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Cheryl and Boomer looked at each other, the air sucked out of them. "That's unspeakable," said Cheryl. "My god, that's...."
Boomer went from the villain of Cincinnati in '87 to its hero in '88—life happens that way in movies and sports. He led the AFC in passer ratings and touchdown passes in '88 and '89, was voted to his second and third Pro Bowls, whipped the Bengals to the '89 Super Bowl, appeared in his underwear for a Hanes ad, played Goldilocks in a Diet Coke commercial and made a zillion appearances for corporations and charities. He had such presence on the field, such command and camaraderie in his voice, you felt as easy in his huddle as you did in his house. Hell, the Bengals decided, who even needed a huddle? Let Boomer organize everything, just like one of his Fourth of July reunions—last second, seat of his pants, hut, hut, hut! Hadn't Boomer always felt best amid a swirl?
Cheryl got pregnant. The moment Boomer found out it was a boy, pictures of his own past, warm and wonderful black and whites, began to flash in his mind. If he could have called an 800 number that day and ordered tickets for all the hockey, basketball, baseball and football games he planned to take his son to, he would have. But Cheryl was determined: This baby would not get swept up in the public whirl of her husband's life. "Baby Sub Rosa," she called the child in her womb. It was a Latin term for everything Boomer was not: private, confidential, secret.
After Gunnar came home from the hospital in April 1991, Boomer would lie on the rug holding the baby on his chest. A remarkable thing was happening. Boomer sometimes lay there for hours, just staring in wonder at the boy. He fell asleep like that. "It was the first time," says Cheryl, "that I ever saw Boomer stay still."
Gunnar kept getting sick. Earaches. Three-week colds. Pneumonia. Diarrhea. Barely ate. Asthma, the doctors said. God, it was almost scary how similar Gunnar's problems were to those of the little girl with cystic fibrosis, Sarah, with whom Boomer had fallen in love at Children's Hospital...how alike in look and smell and sound they were, how even Gunnar's personality was that same achingly sweet, accepting personality that all those CF kids Boomer had hugged seemed to have. Asthma, the doctors said. Asthma.
Something was happening, meanwhile, to Boomer's no-huddle, no-prisoners offense. Some blamed the deterioration of his offensive line. Some blamed the Bengal defense, which had grown so porous that Boomer always seemed to be digging himself out of a hole. Some blamed Boomer's left arm. Sometimes Boomer wanted so badly to make a football game do what he wished it to do, he tried to take what wasn't his, what wasn't there. In his last 41 starts for the Bengals, he threw 53 interceptions.
The fourth game last season was at home against Minnesota. Gunnar had never been to a game, but he was six months shy of his second birthday, and, for a change, he wasn't sick. It wouldn't be quite the same as when Boomer was a boy, sitting knee-to-knee in the stands with Dad. But the snapshot in Boomer's mind was, in many ways, even more magical: little boy watching Dad evade the Viking rush; Dad cranking up and hurling the 50-yard—bomb...he's at the 20...the 10...the crowd going berserk.
The crowd went berserk. The ferocity of the boos that day, the insults, the filth.... Boomer threw four interceptions; the Bengals lost 42-7. In the third quarter he stepped away from his teammates on the sidelines and turned to the crowd, searching for his wife and child, frantically waving: Go home, go home! Cheryl wouldn't budge.
He stood half bent in the shower afterward, looking as if he were about to cry. For the first time in his life, he couldn't go back to the crowd of friends awaiting him at home. He drove in circles that night and talked to Cheryl about quitting. His snapshot of a father and a boy and a ball game had been ruined.
The Bengals benched him with four games left in the season. Gunnar couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, could barely breathe. Some nights at 4 a.m. Boomer would drive in loops around Riverfront Stadium with his son in the car, trying to get Gunnar to drop off to sleep, numb to what was happening inside those concrete walls and ramps on Sundays, just scared about his boy. A test for cystic fibrosis six months earlier had come back negative, so Boomer and Cheryl kept giving Gunnar cough suppressants, unaware that mucus was the enemy, that the boy needed to couch to live.