Hangin’ With Boomer Esiason
I tried quitting cold turkey. I really did.Here was the plan: For two full weeks, while vacationing in Central and South America, I was going to kick my severe sports addiction by not watching a minute of baseball, football, tennis or any other of the dozen athletic pursuits I devoured on a daily basis. That meant no Big Papi. No LeBron. No Rafa Nadal. And—gulp!—no SportsCenter. I held out for all of 36 hours. Let me explain.
My very first memory on this planet was being in my dad’s arms as a toddler emerging from the ramp at Fenway Park in Boston to see the miraculous spectacle of that baseball diamond in front of me. What a beautiful sight. I don’t think I blinked for five full minutes. Even now I can remember with eerie precision how the freshly mowed grass smelled, how crisp the impossibly white uniforms looked on the players stretching on the ground and how funny it was to hear my dad—with his thick Ricky Ricardo Cuban accent—struggling to pronounce superstar Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski’s name. I remember all of it. All. Of. It.
A few years later, my family moved to Miami and my dad, once again, made it a point to introduce me to the joys of sports by turning my attention to the hometown Dolphins. In September, at the start of the 1972 football season, I had just turned eight as we sat in the old Orange Bowl and cheered on Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and the rest of the soon to be historic undefeated team. Sunday after Sunday we proudly waved our white hankies basking in the delirium and unadulterated joy that only winning as a collective brings. So, yes, that unexpected, unforgettable, unimaginable Miami Dolphins perfect season is the reason I love football. How could I not?A little later, I started playing tennis and became rather good rather fast and competed on both my junior high and high school varsity teams. For entire summers at a time as a teenager, if I wasn’t playing tennis, I was watching my tennis heroes play. I lived to emulate Jimmy his never-die attitude With more time I’ve managed to add to I obsess over. The reigning NBA world led by the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—have made the last couple of years can’t-miss fi reworks in South Beach. What a treat watching those men work has been. And in addition to my relentless MLB, NFL and ATP viewing, I can’t forget about college football (Miami Hurricanes), hockey (Boston Bruins), golf (Tiger, duh), World Cup soccer, Summer and Winter Olympics (luge!) and even Aussie Rules Football. It’s not like I don’t know I watch too many sports. I do. But compounding my sports addiction, I’m also borderline obsessed by politics as well as all things popular culture—movies, television, music, fashion—everything; I call this full-court press of telegenic activity being “awake in my decade.” Others who live (and have lived) with me, however, have other choice words for it.
Before I tell you what a really cool—really, really cool—thing I had the privilege of doing recently, I wanted to explain why sports have filled so many waking hours of my life. From a young Dan Marino leading the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his first full season as quarterback to David Ortiz slugging the Boston Red Sox to a historic comeback over the New York Yankees and finishing off the 86-year-old “Curse of the Bambino” by finally—finally—winning the World Series, my love of sports is not an insignificant, casual fling but a deeply committed, overtly emotional marriage, full of highs and lows, elaborate superstitions and endless second guessing. But, at its core, it’s a marriage. A good one.
When I was given the opportunity to not only interview one of the greatest All-Pro quarterbacks in NFL history, Boomer Esiason, but also sit elbow-to-elbow with him on the set of the legendary football show he co-hosts The NFL Today, I couldn’t believe my luck. As a veteran magazine editor—as well as a longtime celebrity interviewer and writer—I’ve had the unbelievable good fortune of talking and hanging out with a lot of the world’s biggest names including Jennifer López, David Beckham, Elizabeth Taylor, John Kennedy Jr., Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Tom Cruise, John McEnroe, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Cal Ripken Jr., Mariah Carey, Bill and Hillary Clinton and on and on. Believe me, I know how awesome those experiences have been. And as silly as it sounds to me even as I write this, the opportunity I was given to interview Boomer Esiason on The NFL Today set ranks as one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. Ever.
Being on the same set made famous decades ago by the likes of Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder is nothing short of surreal. I tuned in to The NFL Today so regularly that I felt those four were extended members of my family. For those among you who don’t follow football, me interviewing Esiason while he’s working is something akin to sitting next to Vogue’s Anna Wintour at the Dior show during New York Fashion Week if you’re a Project Runway addict. Or having dinner with Bill Clinton if you’re obsessed with Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room. Or hangin’ with William Shatner if you’re a diehard Trekkie. It’s that cool.
But my excitement wasn’t just because I was going to be in the presence of ex-NFL All Pros; it was because presence of this ex-NFL All Pro. With a tough-as-nails reputation during his Hall of Fame-worthy career with the Cincinnati Bengals and later with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, Esiason has proven himself to be a highly effective analyst who happens to be colossally eloquent, incredibly opinionated and right many more times than he’s wrong. In other words, I can think of very few football analysts today that I would choose over Esiason. As good as Bob Costas,I was going to be in the Al Michaels and Chris Berman are—and they are undeniably good—for my money, I’d take a cold beer, spicy chicken wings and Boomer Esiason talking football in my living room any day of the week over those guys. Easy.
The Sunday of my scheduled “play date” with Boomer (as a close friend started to refer to the pending interview because of my uncharacteristic excitement about it) turned out to be the same day that my beloved Dolphins were traveling to battle Boomer’s Bengals. And I was going to sit with him and watch the game on the set of The NFL Today. Oh, with—Hell, yes!—Dan friggin’ Marino sitting to my right. Cool. Very cool.
The morning of my interview arrived and with an extra spring to my step, I barely notice that Manhattan is suffering through a torrential rainstorm as Myrna Suárez—one of my oldest and dearest friends and an amazing photographer—and I make our way to CBS Studios near the Hudson River. I had been to these studios over the years for myriad reasons, but something feels different today. There’s a palpable feeling in the air. Oh, yes, it’s a chilly Sunday morning and I’m ready for some football.
Moments after Esiason and his co-analysts—Dan Marino, Shannon Sharpe, Bill Cowher and James “JB” Brown—finish the show, the nicest man in sports broadcasting, CBS honcho Jerry Caraccioli, introduces me to Esiason who’s still at the desk, alongside JB, for they’re on call for the live break-in studio updates. So, as I’m getting to know Esiason and feeling quite comfortable in Shannon Sharpe’s seat, thank you very much, every few minutes there’s complete silence in the cavernous studio as JB and Boomer update a particular scoring play of yet another football game in progress. Cool. Very cool.
Boomer Esiason is a big dude.For some reason, I never imagined Esiason to be built like a Mack Truck, but he is. Standing 6’5” and 225 lbs., I can now see how he got banged around so often in the pocket for so many years and kept bouncing back, like an unflappable Norwegian Viking his lineage reveals. Though he hasn’t played in the NFL in a decade-and-a-half, the 51-year-old New Yorker still exudes a jock’s cockiness and toughness. Esiason’s current demeanor screams, “I’m nice, but I’m not that nice.” It suits him.
After a celebrated athletic turn at East Islip High School in Long Island, Esiason went on to the University of Maryland where he set 17 school records and was a two-time honorable mention All-American. Upon graduation, Esiason was the 38th overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft being selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Esiason’s professional football career was a testament to his uncanny skill and relentless determination. Arguably the greatest left-handed quarterback in NFL history, Esiason set NFL records for left-handed QBs including most touchdown passes, passing yards and completions—the three most important quarterback records. Esiason also led the American Football Conference in passing in 1988 and 1989 and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1988, the same year he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Boomer Esiason has game, no doubt.
As impressive as his football statistics are, it’s his role as a father to Gunnar, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease of the respiratory and digestive systems, when he was two years old in 1993 that has been the cause of his life. By establishing the Boomer Esiason Foundation to fund research to find a cure for the insidious disease, Esiason has raised more than $85 million. Gunnar, now 21 and attending Boston College, is as obsessed with hockey as his dad. Esiason and his wife, Cheryl, also have a daughter, Sydney.
After his NFL career was over, Esiason made an impressive transition to broadcasting, most notably as color analyst on ABC’s iconic Monday Night Football from 1998 to 2000. As a longtime in-studio analyst for The NFL Today, Esiason also co-hosts the daily top-rated Boomer and Carlton in the Morning on WFAN Radio in New York City, a program that replaced Don Imus.
Back to the studio. After nearly six hours of football sensory overload—please never let it end—I’m once again led back to the set for a second round of questions I’ve prepared for Esiason. As I turn the corner, I see Marino directly in front of me walking down the hall. As he reaches me I say, “Dan, Hi, I’m Richard, lifelong Dolphins fan. It’s a great honor to meet you.” Marino, among the top three greatest quarterbacks who ever played the sport, smiles at me, shakes my hand and says, “Hey man. Great to meet you as well.” We didn’t hug it out or anything, but it was still—say it with me—cool. Very cool.
When I sit down on the set again next to Esiason—as Myrna continues to take more photos—I tell Esiason that I just met Marino, one of my all-time heroes, and I was curious what he thought he could do better as a quarterback than Marino. Esiason looked at me and roared with laughter. “Me better than Dan Marino?! Not much, Richard. Remember, he played for Don Shula; I played for David Shula.” We both burst into laughter.
And as inside a joke as that is—only a real football fan would get it—at that very moment I realize that any real football fan would love to be me right here, right now. Cool. Very cool. Fantasy football, indeed.
Is this the best time of your life?
Life is very good right now. Even though I hit my 50s recently, I do think I’d much rather be playing in the NFL.
Boomer, you’ve accomplished so much in your NFL and broadcasting careers, is there anything left to do?
Well, for one, curing cystic fibrosis, which will remain my top priority as long as it still exists. But the truth is that I’ve done so many different and interesting things in my life, but I never expected to do morning radio. The discipline it takes to get up every single day at 4:15 a.m. and the focus it has given me, it has been nothing short of incredible. It literally changed my life.
When was the last time you were just dead wrong?
[Laughs] Probably ten minutes ago! Listen, Richard, in my line of business, it’s an occupational hazard.
When was the last time you said, “I’m sorry” and meant it?
Every day to a lot of different people—just a few minutes ago I said it to Shannon [Sharpe]. If I make a mistake, I own up to it.
When was the last time you said, “I love you” to someone?
Actually, I just left my kids and told them, “I love you.” And they look at me all embarrassed and say, “We love you, too, Dad.” I don’t care how old they get; I will always tell them I love them.
When was the last time you knowingly broke the law?
Yesterday I used my cellphone while I was driving. I know I shouldn’t do it, but it’s a really hard habit to break. But I never text while driving—that’s nuts.
If you hadn’t played football, what would you be doing now?
I would definitely be in politics, but I don’t want to run for anything.
More like a chief of staff, the power behind the power?
[Laughs] What?! No way! I’m a quarterback, man! We need to be front and center. We need and deserve all of the attention. Bring us the spotlight!
So, if you’re in charge and front and center and don’t want to run for anything, what you’re saying is you’d like to be a king.
[Laughs] OK, I’ll take it.
What was the greatest moment of your NFL career?
Well, the greatest moments of my life have been the birth of my children, hands down. But as far as my playing days are concerned, the seconds after the AFC Championship game in 1989 when we defeated the Buffalo Bills—the joy of the moment the clock struck zero—is a feeling I had never experienced before.
Who are the best NFL analysts working today? Who do you listen to on Sundays?
That’s actually a really great question, Richard. The two that first come to mind are Cris Collinsworth and Phil Simms. Collinsworth is so aggressively critical that it’s jarring and fun to watch and Simms is exactly like listening to a football coach in the booth. I think they’re both great.
Is this the year of transition in the NFL when traditional powers (Dallas, Pittsburgh) make way for some emerging upstarts (Houston, Seattle, Atlanta)?
Not sure. I think, as always, being injury free will be key, and keeping your quarterback healthy.
Tell me how you met your wife. Do you remember what your first words to her were?
We met at the University of Maryland where I was the hotshot star quarterback, full of myself, and told her, “Hi, my name’s Boomer.” Truth is, she wasn’t very impressed. [Laughs]
Why will the New York Giants repeat as Super Bowl champions?
The Giants have the best defensive line in the NFC, and they have the coolest quarterback this side of the fourth quarter.
Why won’t the New York Giants repeat as Super Bowl champions?
If the New York Giants have too many injuries they won’t win again and they have to guard against the onset of complacency.
What’s Boomer Esiason doing a decade from now?
A decade from right now? Definitely retired. [Laughs] I’ll be on a golf course in Arizona for sure. Well, either in Scottsdale or in Montauk (NY).
Tell me something not too many people know about you.
The thing with having your own daily morning radio show is that there isn’t much people don’t know. I’m a huge hockey fan and I’m extremely political—I’m an independent.
Put your NFL analyst hat on for me now. Give me good news about my Miami Dolphins.
There is good news for the Dolphins. I really like your new head coach, Joe Philbin, and I really, really like your rookie QB, Ryan Tannehill. If the owner and management can stick with him as he makes some typical rookie mistakes, Tannehill will make the owner and coaches look like geniuses for drafting him so high.
What are the three words that absolutely best describe you?
Intense, driven, prepared.
If I asked your best friend, what would he say your worst traits are?
I think he’d say I’m too intense sometimes and also that I’ve been known to be inflexible. That’s been a tough lesson to learn.
Who’s your celebrity crush?
Hmm, let’s go with Penélope Cruz.
What’s the mantra you live by?
Since your wife, Cheryl, knows you best, what would she tell me about the real Boomer Esiason?
She would say that I’m a teddy bear in grizzly bear’s clothes.
And the parting shot, Boomer, how do you define luxury?
Being completely alone. Since I’m always working, the gift of not speaking—and not listening—is what I consider to be real luxury. Oh, and a glass of good Irish whiskey