Right there in the photograph in his locker. Right there on the field in Joe Robbie Stadium when the temperature hit 100° and all the water in Boomer's body was running in rivulets down his back and legs, and the Dolphin defensive line was driving its helmets into his ribs. Right there, most of all, when dehydration overcame Boomer on the flight home, when he blanched and vomited and watched two intravenous needles going into his arm. How could he not think of G Man and that day last May in the hospital when the boy was vomiting mucus, lying wan and pale with the IV in his arm and the oxygen tube up his nose, unaware that the doctor had just told his parents that their son had cystic fibrosis?
On first hearing the diagnosis, Boomer had decided to retire from football and to always be with the boy. But now he was off at war again, and somehow it was the boy, instead, who was always with him. After his first three games as a Jet, Boomer was 68 for 94, for 909 yards and five touchdowns, leading the National Football League in completion percentage and average gain per completion, posting the same kind of glaring numbers that had made him the league's MVP in 1988. Every pass he completed was a spiral hurled into the future, a message his son would read one day: NEVER GIVE UP! Every touchdown he threw meant another microphone to speak into and tell the world about the disease that afflicts 55,000 people, another chance to explain about the mutated gene that causes so much thick mucus to clog the lung walls that they become a haven for infection, limiting the average CF patient to a life of 29 years and killing three people every day. "I am going to be the biggest enemy that this disease has ever had," Boomer said. "We're going to beat this thing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we're going to beat it."
Funny. Everything about Boomer was Boomer, his voice, his size, his shocking white hair, his life. He had more friends—not the artificial, slap-your-back kind of friends, but real friends—than any man on earth. He had a three-year contract with the Jets worth $2.7 million a year, a string of commercial deals on the side, a weekly radio show, a fleet of big vehicles and big, big TVs.... But his real name was Norman, the same as the man sitting quietly in the lawn chair under the pines. Now that Boomer had a little son in trouble, now that Boomer was back home on Long Island, driving the same streets as he had long ago, walking into the same stores, bumping into the same people, he had this feeling...almost as if he might turn the next corner and see himself as a boy. And the question that kept going through his mind was, God, how did my dad ever do it?
Norman—that was who Boomer had to find inside himself now. The man who had kept ack-acking away at Messer-schmitts while his buddies bled puddles around his ankles in the Battle of the Bulge, and who never told a soul about it when he came home. The man who had taken charge when one of Boomer's friends was struck dead by a car and when cancer took Boomer's mom.
Norman never laid eyes on another female after Irene died; forget it, what was the point? Tall woman, big voice, long rippling blonde hair, runner-up (that was a rip-off) in the Miss Lake Ronkonkoma beauty pageant back in the '50s. Before Norman knew it, she had him by the hand each Saturday night, first on the dance floor at the cafes and bars, those long poodle skirts she loved to wear pluming as they jitterbugged. Or he would look up and see her bouncing onto the stage to join the five-piece combo, one hand flying across the organ keys, the other across the piano, pounding out a Sam Cooke or Chuck Berry song. "Run, children, run!" Irene would shout when the heels of her children and nieces and nephews clickety-clacked across the brick patio behind the Esiasons' home. "I love that sound!" She would scoop up the little boy whose nickname came from the kicks he had delivered inside her belly, beam at him like the sun and ask everyone the same question: "Isn't he special?"
And then one day when Irene and Norman were sledding in the Poconos, she said her neck hurt. Six months later she was dead, and Norman Esiason was a 44-year-old man alone with two teenage daughters and a six-year-old son. A few years later Norman's own dad, Henning—slowly wasting away from emphysema—would move in with them too.
No one ever saw Norman cry, not even at Irene's funeral. No one saw the little boy cry, cither. All they noticed was that he never, never wanted to be alone. At night Boomer would appear at the foot of his oldest sister's bed, his blanket stuffed under his arm. "Can I sleep here, Robin?" he would ask. It wasn't until six months after his mother's death, when Fawnie, the family dog, went berserk in the basement and died of a stroke, that some of the grief spilled out of Boomer. "How come?" he sobbed. "How come everybody's leaving me?"
The girls were just about old enough to fend for themselves, thank god, because Norman didn't quite know what a man could do to help a pair of grieving teenage girls. For the boy, though, he knew exactly. The boy became Norman's life. The old man woke up each morning at 4:45, then burrowed through the dark on the hour-and-10-minute train commute to his job as a safety engineer for Continental Insurance in Manhattan. Up onto the steel girders 40 floors high, across the collarbones of skyscrapers, to check the welding...down into the tunnels when construction crews were about to blast within inches of a gas line, making sure every safety precaution was being taken on the big jobs his company insured. "You don't build on rock, Norman," the underwriters would protest when he tried to persuade them to insure the mammoth apartment complexes going up on the Palisades in New Jersey. "You do build on rock," he would argue. "You cement all the fissures, you build fences to catch the falling pieces, you stay on 'cm like a hawk, and you build on rock." He knew. He was rock. He could easily have been talking about himself and his motherless children.
Home he would race, finishing his paperwork on the train back to East Islip, yanking off his tie and changing into sneakers in the car to go watch his boy play baseball, basketball, football. "I've never seen a father like him," says Sal Ciampi, Boomer's high school football and baseball coach. "Never interfered, never complained, never missed a day."