Gunnar Esiason is winning at the game of life

Gunnar Esiason stands on the sidelines in first

Gunnar Esiason stands on the sidelines in first half of the 2009 Empire Challenge. (June 23, 2009) (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

Bob Herzog

Newsday sports reporter Bob Herzog Bob Herzog

Herzog covers high school sports as a writer and columnist.

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For Gunnar Esiason, the clock is still running -- and for Boomer Esiason's kid, that means he is winning the game of life.

"When I was born, life expectancy was 17 or 18. Now it's the late 30s and it's going up and up," Gunnar said, referring to cystic fibrosis, the disease he has had since birth and that has been the inspiration for the Boomer Esiason Foundation and Tuesday night's annual Empire Challenge all-star football game.

"It's very reassuring for me, especially because there are new drugs going on the market that are attacking the disease at the genetic level. We're hoping that these will significantly impact every single CF patient's life."

Gunnar said that this year, the BEF went over the $100-million mark in money raised and the Empire Challenge, in its 18th season, went over the $2-million mark.

Gunnar played in this game four years ago, an inspirational gesture in which he appeared for the opening series. Before the ball was snapped, the entire New York City team crossed the line of scrimmage to tap him on the helmet or shoulder pads to acknowledge his courage. "It feels like it was yesterday," Gunnar said. "That's something that I'll never forget. It's burned into my memory."

He graduated from Boston College in May with a degree in English. He intends to take a year off before law school. "My two big things are coaching football and hockey at Friends [Academy]," said Gunnar, who will be the quarterbacks coach next fall. "That'll be fun . . . I'll take the LSATS in October, apply to law schools in winter and we'll see what happens."

Undoubtedly, something special will happen. It always does for this kid who displays uncommon valor in the face of a debilitating disease that he refuses to let get the better of him. In fact, he discussed with Boomer taking an expanded role in the foundation. "I'll continue my poster boy role. I've accepted that," Gunnar said. "Who better to do it than me? I can see that being a career for me, living as the poster boy and making sure the disease is eventually cured."

His sister Sydney, who just finished her junior year at BC, said, "At the end of the day, I needed him more than he needed me. He's still my big brother. I got to see him grow more than my parents did. College is when you become who you really are and that was really cool for me to experience that with him."

They had one particularly memorable moment during an intramural co-ed flag football game. "He played QB and I played wide receiver. He threw me a game-winning touchdown in the first round of the playoffs," she said, beaming. "It was a pretty awesome moment for us. It's one of those experiences that I'll really cherish when I look back at those college years. We called my dad right after and he was thrilled about it."

Sydney was equally proud. "He's definitely my role model and hero. I look up to him. I've always looked up to him," she said. " . . . When I wake up and I'm not feeling well or if I just don't want to start my day, I think about him and I know he's feeling 10 times worse than I am and he's always upbeat and doing all the things everyone else is doing or should be doing."

He's living life.

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