By Dave Sargent
Profiled Guest: Mr. Boomer Esiason, NFL All-Pro Quarterback (1984-97) and Most Valuable Player (1988), Television and Radio NFL Game Analyst (NFL Today on CBS; Monday Night Football on Westwood One), Creator of Boomer Esiason Foundation
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Boomer Esiason, the former All-Pro quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. Catching up with Boomer is no easy feat these days, with his television and radio broadcasting schedule, his football commentary writing, his family responsibilities, and his daily involvement in the business of the Boomer Esiason Foundation.
At www.esiason.org, the web home of his fund-raising efforts, a banner reads, "The Boomer Esiason Foundation is a partnership of leaders in the medical and business communities joining with a committed core of volunteers to provide financial support to research aimed at finding a cure for Cystic Fibrosis." Boomer's fifteen-year-old son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at the age of two in 1993. From that time to today, Boomer, and his wife Cheryl, have dedicated themselves to assisting in the search for a cure and to the development of "effective and innovative treatments that ease suffering and enhance the lives of those stricken with cystic fibrosis (Foundation mission statement)." Boomer is a straightforward thinker and "doer" who values honesty and excellence, and is focused on making the world a better place for those afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis.
Esiason's core values were developed throughout his childhood in Suffolk County on Long Island. A three-sport star, Boomer was awarded the Yastrzemski Award as the best baseball player on Long Island his senior year. One of many unique coincidences that Esiason shared during our discussion, was that he earned his one and only recruiting trip to the University of Maryland after a Terrapin assistant football coach watched him outplay an athlete on the opposing team that the coach had come to scout during a basketball game. On his subsequent trip to Maryland, he was offered a full football scholarship and the rest is, as they say, "history". Needless to say, Esiason is outspoken about high school athletes not limiting themselves and "specializing" in only one sport too early in their athletic careers.
To understand the powerful impact of his football coach on his development as a young adult, one must know a little about his family structure. Esiason noted that his father raised him after his mother passed away when he was seven. With a 2 « hour commute to Manhattan, Boomer's loving father spent long hours away from home working to provide for his family. His high school coach, Sal Ciampi, "was a second father to me," Esiason said. "He took over our lives during the season."
Boomer confessed that, like most kids, his life "could have gone either way" at certain points. But with his father and coach Ciampi holding him strictly accountable for his actions, he chose to achieve both athletically and academically. "Coach checked my report cards before I even carried them home and checked everybody's attendance daily," Esiason said. He credits his coach/mentor with the teaching of self-discipline, accountability, respect for self and opponent, and the importance of minute, detailed preparation for all eventualities.
It was not necessarily an "easy classroom" in which he learned those lessons, according to the Bengal legend. Coach Ciampi was Boomer's football and baseball coach and to describe him as "no nonsense" is a gross understatement. Throughout the week his coach would be so demanding and challenging (physically and mentally), Esiason often doubted his ability to perform.
But things changed on game days. "He made us believe that we were the best to ever play," recalled Esiason admiringly. "Coach Ciampi taught us how to compete at a level we were unaware of until we did it." I would add that all coaches should encourage their teams to reach beyond their perceived personal and group limits.
"(Great coaches) recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their players. They accentuate the strengths and jump on the weaknesses," Esiason said of coaching. In that way, his high school coach reminded him of Bill Parcells, the notoriously tough NFL head coach, currently with the Dallas Cowboys. Esiason is grateful for the rigor of the program he endured as it prepared him well for his college football experience at Maryland. "I loved him and I still go back to visit," Esiason said.
In college, there were "many times I would have liked to quit, but because of the training I had received from coach Ciampi, that was not an option," Esiason remembers. His determination was tested after his freshman year, when Maryland recruited an "all-everything" quarterback from the state of Pennsylvania. The Terrapin signal caller discovered that the recruit had been told that he (Esiason) was not expected to stick it out for four years.
The aforementioned recruit, Frank Reich, came to Maryland, but Boomer remained the starter. The two became best friends and Reich became an excellent NFL quarterback in his own right, engineering the greatest playoff comeback in NFL history in 1993. Instead of taking offense to the slight, Boomer competed as he had learned from his high school experience (Be prepared to meet all eventualities).
Asked if the hard-nosed coaching style he described in his experience could be successful today, Esiason offered advice for parents of young athletes. "You cannot always protect your kids," Esiason said. And it is not always the best path to take. He believes he grew immeasurably because his coach was so demanding. "Parents were even intimidated by Sal," Esiason chuckled, which meant they supported the coach.
He believes that overprotective parents eliminate an opportunity to struggle and grow for many kids. Whether you agree or disagree with Esiason on this point, I would suggest that athletics is one of those experiences we rely upon to provide a testing ground for our kid's decision-making, cooperation and self-sacrifice.
In athletics, along with personal enjoyment and achievement, factors inherent in competition that both test kid's patience and resolve, and help them grow, exist any time a team establishes meaningful common goals to reach through competition. Those factors, including frustration and struggle, are as essential as the rules of the games and the referees/officials that enforce them. Struggle and frustration are growth-inducing experiences for all of us, especially adolescents.
Boomer Esiason has carried many of the lessons from athletics into the important work of conquering the effects of Cystic Fibrosis and the leadership of his Foundation. The resources the Foundation raises (almost $50 million to date) help doctors prepare for the time when there is a cure for the hereditary disease.
His respect for other's needs motivates him to do all he can for Cystic Fibrosis families. His attention to detail keeps him involved in the daily operation of the Foundation. His insistence upon excellence has enabled him to hire a committed, skillful team (http://www.esiason.org/aboutLead.html). His successes while facing seemingly insurmountable odds sustain the belief that this disease will be conquered.
One final irony-Boomer Esiason was a champion of the cause of curing Cystic Fibrosis long before his son was born. In 1988, at the dinner honoring him as the NFL Player of the Year, he heard a speaker, heralded sportswriter Frank Deford, whose daughter had passed away at the age of eight from Cystic Fibrosis. He was so moved by Deford's account of his daughter's ordeal that he asked him how he could become active in the fight against Cystic Fibrosis. He soon became a spokesperson for the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Cincinnati, sponsoring fund-raising events and encouraging other Bengal players to join him in that effort.
When his son was diagnosed five years later at the age of two, Esiason responded typically. He dedicated himself to providing a normal life for Gunnar and to helping others with Cystic Fibrosis in as effective way as possible. The Boomer Esiason Foundation was born. Today, Esiason indicates that he is most proud of his son's participation in football and golf as a freshman in high school, and his contributions on his junior hockey team.
Is leaving a positive lifetime legacy the residue of a sports career with demanding coaching? It has been for Boomer Esiason. It should be for all.
Dave Sargent: email@example.com
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