Boomer set 17 records at the University of Maryland, was a consensus All-America his senior year, became the Cincinnati Bengals' starting quarterback his second season. His life gathered momentum, grew wider each year. Boomer loved big...but he preferred gigantic. Jacked-up monster trucks with tinted windows. TV screens that took up a quarter of a wall, orbited by slightly smaller screens in case anybody dropped by with a hankering to watch four games simultaneously. An 8,000-square-foot house with four beers on tap at the bar, an electronic board flashing up-to-the-minute scores from the NFL, NBA, NHL and major leagues, a swimming pool Cheryl laughingly called a "polar bear pit," and a basketball court.
It was all for sharing, not for lording over. Boomer's friends became like family; his family kept growing larger. Every home game, 15 to 30 of them would fly in to Cincinnati and camp at Boomer's. On New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July, 60 or 70 people would respond to his call—friends from Long Island, from the University of Maryland, from Cincinnati. You would walk in Boomer's door and be handed a party bag containing a T-shirt that said HOTEL ESIASON, FOURTH OF JULY, MOTHER OF ALL PARTIES, inscribed sunglasses and a plastic drink container. You would see the refrigerator shellacked with a couple of dozen stick-on notes giving flight numbers and arrival times so Boomer could arrange rides from the airport for his guests, and a sign-up list so you could volunteer to prepare meals in shifts of 10. You would play killer pickup basketball, darts and Ping-Pong, then go in buses Boomer had chartered to a riverboat or a restaurant he had rented for the night with a live band. Or perhaps eat in, a pig roast by his backyard pool, and then everyone would end up sprawled on beds, pull-out couches and sleeping bags, some farmed out to next-door neighbors.
"Let's keep it simple this year, honey," Cheryl, the woman he had met at Maryland and married, would say. "That's no fun," Boomer would reply, thumbing through his monster Rolodex. Somehow, no matter how last-minute the plan, Boomer always pulled it off. And Cheryl, a wry, philosophical sort who loved to sit back and observe the human pageant that Boomer emceed, would shrug, grin and go with it.
There was such zest and innocence to it, you couldn't get in its way. Boomer was a boat pulling an ever-widening wake—one of those rare people who fused all the phases of his life, who grew big without devouring the small. Sitting at your table, the one Boomer assigned you at the restaurant he had rented, might be Boomer's Pro Bowl guard and his wife, Boomer's cleaning lady and her husband, Boomer's high school coach and his wife, and the guys who sold him his satellite dish and did his kitchen cabinets. Some of them started having babies, and that made it even better. "It's a lunatic asylum," Boomer would say. "I love it. It's life." The doorbell would ring a half dozen times, neighbors' kids asking, as if he were eight years old, "Can Boomer come out and play?" Likely as not, he would.
Boomer babies—sure, why not four or five? For years Boomer had this snapshot in his mind, a gaggle of little blondes in pigtails following him everywhere, adoring everything he did, the way most women seemed to. A boy...well, he never talked about that. A duty came with that. Nobody knew that like Norman Esiason's son.
He went to the airport in Cincinnati one Sunday afternoon in 1987, before they had any children, to pick up Cheryl. The NFL was on strike that autumn, and Boomer, quarterback to the bone, had stepped out front to lead his teammates against management. He and 30 others had sat in front of a bus that team officials had arranged for replacement players to use; he had lent money to players buckling under the financial strain of going without paychecks; and that very Sunday, an hour before the first "scab" game, he had stood and begged for calm between a mob of strike-supporting Kentucky coal miners and a mob of antistrike fans who wanted at each others' throats. Boomer had become the lightning rod for criticism in one of the most antiunion cities in America.
As he drove to the airport, his head still throbbing from the confrontation outside Riverfront Stadium, he flicked on the radio. The host of the local sports talk show was "breaking" a story that Boomer had ordered the Bengals' wives, in deference to the strike, to boycott the fund-raising fashion show they had organized to benefit Cincinnati's Children's Hospital. Radio callers were in a frenzy. The story was untrue. Few athletes anywhere gave as much time to charities as Boomer did—in a public way, raising $700,000 for the Arthritis Foundation and the Caring Program for Children, and in a private way, making frequent visits to kids with leukemia and cystic fibrosis at Children's Hospital.
"Turn it off," Boomer told Cheryl as they headed home from the airport. "You don't want to hear this."
"Leave it on," she said.
A male caller was on the air. "You know what I hope?" the man said. "I hope the Esiasons have a child that has something wrong with it someday and Children's Hospital turns them away."