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The trade came on March 17, 1993. Few teams lusted for Boomer Esiason anymore. The Jets got him for a third-round draft pick in '93 and a conditional second-round selection in '94 that hinges on Boomer's performance. "He hung up the phone after he found out," recalls his business assistant, Tami Amaker, "and he let out this whoop. He shouted, 'Tami, I'm going home, I'm going home!' The way he said that word, home...he said it like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz."
They called him off the field during the Jets' minicamp in May. Cheryl was at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati. Gunnar had pneumonia, again. The doctors were retesting him for cystic fibrosis.
Boomer rushed back to Cincinnati. The doctor walked into the hospital room with the test results. The boy had it: The disease that clogs the lungs with bacteria-trapping phlegm, leaving parents to wonder which invisible particle in the air might be the end of their child. The disease that shuts off the work of the pancreas, making it impossible for the body to absorb most foods unless enzyme pills are ingested before each meal. The disease that often makes males sterile.
Boomer asked the physician to leave. He and Cheryl looked at each other, the air rushing out of the room, the thought in both of their minds the same. The radio caller that day six years ago...nothing to do with this, of course not, but...god, the sickness of it all. They walked over to the crib, stared down at the sleeping two-year-old with the tubes in his arm and his nose, the child to whom they had passed the mutated gene without ever dreaming they both were carriers. They cried. "We're sorry, Gunnar," they both kept telling the sleeping boy. "We love you. We'll always be here for you. We're sorry, we're sorry."
Then they looked at each other again. Everything would have to change now. All the film study, practice sessions, football games, appearances, commercials, interviews, reunions, laughs—the life Boomer had filled with people and plans and had kept spinning, faster and faster, ever since his mother had died—it would have to end. All the time and energy it took to be Boomer would have to go to the little boy. Wasn't that the legacy of the man in the lawn chair? "I'm going to retire," Boomer told Cheryl.
He drove past Riverfront Stadium on the way from the hospital to their home in Villa Hills, Ky. He still couldn't believe it—his body, a Pro Bowl quarterback's body, had betrayed him, betrayed his son. A sad song was playing on the radio. He kept looking at the stadium. It just didn't feel right, turning inward to fight this war, becoming smaller.
He snapped off the sad song. "No," he decided. "I'm not going to quit. They won't listen to me if I quit or have a bad year. I'm going to have a great year. I'm going to go on a crusade. They'll listen to me if I have a great year. They'll have to listen. They'll have to."
On a Friday night, 41 hours before Boomer Esiason's first regular-season game as the Jet quarterback, there were 30 people and five pieces of furniture in his new house in suburban Long Island. Little kids scrambling up and down stairs still sticky with polyurethane, laughing and screaming. Buddies searching for a corkscrew for the wine. Wives tearing open cardboard boxes, searching for pillowcases and sheets. Bare-chested construction workers painting rooms, sticking tiles to the kitchen wall, carrying beds and mattresses to the upstairs bedrooms. From room to room walked Boomer, hair askew, belt unbuckled, playbook under his arm, looking futilely for a toilet with a seat. "Isn't this great?" he said. "I love it."
He could ask his friends to stay home if they or their children had colds. He could eliminate dust and plants and animals from his home. But not people.
At 9 p.m. he pulled out the sloped board covered with black vinyl. He pulled Gunnar away from his train set, away from the swirl. "Ready for P.T., G Man?" he boomed.