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Boomer's big play

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Boomer Esiason can't believe what he's hearing.

The guy yapping at the former Maryland football star in staccato New York patter is a die-hard fan of the Jets, one of three NFL teams Esiason quarterbacked.

The Jets had just one victory, and this character across the desk wants them to insert young Kellen Clemens at quarterback.

"Give us something," co-host Craig Carton shouts, "because the games don't matter anymore."

From behind his WFAN AM microphone, Esiason chides: "That sounds like a guy who was in the band and not on the football team. Every player wants to win the game on Sunday. That's all they want."

He says this with the authority of someone who played 187 pro games over 14 seasons. But he also grins, because he knows this dynamic -- hyperactive New York fan debating self-assured ex-athlete -- makes his radio show work.

It better work because Esiason and Carton are replacing disgraced radio legend Don Imus in the morning slot for New York's gigantic WFAN station. And it was just announced that Imus will be a competitor on WABC AM beginning Monday.

Replacing Imus represents a sort of redemption for Esiason after he failed in one of the most prominent broadcasting jobs, analyst for Monday Night Football. He lasted just two years on television's highest-rated sports show and has had to rebuild his career on radio.

After that experience and 14 years as an NFL quarterback, taking over for Imus feels like no pressure at all, Esiason says.

Of competing with the man he replaced, Esiason says: "I can't worry about what others are doing. Craig and I are up and running and feel good about our product. We're a new show and still getting our footing in the market. At this point, we consider every morning show as our competition. That being said, we are likely targeting a different audience than that of WABC."

Some critics contend Esiason isn't as opinionated as he should be. But Esiason likes being the measured counterpoint to his frenetic co-host.

"I try to bring a level of conscience and clarity and to talk about past experiences that would maybe allow me a different opinion," he says.

Esiason was a regular commentator for Imus, whom he refers to as a broadcast "genius," but never considered a morning show until Imus was removed April 12 for making racially insensitive comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Esiason's agent phoned shortly after and asked, "Have you ever thought about morning radio?" After decades of Imus' edgy political and social humor, WFAN station manager Mark Chernoff wasn't sure what to do with his morning slot. He thought Esiason, doing a more sports-oriented show, was a possibility.

So he gave the ex-quarterback a weeklong tryout, pairing him with sports commentators the first two days and a conservative political host the three after.

Chernoff liked what he heard but felt the mix wasn't quite right. Then he thought of Carton, who had a New Jersey show.

"It was amazing for two people who didn't really know each other," Chernoff recalls. "I said, 'This is the show.'"

'No chilling out' time

At 46, Esiason seems nearly as effervescent as he did upon leaving the University of Maryland in 1984. He still has the shock of white-blond hair and still carries barely any paunch on his burly, 6-foot-5 frame.

He leads a hectic life. In addition to rising before 5 a.m. for his show, he travels the country to call Monday night games for Westwood One radio, records a weekly show for New York's MSG network and spends his Saturday rehearsing the CBS NFL studio show and his Sunday on the show itself.

"There is no chilling out during football season," he says.

Esiason made four Pro Bowls and ranks 13th all-time in passing yards and 14th all-time in touchdown passes. He had majored in broadcasting at Maryland and interned for WJZ-TV one summer. When NFL players went on strike in 1987, Esiason became a leading spokesman.

So the transition to media seemed obvious. Esiason also wanted a job that would keep him in the public eye as a spokesman for Cystic Fibrosis. His son, Gunnar, suffers from the respiratory disease, and Esiason's foundation raises $7 million a year for research.

Gunnar still needs daily treatments, which become more intensive when he contracts a bacterial infection. But at 16, he plays quarterback for his Long Island high school, and Esiason says his chief goal is to see Gunnar outlive him.

The ex-quarterback's broadcasting promise was such that as soon as he quit playing, ABC named him color analyst on Monday Night Football.

He garnered mixed reviews from critics, who wondered whether he had enough star presence. He traded verbal jabs with play-by-play announcer Al Michaels after he was pulled after two years (1998-1999).

Seven years later, Esiason says he's happy that his greatest professional failure pushed him toward radio. He says he's cordial when he runs into Michaels, but he doesn't back away from his post-firing comments.

"You know what, I'm better off for it," Esiason says. "I wasn't ready for the whole political aspect of television and radio. I was a popular player and I thought I was going to be afforded the same respect that I received in the locker room. That wasn't the case."

He started his transition to radio by calling Monday night NFL games. Esiason loved traveling that first year, hearing from fans who considered Dennis Miller's hyper-literate rants a poor replacement for his football-centric analysis.

"It was exactly what my ego needed," he says.

Making connection

Though it's been just two months, Carton and Esiason seem remarkably at ease together. They grin and banter during commercial breaks.

"I don't know if I would work without him now, and I don't know if he would work without me at this particular station," Esiason says.

Chernoff doesn't have enough ratings information to know whether Esiason and Carton are a hit (and the show isn't syndicated nationally as Imus was), but he likes the feedback he's heard.

"Really, from Day One, it's been a much more advanced program than I thought we'd be able to put on the air," Chernoff says.

New York-area critics have jabbed at Esiason for being too reserved. "It would help if he stopped deferring," Newsday critic Neil Best wrote. "During a discussion of the [Isiah] Thomas trial, he started interviewing Carton about his opinions rather than expressing his own."

Esiason admits he's still working to be comfortable with those aspects of the job. Imagine how daunting it would be to rise before dawn every day and not just talk for four hours, but also attempt to be funny, energetic and engaging. When you watch a radio broadcast live instead of listening on the car radio, the difficulty is apparent.

But Esiasion hops into his car at 4:45 every morning, chugs two Red Bulls and cranks the volume on a rock station. By the time he gets to the station, he's excited. That's also a fair description of his overall outlook on the job.

"If it continues how it's going, there's no telling how far we can go up the ladder," he says. "It's far exceeded anything I thought it was going to be."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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