There was quiet in the New York Jets' locker room, the quiet of men awaiting violence. A few players stared at their playbooks. Some talked to God. Some wrapped earphones around their heads and waited for the music to take them away.
They took turns walking into a side room, emerging with thick white crusts of tape around their arms and knees and ankles in preparation for all the collisions and twists. Their quarterback, Boomer Esiason, needed the tape for something else. He carried it to his locker, unzipped his black shoulder bag and pulled out a photograph of a 2½-year-old boy with a blue cap tugged over his blond hair. Boomer taped the picture of his son to the back of his locker and sat on his stool.
In earlier years he often spent this hour remembering insults from the media, opponents or fans, working himself into the state of mind he needed to stand calmly at the heart of the violence. Now all that seemed almost silly. Now he stared at the photograph and thought of how sweetly this boy lay upon the sloped board twice each day, how willingly he let his loved ones beat on his back and chest and sides to dislodge from his lungs the mucus that could kill him. And the feeling seemed to surge up inside the quarterback. They could beat on him today all they wanted. But no one could touch him.
There was silence on the Jets' practice field, the silence of men trapped inside helmets and pads in the third week of two-a-day practices under a killing sun. They looked over to the long row of pine trees that lined the field. There he was again, the old man with the black shoes and white socks, sitting alone in his lawn chair among the pinecones. The old man with the St. John's Redmen cap pulled down to his sunglasses, little leather tool holder hooked on his belt, pack of Tareytons tucked inside his sleeve.
Every practice he sat there. At the end of the morning session he drove 40 minutes to his home in East Islip, Long Island, and then climbed right back into his truck two hours later and drove 40 minutes back for the afternoon workout. "The man in the lawn chair," some called the 70-year-old man. Many players had no idea he was the quarterback's dad. Boomer looked over to the shade and gave a little wave.
Somehow life had washed Boomer back to the place where he had grown up, where he had been hurt and healed. The little boy whose mother had died of lymphoma, who had looked over to see his dad on the sidelines every year, every practice, every game...was now the adult, the father of a little boy with cystic fibrosis, the object of whispers that his arm was dead, looking over and seeing his dad, every day, once again.
He never said a word, the old man, about who you have to be for your children, how much of your life you have to give away. He never had to say it. He just sat there each practice under the pine trees. The man in the lawn chair.
"God, Cheryl," Boomer said to his wife. "You wouldn't believe how many times I thought about G Man today." That was what he always called his son, Gunnar. It was a Sunday night 2½ weeks ago, hours after the Jets had shocked the Dolphins in Miami, 24-14, and Cheryl had come to meet Boomer at the airport in New York. He stared out at the traffic, euphoric and woozy at once, and shook his head. "The whole day, G Man was right there with me."