Hall warms Esiason

9:35 p.m.

He threw the last NFL pass ever caught by Isaac Curtis and the first by Carl Pickens.

Larry Kinnebrew took his first NFL handoff and Corey Dillon took his last.

The NFL career of No. 7 started with a four-yard scramble and ended Ted Williams-like with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Darnay Scott on his last throw.

While Norman Julius Esiason easily straddles Bengals history, he continues to pop up everywhere else.

Take St. Patrick's Day in New York City and, of course, Esiason is in the middle of it all when his WFAN morning show goes live from Annie Moore's on East 43rd.

Like he always does now, he had to get up at 4 a.m. to pull that off in what is his first full-time job since he punched the Spinney Field clock in his 1997 Farewell Tour with the Bengals.

But on Monday, the best part of the day didn't come until dinner time when told that only Ken Anderson had received more votes in the inaugural Bengals.com Virtual Hall of Fame vote. The tough-talking New Yorker softened up.

"It's a great thrill," says the co-host of Boomer and Carton in the Morning. "To still be remembered by Bengals fans, I can't tell you what it means to me. It's very heartwarming."

Esiason's name appeared on 79.6 percent of more than 10,000 fan ballots that whittled the Bengals.com Hall ballot from 32 to 10. The final vote to three gets underway some time in April and if it holds up Esiason joins an inaugural class of Anderson, Curtis, Bengals founder Paul Brown and Anthony Munoz, the left tackle that protected Esiason during his 1988 NFL MVP season.

"Obviously P.B. and Anthony have to be the first two and everybody in Cincinnati knows that it's ridiculous Ken Anderson isn't in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame," Esiason says. "I wanted to make sure that I threw the last ball that Isaac caught."

If you want to know how good the coaching was in Cincinnati back in the '70s and '80s, just look at all the football announcers the franchise spawned. From groundbreaking Bob Trumpy to Emmy-award winning Cris Collinsworth to the NFL Network's Solomon Wilcots, Esiason has to have the most recognizable voice.

If he's not in the CBS Studio on Sundays, he's the radio analyst at the Monday Night game. If he's not doing football, he's filling it up on the toxic New York morning airwaves that make the old days of Trumpy and Andy Furman banging Esiason's Bengals nightly on Cincinnati's WLW sound like the Uncle Al Show.

"It's 90 percent sports and we have a great time," Esiason says. "I can't remember when I've laughed so hard."

The show fills the vacancy of Don Imus, so the time slot is not for the faint of heart. Esiason admits he gets uncomfortable when his partner, the free-wheeling Craig Carton, goes hardcore with, well, everything.

"Yeah, it gets uncomfortable at times, no question," he says. "But I'm the guy that reins him in. I'm the 47-year-old guy who's played the game and is supposed to keep everything in perspective."

Esiason knows he has critics, such as Phil Mushnick, the columnist for The New York Post who has taken no prisoners himself in a long career as one of the nation's top TV/Radio sports critics.

Mushnick railed on Imus' show for crossing the line and he does the same with Esiason and Carton.

"It's disappointing," he says of Esiason's gig. "He'd be in the CBS studio talking about law and order on the field and then he gets on the air and it's typical morning drive like it is all over now. The zoo kind of thing. You just have to be bold and brazen, it doesn't matter. The Fan gets complaints, but apparently the answer is kids aren't supposed to be listening at that hour because it's geared to adults. How can a kid not be able to listen to sports radio?"

Esiason is at his best ripping the Mets he loves, explaining how Jay Cutler would fit into the Jets, trying to get his NCAA bracket right, and complaining about the high cost of Yankees seats by hatching a plan to watch a game with Carton in the restricted view of the cheap bleacher seats with walkie-talkies.

Asked if his son listens to the show, Esiason says of the high school senior, "Sure he listens. But I think he's more interested in listening to music."

Perfect comeback.

And so Esiason understands taking the heat. He thrived on it as a player and he thrives on it now. His ability to bust chops with everyone and anyone made him the greatest leader in Bengals history and maybe one of the greatest in sports given that he led the Bengals to the AFC title a year after a divisive strike brought the world replacement players.

This is the same guy that Dave Rimington remembers back in the day. Now remember, Rimington, a center, was drafted a year before Esiason in 1983.

"He listened to me for the first couple of years," says Rimington of their on-field rapport. "Then it was, 'Just snap me the ball.' "

But the two have been perfect teammates for the last 16 seasons.

Esiason is the CEO and heart-in-chief of the Boomer Esiason Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure for cystic fibrosis, the disease on which he declared war when son Gunnar was diagnosed at Cincinnati's Children Hospital in 1993. Rimington is the foundation's president, who does everything from calling the day-to-day shots, updating the 17 Web sites, to sometimes arranging the centerpieces at a fundraiser.

"I just wind him up and let him go," Rimington says. "He's made CF his life. Now that he's getting up at 4 a.m. every day and we've got an event at night, I've got to make sure I get him out of there by 10. He's ready to go by then. In the old days, that's about what time we got started."

Take Tuesday morning. Rimington met Esiason at the pub and as Esiason got off the air, he told Rimington he had some ideas of sponsors he was going to visit that day.

"It's 24-7 for him," Rimington says.

Esiason has opened one of the most powerful non-profit stores in the country. Last year the take reached $9 million and the Gunnar Esiason Wing at Children's remains a centerpiece of the drive.

"We're going to have a big donation to Children's later this year," Rimington says.

There are many reasons Esiason still keeps Cincinnati close and the Bengals, believe it or not, are one of them. Just like when he played, he hasn't held back at taking shots at the organization nationally and has more than once earned the wrath of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.

But he's as frustrated as any fan. It seeps out when he talks about his 1988 AFC champions putting six players and coaches on the list of the 10 Hall finalists.

"It shows you how tough the last 20 years have been," Esiason says. "Bengals fans haven't had much to cheer about and it's a shame because they're great fans. And it has hurt the recognition of the great players that have played there. The Bengals have had a lot of great players and you don't hear about them."

And asked his take on the '09 Bengals, he makes a rare pass these days.

"I don't know," he says. "Too early. They haven't drafted yet. They haven't been on the field yet. I don't know."

But he did like the pickup of Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles.

"He's going to be a different receiver than T.J. Houshmandzadeh," Esiason says. "He's more vertical, a more down-the-field guy. I think the Bengals may have won one there."

So he'll keep calling it the way he sees it. And the way he sees it, the fan vote couldn't mean more to him.

"You made my day," says Esiason, who is putting plenty into each one.  

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