by Geoff Hobson
More than three decades before Joseph Lee Burrow owned Cincinnati with the cool of a prairie wind, Norman Julius Esiason heated up things with the swag and edge of his native New York while winning an MVP, an NFL passing title, and a trio of playoff games.
Even head coach Sam Wyche's pioneering no-huddle offense that he gave the kid nicknamed "Boomer," arrived just as audacious and swashbuckling. More Broadway than Cincinnati. And on Thursday Esiason took a curtain call when the Season Ticket Members voted him into the Bengals Ring of Honor.
"He had a way with everybody. Everybody reacted to him because he insisted on his role," says Bengals president Mike Brown, the man who told Wyche before the 1984 draft it would be a success if they could select Esiason.
"Which was the leader. He played it and he expected people to respond to him. Players. Fans. Management. 'Here I am. This is what I do. I'm running the show.' Everyone then had to say it was good or it wasn't good. Most of the time everyone said it was pretty damn good."
That ferocious leadership even consumed the trajectory of medicine's fight against cystic fibrosis, the disease his oldest child Gunnar has fought since he was born in Cincinnati 32 years ago, a time when few patients lived beyond 18. As the legacy of the foundation his tireless dad made world-famous, Gunnar, now himself a father, is one of the nation's leading patient advocates.
“He had a strong personality. It showed up in his football life as well as his off-field life, where he has done extraordinary things ... he has raised a thunderous amount of money for a good cause. He’s an achiever. Not just in football, but in life in general.” Mike Brown
If his ROH classmate Chad Johnson comes into The Ring quoting Frank Sinatra, Boomer Esiason arrives channeling another last-of-a-breed character from the previous century in baseball great Ted Williams.
Like Williams, Esiason went out on his own poetic terms, homering in his last at-bat. Or, in this case, No. 7 throwing a 77-yard touchdown pass on his last NFL snap against the Marvis Lewis Ravens.
And, like Williams, he's smart and opinionated with a voice like a hatchet shredding the niceties. He calls them like he sees them, which is great for his star-studded post-playing broadcasting career. But when he led the Bengals workforce through the 1987 strike, well, he wasn't always a fan favorite in his own city.
"I will always remember I got this because of the season ticket holders," Esiason says. "I'm sure there were some that didn't like me there for a few years (but) I'm sure a lot did appreciate at least what I tried to bring to them."
The memories cut loose. Succinct and concise. Worthy of 20 years and counting as an NFL Today host and the former Westwood One Monday night radio analyst who called a record 19 Super Bowls. From Ray Lewis (2000) to Nick Foles (2018).
"You think about one of those first touchdown passes as a rookie, to an offensive tackle playing tight end," says Esiason of his flip to Anthony Munoz in Cleveland. "A lot of crazy stuff. A lot of conversations with my teammates during the good times and bad times. The Thursday night card games. Sending Cris Collinsworth a massage therapist after the first game I started because I got him killed.
"All the golf games, the travel, all the camaraderie you had with your teammates."
Esiason still ticks off the names of the coaches and players sitting in his first Spinney Field meeting: "It was filled with so many smart people. I felt like I was the dumbest one in the class when I got there."
But it was Esiason who ended up as the no-huddle's chief engineer. The genius of Wyche at the line of scrimmage. When Mike Brown called Esiason last month to tell him he was in The Ring, his mind audibled to another phone call. The one Wyche made to end Esiason's epic draft day slide. Wyche died three years ago, but he lives when No. 7 goes in the ring.
"Putting me in an offense never seen before. It was unprecedented and he was trusting me as his quarterback," Esiason says. "He was always fighting with me, too. I always had that unique relationship with him and I wish he was able to see it and I wish I was able to go in with him. Or at least celebrate what he was as a coach and what he meant to me as a coach."
Esiason just didn't have words with Wyche. There were pitched battles with management that were exacerbated by the nastiness of the '87 strike. But the headlines never lingered with Mike Brown. After all, twice he signed Esiason to deals among the NFL's biggest contracts ever.
"There was a hefty respect for one another, but there was always a little bit of NFL vs. NFLPA, too," Esiason says. "But when it got down to brass tacks for both of us, what counted for us is what unfolded on the field and we were fortunate enough to make it to a Super Bowl."
No matter what, Brown has been an unabashed Boomer fan since he scouted him at Maryland. Maybe he wasn't razor accurate, "but it was how he conducted himself." Brown remembers an injury to his shoulder and Esiason staying in the game: "He showed toughness, he showed leadership, he showed some of what he would show to the public and the fan base. He was a special personality.
"Boomer was never afraid to say his piece. I don't resent that. I actually believe that's what it's all about. Say what you think. Don't hold back. He would stand up and say he liked this or didn't like that."
Esiason's time to stand up is at halftime of the Monday nighter against the Rams. Of course it would be.
View the best photos of QB Boomer Esiason as he is inducted into the Bengals Ring of Honor.
"It's great to see and I know there are a lot more deserving players who are going in," Esiason says. "I'm just happy to be one of them."
Yes, the irony strikes him, too. A Monday night game. "A weird circle," Esiason admits.
After his five-game Hot as Hell reunion tour ended the 1997 season with numbers better than his MVP year, fans and teammates clamored for more. Mike Brown drew up a two-year contract for Esiason to stay, but thought the offer to join Al Michaels in the ABC Monday Night booth was too good to pass up and told him so.
"We had a difference of opinion," Brown says. "I thought he should take it because that kind of offer doesn't come down the pike very often."
It turns out there wasn't that big of a difference of opinion.
Esiason says it was the second time ABC had made the offer and hinted this was the last one. At 36, the plantar fasciitis in both feet hobbled him so badly he doubted he had 32 games left. His two kids, Gunnar and Sydney, were now of school age back on Long Island and he was starting to miss stuff that mattered.
"I don't remember what it was, but Mike made a generous offer," Esiason says. "I remember thinking walking off the field after that last game, 'Oh my God, if I have to see Ray Lewis one more time, I'm going to have a heart attack."'
The Rams bring their own Hall-of-Fame defender to town for that Monday night game. But Esiason won't have to worry about Aaron Donald. He'll be safely in the Ring of Honor.