Esiason shows you really can go home again

On the NFL

November 30, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It's always sentimental for a player to go back to the stadium where he had his greatest days and hear the roar of the crowd one more time.

Joe Montana, who finished his career in Kansas City, will experience that on Dec. 15, when the San Francisco 49ers will retire his number at halftime of the Monday night game against Denver.

Boomer Esiason, who once dueled Montana in a Super Bowl, topped that experience last week.

Esiason, who spent time with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals in recent years, once again heard the fans in Cincinnati cheering for him last Sunday.

He wasn't getting his number retired, though. He was wearing it as a player.

Esiason heard the fans chanting his name before, during and after the game, and he made it a perfect day when he led the Bengals to an upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He passed for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

"It was throwback Sunday in Cincinnati," Esiason said.

As he hoisted his 6-year-old son, Gunnar, who is battling cystic fibrosis, he said: "Some of you are parents. You know what it's like. If you have a child that's suffering from something like he is, it just makes it that much more special. It's an unbelievable feeling to share a moment. The thing is, you wish it could last a lifetime, but it lasts only for a half-hour or 20 minutes. But then you realize you're dealing with something that's a lot more serious than a football game."

What Esiason is dealing with is his son's illness. He has raised $2.5 million through his Heroes Foundation to fight the disease, and he uses his moments in the spotlight to raise awareness.

"That's why I'm playing," he said. "Whoever watched that game on TV [the NBC cameras showed Gunnar cheering for his father] now knows, hopefully, what cystic fibrosis is. That gives me a pulpit to talk about it. I make no bones about it. I'm trying to exploit this to try to beat this thing. That's all I really care about."

Esiason, 36, will go against the Philadelphia Eagles today and duel Bobby Hoying, who used to watch Esiason play as a youngster when he was growing up in Ohio.

Esiason knows he may not have many days left like the one he had against the Jaguars. He might retire next year and go into the broadcast booth.

But nobody can take last Sunday away from him. In his last start in Cincinnati five years ago, he lost and was booed. This time, he had a game to savor.

QBs struggling

At the start of the season, Sports Illustrated put the five AFC Central starting quarterbacks -- Mark Brunell, Kordell Stewart, DTC Steve McNair, Jeff Blake and Vinny Testaverde -- on its cover.

But it hasn't been a vintage year for the five. Brunell, who was hurt in the preseason and is still playing with a knee brace, is the only one ranked among the top 14 quarterbacks.

Stewart and McNair are in their first full seasons as starters, so the jury is out on them, but Blake has been benched and Testaverde has reverted to being mistake-prone. His 15 interceptions are topped only by Kerry Collins' 16.

Esiason's success has the Bengals wondering if he can do it next year, even though Esiason isn't sure he's returning.

Team president Mike Brown said: "If what we've seen lately, we would very much hope he keeps going. Not only the rest of this year, but next year, too."

If Esiason were to start next year, Blake's future would be up in the air.

Meanwhile, Testaverde is struggling so much that the Jaguars are looking forward to his arrival today. A wire service story out of that city last week started out, "It's hard to imagine where the Jaguars would be without Vinny Testaverde."

The story noted that the Jaguars are 5-0 against the Browns/Ravens, and in the past four games, the "one constant" is that Testaverde made critical fourth-quarter mistakes to help the Jaguars win after trailing going into the fourth quarter.

Because Testaverde is a decade older than Blake, his future may be even more uncertain than Blake's.

Overcoming adversity

It was five years ago yesterday that Dennis Byrd's career ended when he was paralyzed in a collision with New York Jets teammate Scott Mersereau.

Byrd recovered enough that he can walk, although he limps and uses a cane on occasion. He has therapy twice a week.

"In spite of these things, life is really wonderful," he said.

Byrd, though, no longer stays in touch with most of his former teammates. "It's painful [to renew old friendships]," he said. "Very much. Football is something I loved so much. The best way to say it is that sometimes it's hard to dig it all back up."

Support for Marchibroda

When the Ravens were upset at home by the Arizona Cardinals last week to fall to 4-7-1, the rumor mill started again that coach Ted Marchibroda would be in trouble if the team lost its last four games, even though owner Art Modell said a week ago that the coach would be back.

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