The Esiason father/son quarterback story will never be about passes.
Shortly after Norman Julius "Boomer" Esiason was traded to the Jets in 1993, he received the news that his two-year-old son, Gunnar, was very sick.
"Two years after Gunnar was born, I became a Jet and I stepped on the field for the first minicamp," Boomer recalled Tuesday evening. "Maureen Dillon (Mo worked as an assistant to a number of Jets head coaches and later served a valuable role in player development) came running out and said your wife is on the phone. I hadn't even thrown a pass yet in the minicamp and I had just flown in from Cincinnati. My wife said you have to get back here because Gunnar's in the hospital and we don't know what's wrong. That was before I ever took a snap as a Jet in minicamp."
Gunnar was eventually diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. And at that time, the life expectancy for a child afflicted with the disease was just 18.
"I was involved in CF fundraising well before Gunnar was born because I saw Frank Deford speak at a dinner in 1988 when I won the Player of the Year Award," Boomer said. "I didn't even realize a charity was attached to it and he was talking about how he lost his daughter to CF at the age of 8 and I was crying at the dinner."
Face of Cystic Fibrosis
Moved by Deford, Esiason walked up to award winning sports journalist and asked how he could help. Deford simply asked if Esiason could go back to Cincinnati and become the face of cystic fibrosis and the Bengals star quarterback accepted, befriending a number of children who would tragically die before their 12th, 13th and 14th birthdays.
Esiason, who wore No. 7 throughout his 14-year professional career, selected that number because he idolized both Rangers winger Rod Gilbert and Colts quarterback Bert Jones when he was a child growing up in East Islip, NY. It just so happened that Gilbert had been the face of cystic fibrosis in New York and Jones not only had a pair of family members with the disease but he had also been fundraising in Louisiana for decades. And if all that wasn't enough for irony, the cystic fibrosis gene is located on the seventh chromosome.
Faced with a very difficult situation, Boomer decided he'd continue the fight and Gunnar courageously waged a quiet battle for years.
"He played ice hockey, he played lacrosse and he played baseball," Boomer said of his lone son. "Football wasn't in the cards for him when he was real young. He did play flag football and he went to a lot of different flag football tournaments. But his mother wasn't really too happy about him even thinking about playing football."
Gunnar participated in all these sports even though cystic fibrosis makes it extremely tough to fight infections. He took close to 100 pills daily and there were the memorable sessions when Boomer would pound away at his back to break up potentially harmful mucus that can block the lungs and other passageways.
By the time Gunnar turned 14, he told his mother that he was going to try out for the football team at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, NY. He eventually became the varsity team's backup quarterback, tossing a couple of memorable TD passes in reserve duty.
"He had two really tough years his junior and senior years. He got sick and missed a bunch of games and a bunch of practices," Boomer said. "He practiced with a picc line in his arm, so he could get the mandatory number of practices under his belt."
Foundation and Challenge
Years before Gunnar ever stepped on the football field and almost immediately following his diagnosis, Boomer vowed to eliminate the threat of CF and launched the Boomer Esiason Foundation. The former Jets quarterback created the Outback Steakhouse Empire Challenge — a game between top high school football talent from New York City and Long Island — back in 1996 as a benefit for the Foundation, the Gunnar H. Esiason Scholarship at Hofstra and local youth football programs.
The most recent "Challenge", which was the 14th annual contest, was the greatest one yet. In a classy and unexpected move, the Long Island coaching staff asked Gunnar and Boomer if Gunnar would play on their squad and lead at least one drive. So Dad asked his kid, now a 17-year-old young man, if he'd have interest and Gunnar told him it was his responsibility to play.
"When I heard that I was like, 'Okay, you're a little bit more mature than I am Gun,'" Boomer said.
Just 30 minutes before kickoff, I stood with a proud Boomer on the field. With camera over his shoulder, he smiled and sometimes welled up when speaking about an incredible journey.
"I'm feeling kind of melancholy to be honest with you Eric," he told me when he asked how he was feeling. "We've been here for 14 years now and Gunnar has been running around the field like these little kids out here. All of a sudden he's going to put on a uniform tonight and he's going to come out and start for Long Island."
The four-time Pro Bowler and former NFL MVP, who threw for 37,920 yards in his career, was nervous. But Gunnar, coming off a few practices with his Long Island teammates, was raring to go.
"I think he's genuinely pumped, I think he's pretty excited," Boomer said. "And I think a lot of people who know Gunnar is playing tonight — his real close friends and his family members — they're all just floating on air that he's playing in this tonight because they've all been there throughout the years with him. It's really cool for him."
After New York City received the opening kickoff, they moved all the way into scoring territory before turning the ball over on downs. Then Gunnar led the LI huddle before moving to the line of scrimmage. But even before he could take that first snap, each NYC defender jumped the line and gave him a friendly tap. It was a show of acknowledgement, encouragement and sportsmanship as thousands of onlookers applauded at Hofstra's James M. Shuart Stadium.
Night of Pride
Then Gunnar Esiason, a righty wearing that familiar No. 7, pitched to Hempstead's Terrel Williams and the talented running back threw an incomplete option pass up the right sideline. Long Island went to a trap call on 2nd and 10 and Gunnar slipped the ball to Williams up the gut. He found a lot of green, shook a helpless defender out of his boots and raced to the end zone for an 87-yard explosion.
Gunnar raced behind and congratulated Williams. Long Island would go on to win, 31-14, and Gunnar took only a few snaps on the evening. His appearance in the game was a celebration in itself and the quarterback never even threw a pass.
"As any parent will tell you, just watching him do what he's doing tonight is going to be awesome," Boomer said. "I'm going to be so proud and it doesn't matter if he runs a 5.0-second 40 or throws an interception. I could care less. He's in a football uniform tonight and that's enough for me."
In the fall, Boomer is going to lose his wing man as Gunnar heads to Boston College. But with the help of their contributions, this father/son QB pair has seen the life expectancy for those with cystic fibrosis increase from 18 to 37.
"Thirty years ago it (going to college) might not have been the case," Boomer said. "He might not have made it to this point. Now he's looking to go way past this and hopefully be a father himself."
Boomer's done throwing passes and Gunnar might never put on the pads again, but it doesn't matter. The efforts of this QB tandem have made them modern-day heroes.