Forward Progress

Fourteen years after he became the poster child for cystic fibrosis, Boomer's son is playing three sports and helping his dad fight for a cure
July 01, 2007

A few weeks agoGunnar Esiason lay in a bed at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, flanked by hiskid sister, Sydney, his mother, Cheryl, and his father, Boomer. A catheter hadbeen inserted into Gunnar's left biceps and threaded to his chest, so thatdrugs designed to clean out his lungs could go directly to his bloodstream.He'd undergone the procedure six times before, but it caused enough discomfortto require a sedative, Versed, as well as an anesthetic.

As Gunnar startedto emerge from the fog an hour later, Boomer leaned in and looked his only sonin the eye. "What girl do you like?" the former NFL quarterback askedwith an impish grin. "Who've you been e-mailing, Gun?" In hiscompromised state Gunnar told all.

"That Versed islike truth serum!" Boomer crows. "They should give it to prisonersthey're interrogating!" Esiason is telling this story at a seafood jointoverlooking Long Island Sound, a few miles from the family's sprawling home inPlandome, N.Y. Looking no worse for wear after his short hospital stay, Gunnarshakes his head and leans back in his chair.

"Keep talking,Dad," he says. "I'll remember this next time we play pickuphockey." Gunnar then tells of how he laid out his dad with a bodycheck thelast time they faced each other. "He gave me the butt of his stick in myribs. A few minutes later he opened his chest to me, and I crushed him on theboards," he says, pantomiming a Chris Pronger job. "He had to leave theice he was so embarrassed."

That two-year-oldyou see in the upper right of the previous page--the cherub who graced SI'scover perched on his dad's shoulders? He's now 16 and stands 6' 2". Hishalo of blond hair has turned into a tangle of brown curls that poke out fromhis backward-turned Under Armour cap. He has a learner's permit. This spring hewas an attackman on the jayvee lacrosse team at Friends Academy in LocustValley, N.Y., and last fall he played quarterback for its jayvee football team.In this, the summer before his junior year, he'll go to football camp and playfor a local club hockey team with his dad before leaving for a family fishingtrip in Manitoba.

For as long asGunnar Esiason can recall, he's been the poster child for the fight againstcystic fibrosis, a usually fatal genetic disease that mainly affects the lungsand digestive system. While he's fine with that role, he could just as easilybe the standard-bearer for the contemporary American teenage boy, a sports-mad,YouTubing, Army-Navy store-shopping, boundlessly charming apprentice adult.

Boomer and Gunnarlanded on the cover of SI in October 1993, a few months after Gunnar had beendiagnosed with CF. The headline on the story read, we're going to beat thisthing. To date, the Esiason clan has been beating the hell out of it. "Sofar [Gunnar has] been O.K.," says Boomer. "There might be times when hemight be really hit by it. We just hope it doesn't happen until he's60."

Boomer was knockedon his ass that day in 1993, but it wasn't exactly a blind-side hit. Not longafter he entered the NFL in 1984, as a second-round pick out of Maryland, thepopular lefty quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals had attached his name tothe cause of cystic fibrosis. He had been moved when he'd heard a grievingfather talk about the disease at a banquet. In the spring of 1991 Cheryl gavebirth to Gunnar. He was a cute baby but could never seem to shake colds andearaches. Early on Boomer suspected that Gunnar had CF. A test given to the boywhen he was 14 months old was negative, and doctors told Boomer and Cheryl thattheir son probably had asthma.

The Esiasons hadtheir second child, Sydney, in August 1992, seven months before Boomer wastraded to his hometown New York Jets. While Sydney was the picture of health,Gunnar continued to be sickly and pale, and the cough suppressants his parentsgave him never seemed to do their job. When he turned two, Gunnar was againtested for CF. This time the result came back positive.

Boomer thoughtbriefly of quitting football but then seized on a better solution. First, helearned everything he could about CF: How a defective gene on the seventhchromosome deprives the body of a vital protein, causing a buildup of mucus inthe lungs where deadly bacteria can set up shop. How the disease afflicts30,000 Americans, drastically reducing their life spans. How more than10 million Americans carry the defective gene. (Luckily, Sydney is notamong them.) How rigorous treatments to loosen the mucus--90 minutes, twice aday--can make a world of difference.

Cheryl did most ofthe physical therapy sessions--"She's a champion," father and son sayin stereo--but Boomer too learned the techniques for thumping on Gunnar'schest, and he literally beat the snot out of his kid. Boomer decided to use hisprominence to raise both awareness of CF and money for research to fight it.He'd always been incurably social, one of those guys with a Christmas-card listthe size of a phone book. Now he was going to leverage those contacts. Hecalled his former center with the Bengals, Dave Rimington, who was working foran import-export business in Hong Kong. "I could use a hand, buddy,"Esiason said. Rimington returned to the States and helped launch the BoomerEsiason Foundation in 1993. To Esiason, his ambition of winning the Super Bowlsuddenly seemed trivial. His new, all-consuming goal: being outlived by hisson.

Esiason would playfive more seasons and throw a 77-yard game-winning touchdown pass in his finalact as an NFL quarterback. He became an analyst on Monday Night Football, butthe stint ended after two seasons over a feud with anchorman Al Michaels.Esiason, now 46, is a ubiquitous sports media figure--there he is on CBS'sSunday NFL studio show; partnered with Marv Albert on MNF radio broadcasts;hosting his New York-area sports talk show--an ex-jock lacking look-at-mesensibilities but unafraid to give strong opinions. ("Tom Brady is JoeMontana; Peyton Manning is Dan Marino," he says.) Still, those closest tohim say Esiason's true job is beating CF.

Under Rimington'sdirection the foundation holds benefits throughout the country--clay-pigeonshoots, golf tournaments, football games--and by the end of the summer it willhave raised $60 million since its inception. "I can't imagine that anyathlete has ever personally done as much for a cause as Boomer has for CF,"says Frank Deford, SI's senior contributing writer, who lost a daughter to thedisease and is chairman emeritus of the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation."This is not just some star who has lent his name."

It took time, butthe family has found a comfort zone between hope and reality. Concernaccompanies every success. No one sleeps the nights before Gunnar goes to thehospital for his treatment. He takes about 50 pills every day, most of themenzymes to aid digestion. Yet Boomer is hell-bent on making sure his sonexperiences all the coming-of-age rites. "Look, Gunnar has to learn todrive," he says. "He has to learn to take a girl on a date. Toexperience life's ups and downs beyond CF. To find out what it means to have akid [of his own]."

At the same time,those father-son moments--the trips to the Super Bowl and aboard aircraftcarriers--are freighted with extra significance. "It's weird because I canfeel fine," says Gunnar, "but [CF is] always in the back of mymind."

Adds Cheryl,"The older a CF patient gets, the more [difficult] realities you're facedwith. We know that. We just hope these drugs and treatments will extend hislife. We believe that can be accomplished. We have to believe it."

The sword ofDamocles, though, makes it easier for everyone in the family not to sweat thesmall stuff. Gunnar's lacrosse team mustered just one win this spring, butBoomer and Cheryl watched the games with smiles on their faces. "He's thereason we handled it the way we did," says Cheryl. "He's not acomplainer, he's not crying, so how can we be?"

While "cautiousoptimism" is the catchphrase in the CF community, there has beenunmistakable progress in recent years. When Gunnar was born, the lifeexpectancy for kids with CF was in the late 20s; now it's the mid- to late 30s.There have been improvements in medication and treatment, and dozens ofpromising drugs await clinical trial. In most states newborns are screened forCF. "It's a very different picture than if you were born 15 years ago,"says Marie Egan, director of Yale's Cystic Fibrosis Center. "It was thoughtof as a fatal illness. Now it's thought of as a chronic illness."

For CF patients,physical activity is a critical part of what Cheryl calls "the healthyequation." Aerobic exercise helps keep the lungs healthy, clearing theairway of mucus and the bacteria that can lurk within. Even without a famousathlete for a dad, Gunnar figures sports would play an outsized role in hislife. Brian Fleishhacker, a neighbor of Gunnar's, recalls that as a boy Gunnarwould go out in a blizzard and build snow forts--Hey, isn't he supposed to bethe sick kid? When the weather got nicer, he'd be on the family's "sportcourt," shooting hoops or zinging a lacrosse ball. "[CF] doesn'tprevent me from doing things," Gunnar says. "It's just knowing yourboundaries. If I feel tired, I can't push it to the next level. But otherwiseI'm fine."

The kid's a hugesports fan too. As a little boy he assumed that the g on the Green Bay Packers'helmets stood for Gunnar. Last year he went to a game at Lambeau Field, and hegiddily recalls that it was so cold, his camera phone stuck to his hand. WhenBoomer works for CBS on autumn Sundays, he'll call Gunnar for Packers updatesduring breaks. He knows better than to ask about Brett Favre. "He'll say,'He's doing great,' " says Boomer. "I'll reply, 'Gun, he has fourinterceptions!' He'll be like, 'Yeah, but his protection stinks.' "

Predictably,Gunnar's room is a shrine to NFL quarterbacks, festooned with the autographedjerseys of Favre, Manning, Brady and Carson Palmer. College is still two yearsoff, but Gunnar already knows this: "I want to go somewhere with a stadiumthat seats at least 50,000, so I can be a fan."

While Gunnar surelyknows more about biology than he ever wanted to--bacteria and antibiotics andpathogens--he's partial to history. College will present a new series ofchallenges. Kids with CF tend to neglect their treatments when they leave thenest. Self-possessed as Gunnar is, will he spend his customary three hours aday with the nebulizer and the vibrating vest that loosens the phlegm, when hisparents aren't there to stay on top of him? "Also, you know how everythingis supposed to be clean and free of bacteria?" Gunnar says. "I hearthat doesn't always happen in a college dorm room."

It's a funny linethat draws a chuckle from the adults at the table. But Gunnar isn't laughing.His father immediately picks up on his discomfort. He taps the table, and thenwith the clarity and calm of a quarterback in the huddle, Boomer Esiason says,"Don't worry. We'll figure something out--won't we, Gun?"

Gunnar's lacrosse team mustered just one win thisspring, but "he's not a Complainer, he's Not Crying, so how can we be?"says Cheryl.

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY Michael O'NeillRidingHigh
When Gunnar was diagnosed in 1993, the expected life span for kids with CF wasin the late 20s; now it's the mid- to late 30s.
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY Michael O'NeillLike Father....
Boomer, who catches nearly all of Gunnar's games, passed along his playfulnessto his sports-obsessed son
PHOTOJOHN IACONO (LACROSSE)TripleThreat
When he's not playing club hockey with his dad, Gunnar suits up for his highschool jayvee lacrosse and football teams
TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF THE ESIASON FAMILY (2)[See CaptionAbove.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)