Boomer Esiason's crusade for cystic fibrosis reaches happy milestone for son Gunnar

Boomer and Gunnar Esiason through the years.  Credit: The Esiason family; Getty Images (far right)

The quarterback’s crusade is not over, 28 years after it made for a memorable Sports Illustrated cover story with that headline, accompanied by a famous photo of father and son.

Cystic fibrosis has not gone away, and perhaps never will entirely.

So in that narrow sense, maybe Boomer Esiason was overly optimistic in that long-ago article when he said, "We are going to beat this thing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re going to beat it."

But the more important part of the quote came before that, and it still rings true: "I am going to be the biggest enemy that this disease has ever had."

Here we are, in the next century, and the crusade has made strides that would have been difficult to imagine in 1993. Esiason’s then 2-year-old son, Gunnar, is 30, around the age Esiason was when Gunnar was diagnosed.

Last weekend, Gunnar graduated from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Saturday night, he will marry Darcy Cunningham in Massachusetts. When all this started, the question was whether he merely would be alive this long

"It’s been a really long ride," Esiason said in an interview with Newsday. "It’s not that we’re getting to the end of anything. I think we’re getting at the beginning of something really special."

The former quarterback and current WFAN host, who grew up in East Islip, was speaking not only of his family’s journey but of the CF community more broadly.

A life unlocked

Vast progress has been made in extending and improving the lives of people with CF, notably over the past several years thanks to a drug called Trikafta. It is not a cure, but for about 90% of CF sufferers, it has been a huge help.

Gunnar is among them.

"It’s a miracle, what it has done for Gunnar and other CF patients," Boomer said. "He goes from end-stage illness to wanting to go skiing, to play hockey, to go hiking, to decide to go to business school at Tuck. It’s like his life has been totally unlocked.

"I’m religious, but I can’t sit here and say I prayed for it every night. But I pushed and I raised as much money as I could, with so many other families in our situation that may not have the platform I have."

The decades-long effort has involved a long list of fundraisers and researchers, including money raised through the Boomer Esiason Foundation.

Esiason considered retiring from the NFL in 1993 but carried on because playing would continue to provide him a forum. That also has been a motivation for going on the radio most mornings at 6 a.m. since 2007.

There were numerous life-threatening scares along the way, including through Gunnar’s young adulthood, and the need for never-ending support from Esiason, his wife, Cheryl, and Gunnar’s younger sister, Sydney.

"The good days were far and few between, but you would never know, because he learned how to live with this disease and manage it," Esiason said. "Every time it hit him, it became a life-altering event."

Gunnar plowed ahead, playing sports in high school at Friends Academy, going to Boston College and partying so hard with his new friends "that he almost killed himself his freshman year," his father said.

After graduating, it appeared for a time he would not survive without a lung transplant. But he persevered long enough to meet Darcy, to benefit from Trikafta, and now to get married.

Former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, and his son, Gunnar Esiason, who played high school football at Friends Academy and wore his dad's jersey number.

A long journey

Esiason first got involved with CF in 1989, before Gunnar was born, through sportswriter Frank Deford, whose daughter Alex died from the disease at age 8. So the journey from there to here has been long.

"Saturday night is going to be an incredible, incredible emotional experience for all of his friends," Esiason said, "all the longtime supporters that have been around the last 20 years and have seen him grow into the man he has become."

The Esiasons also will keep in mind those who never got this far.

"Gunnar will say, never forget all those families that started the CF Foundation, way back in the '60s, and all those families that have been part of drug trials and have lost loved ones younger than Gunnar.

"I can’t even imagine what parents have gone through watching their child die of CF, and unfortunately, when you are in this world you see a lot of it, and it’s really exhausting. It’s excruciating."

Despite all that, even in 1993 he believed there was hope. "I’m always the eternal optimist," Esiason said. "You have to be if you’re going to be the Jets quarterback."

The father of the groom called Cunningham his son's "kindred soul," someone who is in tune with his quirks and even plays co-ed hockey with him. They both love cold winters, which they get plenty of living in New Hampshire.

"I swear I could not have found or picked a better person to deal with Gunnar’s stuff than Darcy," Esiason said.

The Islander connection

The wedding would have been a noteworthy event under any circumstances, but it took another human-interest turn when the Islanders advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

The Islanders' Matt Martin and Sydney Esiason at the 2016 NHL...

The Islanders' Matt Martin and Sydney Esiason at the 2016 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Gunnar’s brother-in-law and Sydney’s husband, Matt Martin, was supposed to be in the wedding party, but now he will be busy playing Game 4 against the Lightning on Saturday night.

The date was set before the COVID-19 pandemic, with the knowledge the playoffs normally are over by June 19.

"It’d be nice to be there to celebrate the marriage," Martin said before the series began. "But I think the whole family understands that the Islanders, and myself, are chasing something special right now."

Esiason is a Rangers fan, but he also is a fan of Martin.

"One of the greatest things that’s ever happened to Gunnar is that his sister married Matt," he said. "Matt has been the kindest, greatest friend that Gunnar could ever ask for."

He added, "Matt’s impact on Gunnar has been immeasurable. When Sydney and Matt were dating and Gunnar was at home and really sick, Matt would be over and hang out with Gunnar and they would do their video game thing. He became like a big brother to Gunnar."

The reception should be starting right around when the puck drops for Game 4. Sydney is a fixture as a fan at Nassau Coliseum, but she will miss both Games 3 and 4 to be with her brother.

Esiason said it was not a difficult choice.

"She has ridden shotgun for him for so long," he said. "She’s protected him. She’s fought for him. She goes to the hospital with him. She takes care of him whenever he needed it . . . She’s known Gunnar since she was a baby. They’re best friends.

"She wants her brother to do this. She is so happy for her brother. She’s going to be bawling, I know it."

She will not be alone.

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