CINCINNATI -- His sports car is beautiful, a black Mercedes two-seater with a gray interior. The leather upholstery feels extremely expensive. Boomer Esiason pushes a button on the --board and the top opens up to let in bright sun and blue sky.
"Got to put the top down today," Esiason says.
Of course. It's the Monday after the Cincinnati Bengals' 25-20, fourth-quarter, comeback win over the New York Jets in the season opener, a good day for the familiar, bright-blond-haired quarterback to be seen in Cincinnati.
At the restaurant Esiason has chosen for lunch, a fern bar in a yuppie section of town called Mount Adams, customers walk by the table every five or 10 minutes to tell him, "Good game," or to ask for an autograph. He obliges with a smile. The restaurant manager offers to move him to a private dining room, but Esiason says, "No problem. We're fine here."
There are several contenders for the role of successor to the San Francisco 49ers' Joe Montana as the National Football League's next great quarterback: Esiason, Dan Marino, John Elway, Randall Cunningham. Lately, the Los Angeles Rams' Jim Everett has been fitted for the label by several publications. Esiason and the Bengals (3-1) are scheduled to match firepower with Everett and his slow-starting Rams (1-2) today in Anaheim, Calif.
But this much is certain. No one loves being an NFL quarterback more than Boomer Esiason. He lives and breathes the role as if he were the creation of a popular novelist. He even looks back on the 1987 strike season, when he was vilified in Cincinnati for his million-dollar salary and his prominent role on the picket line, as part of his job preparation. The experience helped him develop the necessary callouses to withstand the public criticism that comes with the territory.
It also made him appreciate the upside that much more, and there has been a substantial upside, including national commercials for underwear and diet soda, since he took the Bengals to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1988 season. Last year, they were a puzzling 8-8 after going 5-1 in the American Football Conference Central but losing home games to poor Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks teams. Esiason still led the AFC in passing for the second straight year, and this season, he has predicted the Bengals will be in Tampa, Fla., for Super Bowl XXV.
"If I didn't feel like that, why be here?" Esiason says of his prediction. "People in Cincinnati gave us a grace period last year because of the year before, but they're expecting a lot this season. It's a very proud city. They don't let just anybody in. You've got to pay your dues before they let you in."
Dues paid, Esiason relishes these days in the Cincinnati sun. The fans booed during the Jets game when he threw a pass at a receiver's feet, booed when the Bengals left the field trailing at halftime. But he won them over. "The fans don't always understand," Esiason said. "I threw that ball away because a linebacker would have intercepted it if I'd tried to complete it. Then, they really would have booed."
The boos and the criticism on the radio talk shows have become just part of the challenge, and Esiason always is ready for a challenge. So many quarterbacks work hard at maintaining a poker face, keeping their emotions under wraps. Not Boomer. His high school coach , Sal Ciampi, told him always to play with emotion and intensity, to let it come from the heart.
That's his style through and through, and it's what makes him such a volatile, effective leader. "I don't think I know how to play football any other way," Esiason said. "You have to let your emotions flow. This is a game of spontaneous reactions. They make a move, you react. The ones who can think on their feet quick enough and let their athleticism and ability play are the ones who are going to be successful.
"Football sense is something you're born with. They can teach you the right footwork or whatever, but you have to feel it. You have to make it happen."
Ask him to compare quarterbacks, Esiason will play that game. He admits he watches his peers around the league closely. Cunningham and Elway he admires for their mobility; Jim Kelly he likes for his toughness. Marino's arm and football savvy are qualities Esiason appreciates, and Bernie Kosar's mental approach. He admires Everett's size and arm strength and describes Bubby Brister's fiery personality as the kind that can lift a team.
A sparkle comes into Esiason's eyes as he adds, "I think I'm a combination of all of them." With a laugh, he says, "Just kidding." But you get the feeling Esiason thinks deep down there's some truth to that.