SUPER SOUTHPAW : BOOMER ESIASON : Bold, Brash Bengal Finds His Boom Town
Hey, America, where you been all this time?
It’s me, Boomer, greatest quarterback you never heard of. You got your kingpins, your Dan Marinos and John Elways, those guys who got the recruiting trips to the Coast and went No. 1 in the draft. They got the limos and the network spots and every time one of them smiles, the sun glints off his teeth and some advertiser’s heart races and he throws another $500,000 at him.
And then there’s me, Norman Esiason Jr. of East Islip, Long Island, the left-hander from left field.
No way, Jose baby. This is my week.
BOOMER, SOONER OR LATER
Anybody who doesn’t know the troubles he’s seen, will soon.
Boomer Esiason is coming to Super Bowl XXIII. This is a matchmaker’s dream, like the party where Taylor met Burton: 10,000 bored-numb press guys, dying for a sign of life, meet the star whose only complaint is that they haven’t descended upon him en masse sooner, with all their camera booms, photo backpacks, stick mikes and silly questions.
“Like, where were you when I was in high school? I could have used some pub then.”
Before we begin reviewing Boomer’s list of disappointments, it should be noted that he has surmounted them decisively. He’s talented, engaging, rich and No. 1 in the hearts of his neighbors, even if they did almost float him down the Ohio River a year ago. They didn’t really mean it.
He was the league’s top-rated passer this season. He and his coach get along these days, and he hasn’t asked to be traded in 12, maybe 13 months.
Of course, he may not have been driven to such heights had it not been for that outrageous fortune that kept shunting him onto the side track so the Metroliners could roar by.
Does it bother him?
Well, when Denver’s Dan Reeves called him “a left-handed John Elway,” Boomer replied that maybe Elway was “a right-handed Boomer Esiason.”
And then there’s his kingpin theory.
“A lot of these players are kingpins because of their college days, no matter what they do in the pros,” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are guys who are kingpins. Dan Marino’s a kingpin. He knows it, and I told him so. But I have great admiration and respect for him.
“Somebody asked, ‘Who’s the greatest quarterback of all time?’
“I said, ‘Well, the Miami Dolphins live and die on probably the greatest right arm ever to play the game.’
“Not the greatest left arm, but the greatest right arm.”
How did he get left behind?
He was as gifted as any of them, as hungry, as accomplished.
Why Boomer, indeed?
THE BLACK HOLE OF LONG ISLAND
Norman Esiason Jr., nicknamed Boomer--the senior Norman was a kicker at Columbia and Normy Jr. did a lot of kicking in his mother’s womb--grew up in East Islip, out on the Island.
He was a 3-sport star at East Islip High and turned down a baseball offer from the Mariners. His football coach says he was 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds as a senior. He threw 31 touchdown passes in high school, made a bunch of All-Island teams.
And got no scholarship offers?
So the saga begins.
“Only one school offered me a full scholarship and that was the University of Maryland,” Esiason says bouncily, this being the start of his favorite story.
“And I think it was their last scholarship. They just wanted to give it to some sucker out of New York. I think it was really just to appease my high school coach.”
It’s true. Boomer’s coach, Sal Ciampi, was tight with the Maryland staff and placed him there late in the recruiting season.
You can understand scouts missing on late-blooming tackles from Montana but how in the name of Amos Alonzo Stagg does a huge quarterback with a rifle arm, good numbers and a coach who adores him, slip through the cracks?
“They just messed up,” says Ciampi from his East Islip High office. “In all honesty, I don’t know what it was.
“I think they were afraid of him being a left-hander. It had nothing to do with attitude. He was the greatest kid I ever coached.”
As cocky as he is now, didn’t he stand out a little then?
“He was always saying things,” Ciampi allows. “I called all the plays. He was the only quarterback who’d signal me from the field and point to himself (asking to change the play). I would run my hand across my throat, like, ‘If it doesn’t work, I’m gonna cut your throat.’
“Boston College came in here and looked at him. They just felt there was someone better.”
Few scouts even went that far. East Islip had never sent a football player to a major program and recruiters sneered at Long Island, period. Maybe they thought it was too basketball-crazy, or out-of-the-way, or too suburban. Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer recruits Los Angeles and the Harbor League zealously, but makes only occasional forays into Orange County.
Anyway, Boomer had the first stripe across his cheek, and he was a Terrapin.
NO. 1 IN HIS HEART . . .
He was a great Terrapin, too.
He broke school records and charmed writers with his wit, not to mention candor.
What college kid ever engaged in name-calling with a rival? Boomer and Duke’s Ben Bennett did.
Boomer also had what looked like a real good time. Of course, he and Coach Jerry Claiborne exchanged odd looks once or twice, but they got by.
How to describe Boomer, ages 18-23?
“Those are two pretty good words,” says Jess Atkinson, the former Redskin kicker and Esiason’s college roommate, now selling commercial real estate in Washington.
Boomer wore his blond hair shoulder length.
Boomer collected parking tickets. Bennett, his nemesis, needled him about it publicly.
Boomer told the locals he’d gotten most of them outside the gym, where he was doing press interviews.
“I don’t know if I’d buy that,” Atkinson says, laughing.
“It goes back to that big old Bronco he had, that was No. 1. It was twice as high as any car on the road and he had it jacked up on those big wheels.
“We all had our share of tickets but with that baby, he could park that thing anywhere. I mean, that thing could go wherever it wanted to, wherever Boomer wanted to drive it. And Boomer had a knack for seeing a parking spot where there was nothing but grass and bushes.”
Does this suggest that Boomer had a little authority hang-up? That he didn’t like being told what he couldn’t do?
“No question,” Atkinson says. “I think that’s the reason he’s such a leader, both on and off the field.
“He likes to run the show. Of his traits, I think the best one is his leadership.”
. . . NO. 2 IN THE DRAFT
Of course, he was made for the pros. The United States Football League, fresh from stealing Steve Young, courted him. Esiason talked about a Young-like $800,000 a year.
But Boomer was really waiting for the National Football League draft, in which he went . . . . . . 38th, the 10th player taken in the second round.
Not only that, he was actually the Bengals’ fourth pick. They had already taken Rickey Hunley, Pete Koch and Brian Blados in the first round.
The hometown Redskins let him go by, even though Joe Theismann was aging, and all they had behind him was the untried Jay Schroeder.
After which, Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard said that Esiason’s comments about money had been in very poor taste.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Beathard said draft day. “You have to prove yourself in this league. . . . I don’t like that attitude of a guy telling people how much he is worth before the draft.”
Did any of this get to our hero?
Seven weeks later, a still-shaken Boomer told the Washington Post: “Without my family and close friends, I’d be broken and in the nuthouse right now.”
What happened, Part II?
Boomer says it might have been because of comments he made at the scouting combine workout in New Orleans.
The Maryland players had flown in the night before, after their team banquet, hadn’t been fed in the morning, and worked out on empty stomachs. Boomer says he was discussing it with friends in a colorful manner on an elevator at the hotel, and found out only later that the man in the back of the car had been Atlanta Falcon Coach Dan Henning, a former Redskin assistant.
“They probably thought I was a head case,” Boomer says. “They probably still do.”
Boomer says it might have been because of his performance at the workout.
“I hadn’t picked up a football since my last game,” he says. “That was in the Citrus Bowl, and I’d separated my left shoulder.
“I was at the combine, watching the other quarterbacks throw and I was saying to myself, ‘Oh man, I can throw better than these guys with my right shoulder.’
“So I decided to pick up the ball and throw it. That was the first time I’d thrown since hurting my shoulder and I was throwing the ball all over the Superdome that day. I wasn’t hitting too many people. Maybe that turned a few people off.”
Maybe it was something else?
Says a Washington writer: “Boomer has a new theory every week.”
Maybe it wasn’t such an insult, after all. Maybe it was just Boomer’s forte--being in the right place in the wrong time.
The year before had been the incredible quarterback harvest--Elway, Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge going on the first round.
And a year later, along came Boomer.
“There’d been six quarterbacks drafted the year before,” says Dick Steinberg, personnel director for the New England Patriots.
“There were three trades for quarterbacks that year. That made nine teams which had satisfied their quarterback needs.
“There are always a few people who don’t like something about you but most people felt he was really good. We had taken Eason the year before and we were still going to take him in the second round. We were on the phone with him when Cincinnati picked him. We were the ones who told him he’d been drafted.”
IN THIS CORNER . . .
. . . wearing the baseball cap and furrowed brow, the coach of the Bengals, Sam Wyche!
His worthy opponent, the younger but equally (at least) headstrong, emotional and willing-to- talk-about-it, Boomer!
So began the Four Years’ War.
Esiason was a prodigy from the day he arrived. He started 4 games as a rookie behind Ken Anderson. In 1985, his first full season starting, he had a phenomenal 27-12 touchdown-to-passes interception ratio. In ’86, it was 24-17 as the Bengals went 10-6 and missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker.
And yet, there were always rumbles that Boomer was mad at Wyche and wanted out.
“It just didn’t happen,” Wyche insists. " . . . No more than you get mad at your wife--maybe that’s a bad example.”
“I guess our relationship has been strange at times,” Esiason says. “But I can only remember two times when it’s come to a boiling point.
“The first was a couple of years back in Houston when he sat me on the bench. He took me out and I was 6 for 12 or 7 for 13.
“He says, ‘OK Kenny, you’re in.’
“And I say, ‘I’m not hurt.’
“And he says, ‘Kenny you’re in. You take a seat.’
“I went over to the Gatorade table and cleared it off. Then Kenny got hurt in the second half and I came back in, threw 3 touchdown passes and we almost won-- and I didn’t run one play they called from the sideline.
“I’d come off the field and the offense would be down at one end, and I’d be on the other end, scheming.”
In 1986, with the Bengals done playing, but still alive for a playoff spot if the right team lost on Monday night, ABC-TV tried to arrange a remote spot from a Cincinnati site, where Wyche and his players would be watching.
Somehow, most of the players wound up instead at Boomer’s restaurant, with another ABC crew, while Sam and a small handful of Bengals met at the first site. Boomer, reportedly, organized the counter-gathering and told ABC to send the crew.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
They were just warming up for the real thing, the ’87 strike, with Boomer as player representative, and Sam, obliged to speak for the game’s hardest-line outfit.
That Esiason would take an active role was notable, quarterbacks tending to be pro-management, and more so as their earnings increase. Indeed, Montana led the way across the picket line in both strikes in this decade.
Could Boomer line up with the Establishment?
He was making $1.2 million annually--at last!--and needed a strike like he needed a rule against lefty quarterbacks.
In fact, it later leaked out that he was one of four Bengals to vote no. But when the strike came down, he stood up with the others.
Or actually in front of them, running the show, as ever.
How did he wind up as a labor leader in a strike year?
“I didn’t bat an eye,” he says. “I said ‘Anybody want to be player rep?’
“They said, ‘No, you got it.’
“I lost $300,000 and what it proved to me was that money isn’t me, you know what I’m saying? I’m very grateful that I have it, but it’s not everything to me.
“I’m management in other positions. I’m part of the management of a restaurant. I’m part owner of a boot store. We take good care of our employees but sometimes you have disgruntled employees. Unfortunately for the NFL, there were 1,400 disgruntled employees.
“And if you feel you’re getting ripped off, then you gotta do something about it.”
He lost more than money.
Feelings were already tender among the Bengals, who had just blown that incredible 27-26 game at home to the 49ers--after Wyche chose not to punt from his own 30-yard line with a 26-20 lead and 6 seconds left. He ran a sweep that was supposed to eat up all the time, instead.
The 49ers threw James Brooks for a loss, though, took over with :02 left and Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice. Voila, choke of the decade.
That was Sunday.
Wednesday, Day 1 of the strike:
The players picketed the Bengal practice facility. Wyche came out and walked up to Boomer, who was carrying a picket sign, wearing sunglasses and staring straight ahead.
With Cincinnati writers listening, the dialogue went like this:
Wyche: “Gonna work out?”
Wyche: “Why not.”
Esiason: “Don’t got any footballs.”
Esiason later lay down in front of the bus that had brought the replacement players in. This was hardly dangerous, since the bus was stopped and empty, or spontaneous, since he did it in answer to requests from some media people.
A policeman was summoned, and asked, “Who’s in charge?”
A striking Bengal player yelled: “Sam Wyche--but what would you have done with 6 seconds left?”
On Day 2, Wyche, recounting his conversation with Esiason the day before, tacked on some advice to him:
“You’re making a million dollars--go buy some (footballs).”
To which Boomer replied: “I hope he can afford ‘em next year.”
Day 6: The striking Bengals held their first do-it-yourself practice. The last play they ran had Boomer pitching to Brooks, who ran backward into his own end zone--their play call for the end of that 49er game.
They were playing for keeps in Cincinnati. A local radio station reported that Esiason had told the strikers to boycott a charity function for Children’s Hospital. An outraged caller phoned in to say he hoped the Esiasons had a sick child, who would be denied entrance to the hospital.
Esiason hotly denies the charge and calls it his lowest point of the entire episode.
The strike ended and Wyche mishandled the end of another game in Pittsburgh. Esiason’s touchdown pass-interception ratio dropped to 16-19. The Bengals dropped to 6-10.
After the season ended, Esiason asked to be traded.
“Mike Brown (Bengal general manager) told my agent, ‘No way!’ ” Esiason says.
Says veteran wide receiver Cris Collinsworth: “Boomer took the entire brunt of that strike. Besides giving up money, he was giving up his standing in the community, because I’ve never seen a guy who was abused the way he was.
“Fortunately for us, that season ended. And that was the best thing that happened in 1987. The season came to a close.”
THE UNSINKABLE BOOMER
Shortly thereafter, Boomer found himself on a ski run at Lake Tahoe, with friends.
“I came down and fell on my . . . ,” he says, merrily. ‘And there were people around me laughing at me, not knowing who I was. I was just so happy that they weren’t booing me. It was like a revelation.
“I decided, ‘Life ain’t all bad. I made some good money this year, I’m skiing on top of a mountain with some great friends, they’re laughing at me.’ ”
Life wasn’t so good, however, that he wanted to live much of it in his own house.
He embarked instead on his ABC tour of America--Anywhere But Cincinnati.
He skied in California and Colorado, pretended to be an unknown prospect and worked out at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training camp in Arizona, and sat down with Wyche and Paul Brown at the owners’ meeting in Phoenix to let them know he was coming back, re-dedicated.
“Hey, I heard that Mike Tomczak went to see a psychiatrist. I didn’t do that. I left to go heal my wounds.”
He did go see Wyche, though.
Actually he and a couple of teammates took Wyche to a comedy club. Significantly, this was before the season ended, when it looked as if Wyche might be a goner.
They drank some beer, told each other they’d really been kidding and decided to believe each other.
There hasn’t been a Boomer-Sam flare-up since. Mark it down to maturity, or fatigue.
Wyche, left dangling by Brown after the season for a week before being informed that he would be retained, started this season on what is sardonically referred to as his “7-day contract.” Everyone else seemed to come back re-dedicated, too.
“I’m gonna tell you, these guys cam to training camp so committed,” Esiason says. “Usually guys are bitching about how much they have to run, or how hot it is. Not one guy complained. Everyone was walking on eggshells.
“We had to win that Hall of Fame game (the exhibition opener against the Rams). People were talking about Phoenix (the season opener). BS. We were talking about the Hall of Fame game. We had to win that game.”
They did, and went 4-1 in the exhibition season.
Of course, the era of good feeling couldn’t last forever, and guess who squawked first?
The week before the season started, the Bengals waived holdout center Dave Rimington, Boomer’s roommate.
“I held an all-night vigil for him, too,” Esiason says. “I had, like, a cross on his bed, and I was praying he’d come back.
“I wore his jersey the next day at practice. Everyone said, ‘Oh gee, here we go again.’ ”
The Bengals zipped off to a 7-1 start in the regular season and cruised in, laughing at last.
RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE Or is it?
Super Bowl week lasts only 7 days--it just seems longer--and when it’s over, the winner takes the Lombardi Trophy, and the loser goes to sit with the other, uh, losers.
The 49ers are a nice, solid 7-point pick, so Boomer hasn’t been anointed anything yet. His may be the press conferences that launch 10,000 headlines, but soft-spoken little Joe Montana has twice proved he can handle Super Sunday.
But don’t weep for him, America. Boomer is a fun-loving young man who lives a good life. The constant spotlight drives most top quarterbacks back within themselves, but this one is still out in the open.
“I got a real good lesson in dealing with human emotion,” he says. “I’m skeptical about people now. I’m a little bit harder to impress, or flatter.
“And I take everything with an extreme grain of salt. I mean, a big chunk of salt. Like a big salt block, like Mr. Ed used to lick.”
We get the idea, already.
Look at it this way:
He’s on top of another mountain, he’s made some more good money and now everyone’s laughing with him.
There may be kingpins out there, but he’s not the bowling ball. The other big guys had their own problems. Marino went last in the first round in ’83. Elway got booed up and down the Rocky Mountains his rookie year.
Hey, Boomer, you’re already a kingpin, the most down-to-earth, engaging, zaniest of them all. Long may you reign.