Home to play catch with Boomer, or to pick him up, turn around and take that hour-and-10-minute train ride back to the city to Madison Square Garden or Shea Stadium to catch a game. Or home to turn on the TV and radio to simultaneously watch the New York Rangers and listen to the New York Mets, the old man sprawled on the couch, the boy lying right on top of his chest, then both of them erupting—Norman in a way he could never let himself do in public—when a Ranger scoooooored! or a Met hit one outahere! or a Giant broke free at the 30...he's at the 20...the 10...touchdowwwn, New York!
Imagine Grandpa Henning each time the TV room exploded. Imagine the bewilderment of the old glassblower, his lungs giving way from all the dust he had inhaled working beside the blast furnace in Philadelphia. Henning had refused to sign Norman's scholarship offer to play football at Georgetown University. Henning had refused to attend a single game during Norman's years as a three-sport athlete at Olney High in Philly. Every night the family ate dinner at six; nearly every night Norman would be late because of practice and trudge to his room, waiting with a hollow gut for his mother to sneak him dinner. Henning wasn't a bad guy. He was just off the boat from a little town in Norway. He just didn't understand.
But Norman was not going to raise his son that way. This was Scandinavian rebellion: slow...patient...noiseless...relentless. Picture this: Boomer is 11 or 12. Boomer's already a real piece of work. Boomer calls up Commack Arena, home of the local minor league ice hockey team, the Long Island Ducks, and rents the place so he and his buddies can play hockey. Only it's not available until 2 a.m., and it's a school night, and the parents of the other nine kids Boomer has involved in the scheme are furious, and the kids are a couple of tens shy of the money they need to rent the arena, and Boomer's old man has to be up for work at 4:45 a.m. So what does Norman do? Antes up the rest of the cash, drives the kids to the arena, watches them run around like a bunch of lunatics for an hour—Boomer never had a clue how to skate. Yes, Norman was resolute. Norman was Norwegian winter.
Funny, but he never once clobbered Boomer, no matter how many times the kid tried to climb over the glass and join the fights at Ranger games. No matter how long Boomer grew that shocking white hair, no matter how much swagger and how little patience he had, how many number-7 decals he plastered on the windows and bumpers of his candy-red convertible Olds in case someone out there didn't realize it belonged to the QB at East Islip High...no matter how opposite to Norman he grew. All the old man ever had to do was lift his right fist and growl, "Which do you want: the convincer"—then his left fist—"or the convincer's helper?" Norman, back then, was 6'2", 280. But more than anything, Boomer just hated to let the old man down.
There was such dignity in the old man, especially under stress. Boomer could never forget the day in ninth grade when Norman was coaching Boomer's Senior League baseball team and the boys were playing pepper before a game, and one of Boomer's teammates darted across the road to retrieve a ball. All at once there was a screech of rubber, a boy dead in the road and a man a mile from a telephone. A man surrounded by 15 kids, half of them hysterical with grief, the other half, including Boomer, threatening to take off the head of the woman driver. Norman sent someone to find a phone, covered the body with a blanket from his car, herded his team away from the woman and went from boy to boy, putting his arm around each one's shoulders and saying over and over, "Remember the good moments in his life.... Don't look over there, that's not him.... Remember the good times."
From a distance, people looking at Boomer saw a tall kid with ice-white hair and too little self-doubt. He walked out of the locker room after a high school basketball game one Friday evening and found all four tires on his candy-red convertible slashed. But up close you couldn't miss the sensitivity to hurt and fear, the understanding of what lurked just behind the manicured hedges and aluminum siding, the thin peel of Long Island suburbia. Boomer was the kid who beat up the bullies.
He became the quarterback—of his block, of his friends as well as of his teams. A quarterback, unlike those who played the other positions in life, could always make sure there was a plan, a group, a movement. A quarterback could always make sure the silent house he came home to at 3:30 p.m. would be hopping by four. The Esiasons' house became headquarters, the place for Boomer's boys to plot and sleep over and wake up to the old man's jelly crepes. Even on summer vacation trips, Boomer made sure he took three or four friends along. "Between his father, his sisters, all his aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends, he was surrounded by this bottomless pit of love," says his old friend Michael Dooley.
And then Boomer got a scholarship to the University of Maryland, said goodbye to his father, left the love pit. Suddenly he was a seventh-stringer in a strange land, flunking half his classes, watching all his dorm mates go home on weekends to get their laundry done and dinner cooked by Mom. Suddenly there was silence. He was about to quit school and go home. He was sure he would leave after that night when 25 upperclassmen on his team cornered him, tied him up, dumped him in an elevator alone and pushed the button, echoes of their laughter following him up and down the shaft.
But just when he was about to give up, he would look over during practice to the sideline. Arthritic left knee stiff from the five-hour drive, there would be the man in the lawn chair.