The result is a buildup of mucus in the lungs.
"That mucus is thick and sticky, and it attracts bacteria," said Boomer Esiason, New York Jets quarterback and former Maryland star who was in Baltimore yesterday to launch a fund-raiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. "When bacteria gets into that mucus, it eats away at the lungs. The lungs are a non-rejuvenation organ; if you lose a piece of it, it never comes back."
Thus, the Esiasons live in constant fear of the common cold, a sudden sneeze and any microscopic bacteria passed on to their son in the most innocent fashion. They fight that fear with a number of precautions -- anti-bacterial soap, an alcohol scrub, conventional therapy and just plain, old common sense.
"This is the aggressive approach," said Esiason. "Any birthday party he goes to, we're calling up and making sure that none of the children are sick. Any guests that come to our house, they all know [the situation]. They'll tell us, 'No, we can't bring little Nickie over today because she's got a cold.'
"Everybody around us knows. That's an important part of our fight. Because we've been able to share it with our family and friends, it has made it that much easier to deal with."
The Esiasons' fight goes well beyond those disciplined precautions, though. Since Gunnar's condition was diagnosed in May 1993, Esiason has become national spokesman for the CF Foundation, using his celebrity status as an 11-year NFL veteran and one-time MVP (1988) with the Cincinnati Bengals.
He said he has raised more than $1 million for research to find a cure, and expects to double that total by 1996.
He even formed his own foundation, The Boomer Esiason Heroes Foundation, to assist in fund-raising.
On May 19, Esiason and his foundation made an initial $500,000 contribution to the CF Foundation toward a commitment of $1.6 million to advance research.
The same day, the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati dedicated a wing -- the Gunnar H. Esiason Cystic Fibrosis and Lung Center -- to Gunnar, who receives treatment there.
Yesterday, the Esiasons were at the Inner Harbor to help kick off ticket sales for the eighth annual Hard Travelers/Ryan Homes country concert, featuring Kenny Rogers, at the Baltimore Arena on Aug. 25. The goal is to net $500,000 for CF research.
Tickets cost $12.50 and $17.50 for upper reserved seats, $25 for reserved and $50 for premium seats. For information or tickets, call (410) 771-9000, or call the 24-hour concert hot line at (410) 771-0560.
Cheryl Esiason, a native of Westminster, said she hopes a cure is found within 10 years.
"Gunnar is considered a mild CF patient," she said, "and that has a lot to do with age. But it is a disease that will progressively worsen and lead to a total loss over time, until a cure is found, or until new and better drugs come onto the market. But right now, the prognosis is good because there is a cure in sight. They located the CF gene in 1989, and since then have cloned it and begun gene therapy trials."
C. Richard Mattingly, executive vice president and CEO for the CF Foundation in Bethesda, said that while a cure is now conceivable, the cost of research is skyrocketing.
"We're learning a lot about means of delivery [of a corrective gene] and how to administer it safely," Mattingly said. "We've made enormous progress . . . But the closer we get, the more complicated it gets and the more expensive it gets.
"Boomer has been a godsend to us in many ways. He came in after Gunnar was diagnosed. He could've turned his head and walked away. But he's made a big difference, he and Cheryl."