OCTOBER 4, 1993
It happens in airports, in grocery stores and practically everywhere else Boomer Esiason goes. People see the white hair and the 6'5" frame, and there is a glint of recognition, followed by the same question, always the same question: "How's your son doing?" Rarely do they ask Esiason about his 14-year NFL career or his work as a commentator on The NFL Today and Westwood One radio. No, it's always about Gunnar, the little boy they remember with cystic fibrosis. "People kind of forget what I did on the football field," says Esiason. "That's perfectly fine with me. That means we're making a difference."
It was nearly a decade ago that Boomer and Gunnar appeared on the cover of SI, the 2�-year-old son perched on the father's shoulders. Since then Esiason has gone from being the starting quarterback for the New York Jets to the country's most visible advocate of research for cystic fibrosis, a disease of the lungs and digestive system that afflicts 30,000 children and young adults in the U.S. and 70,000 worldwide. The Boomer Esiason Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has raised more than $22 million since it was founded 10 years ago.
As for Gunnar, the second-youngest cover subject in the history of the magazine, he is now a wiry 5'5" 85-pounder headed into the seventh grade on Long Island. Though he has suffered no serious complications from the disease in the last 10 years, he is thin for his age and will remain so. His dad affectionately calls him Stick.
Like most 12-year-old boys, Gunnar is attached to his Nintendo Gamecube, his PlayStation 2 and his XBox, but he also plays baseball (second base), hockey (left wing), lacrosse (attack) and soccer (fullback). Of course, Gunnar is nothing like most seventh-graders in other ways: He has a persistent cough, undergoes two sessions of about 30 to 45 minutes each day, during which Boomer or his wife, Cheryl, clear the mucus from his lungs, and swallows eight enzyme tablets with every meal to help digest his food.
Not that you'll hear Gunnar complain. Last March he got up at his father's annual cystic fibrosis black-tie event and gave a three-minute speech about life with the disease. "I talked about how my dad was my hero and about my experiences," says Gunnar, who admits he was "real, real nervous" speaking in front of a big crowd for the first time. When he finished, all 600 people—including his beaming dad—stood and applauded.
Since retiring from the NFL after the 1997 season, Boomer has devoted most of his free time stumping for the fight against cystic fibrosis and says that he's driven by one goal. "I want to allow Gunnar the honor of being a father himself," says Boomer. "And I'm not going to stop working until we beat this thing."