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Cheryl did most of the physical therapy sessions--"She's a champion," father and son say in stereo--but Boomer too learned the techniques for thumping on Gunnar's chest, and he literally beat the snot out of his kid. Boomer decided to use his prominence 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 list the size of a phone book. Now he was going to leverage those contacts. He called his former center with the Bengals, Dave Rimington, who was working for an import-export business in Hong Kong. "I could use a hand, buddy," Esiason said. Rimington returned to the States and helped launch the Boomer Esiason Foundation in 1993. To Esiason, his ambition of winning the Super Bowl suddenly seemed trivial. His new, all-consuming goal: being outlived by his son.
Esiason would play five more seasons and throw a 77-yard game-winning touchdown pass in his final act as an NFL quarterback. He became an analyst on Monday Night Football, but the 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's Sunday 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-me sensibilities but unafraid to give strong opinions. (" Tom Brady is Joe Montana; Peyton Manning is Dan Marino," he says.) Still, those closest to him say Esiason's true job is beating CF.
Under Rimington's direction the foundation holds benefits throughout the country--clay-pigeon shoots, golf tournaments, football games--and by the end of the summer it will have raised $60 million since its inception. "I can't imagine that any athlete 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 the disease and is chairman emeritus of the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. "This is not just some star who has lent his name."
It took time, but the family has found a comfort zone between hope and reality. Concern accompanies every success. No one sleeps the nights before Gunnar goes to the hospital for his treatment. He takes about 50 pills every day, most of them enzymes to aid digestion. Yet Boomer is hell-bent on making sure his son experiences all the coming-of-age rites. "Look, Gunnar has to learn to drive," he says. "He has to learn to take a girl on a date. To experience life's ups and downs beyond CF. To find out what it means to have a kid [of his own]."
At the same time, those father-son moments--the trips to the Super Bowl and aboard aircraft carriers--are freighted with extra significance. "It's weird because I can feel fine," says Gunnar, "but [CF is] always in the back of my mind."
Adds Cheryl, "The older a CF patient gets, the more [difficult] realities you're faced with. We know that. We just hope these drugs and treatments will extend his life. We believe that can be accomplished. We have to believe it."
The sword of Damocles, though, makes it easier for everyone in the family not to sweat the small stuff. Gunnar's lacrosse team mustered just one win this spring, but Boomer and Cheryl watched the games with smiles on their faces. "He's the reason we handled it the way we did," says Cheryl. "He's not a complainer, he's not crying, so how can we be?"
While "cautious optimism" is the catchphrase in the CF community, there has been unmistakable progress in recent years. When Gunnar was born, the life expectancy 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 of promising drugs await clinical trial. In most states newborns are screened for CF. "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 thought of 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 healthy equation." Aerobic exercise helps keep the lungs healthy, clearing the airway of mucus and the bacteria that can lurk within. Even without a famous athlete for a dad, Gunnar figures sports would play an outsized role in his life. Brian Fleishhacker, a neighbor of Gunnar's, recalls that as a boy Gunnar would go out in a blizzard and build snow forts--Hey, isn't he supposed to be the sick kid? When the weather got nicer, he'd be on the family's "sport court," shooting hoops or zinging a lacrosse ball. "[CF] doesn't prevent me from doing things," Gunnar says. "It's just knowing your boundaries. If I feel tired, I can't push it to the next level. But otherwise I'm fine."
The kid's a huge sports 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 he giddily recalls that it was so cold, his camera phone stuck to his hand. When Boomer works for CBS on autumn Sundays, he'll call Gunnar for Packers updates during 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 four interceptions!' He'll be like, 'Yeah, but his protection stinks.' "