At the end of the 1988 NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals met the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.
Remarkably, the two franchises met in the sport’s biggest game for the second time in less than a decade.
Unlike the previous meeting, Cincinnati’s quarterback in ‘88 was Boomer Esiason, who had been named the NFL’s MVP after guiding the Bengals to 12 wins after a 4-12 season in 1987.
Everybody in America between the ages of 50 and 65 went to high school with a guy who looked exactly like Boomer Esiason. pic.twitter.com/7BZIQ643Na
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 28, 2023
Esiason arrived in the Queen City in 1984 from the University of Maryland where he set no less than 17 program records.
Then, after a quiet rookie year, he reeled off six consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons and eventually broke numerous NFL records for a south-paw quarterback.
During his playing career, Esiason and his son, Gunnar, became the public face in the fight against cystic fibrosis.
Gunnar was diagnosed with the disorder when he was two and the Esiason family founded an organization dedicated to finding a cure.
Since retiring from the game, Esiason continues to help fund research for cystic fibrosis and has been a football analyst on television and radio.
This is the story of Boomer Esiason.
Growing Up in New York
Norman Julius Esiason was born on April 17, 1961, in East Islip, New York.
Happy Birthday to Bengals legend, Boomer Esiason! pic.twitter.com/AqSMOhsGUf
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) April 17, 2023
He became known as “Boomer” before he was born when Esiason’s mother, Irene, noted that he kicked her constantly in the womb.
“‘This can’t be a girl, because he is kicking all the time,’” the family recalls Irene saying at the time.
Unfortunately, Boomer would only spend a few good years with his mother before she died of cancer when he was seven.
After her death, Esiason’s father, Norman, refused to re-marry and dedicated his life to raising his son and two daughters on his own.
Each day, Norman Esiason arose before the sun and traveled an hour by train into New York City for his job as a safety engineer for an insurance company.
He would then return home after a long day and spend as much time as possible with his kids.
“It was my father who sacrificed for me,” Boomer Esiason said in 2012. “Not only getting up and going to work every single day but always coming home, always making sure that dinner was on the table. I was very fortunate to have a man as a father who recognized responsibility, dedication to his family. It’s something that stuck with me forever.”
Even with his busy work schedule, the elder Esiason devoted his free time to fostering his son’s love of sports.
At one point, Boomer’s father even coached his son’s Senior League Baseball team.
Norman Esiason continued this devotion through Boomer’s prep years at East Islip High School, always present at practices and games.
“I’ve never seen a father like him,” said Sal Ciampi, Boomer’s high school football and baseball coach. “Never interfered, never complained, never missed a day.”
Boomer Esiason became a natural-born leader who played football, basketball, and baseball for the Redmen.
He played quarterback and was fearless, although his high school coach, Ciampi, had to reign in his QB from time to time.
“He was the one who threatened me that if I wanted to play, there was another part of my life I had to respect,” Esiason said. “You had to respect the teachers; you were not going to go skating through life because you were a good athlete. You were going to have to learn what it means to be not only a good athlete but a good person.”
Coach Ciampi saw potential in his 6’4, 170-pound athlete with the golden locks and helped Esiason study film and look for signs of weakness in opposing defenses.
Boomer took that knowledge and led the Redmen to an 8-1 record as a senior and passed for a program-record 29 touchdowns during his prep career.
Motivation Monday @TerpsFootball was the ONLY college to offer Boomer Esiason a scholarship. At East Islip High School, Boomer was a three-sport varsity player in football, basketball, & baseball. At Maryland, he set 17 school records & enjoyed a 14 year NFL Career‼ #NYmade pic.twitter.com/UJ061aImUd
— NY MADE FOOTBALL (@NYMadeFootball) January 30, 2023
Off the field, he was also a leader, and teammates and neighborhood friends would flock to the Esiason house frequently for get-togethers and summer trips with both Boomer and his dad.
“Between his father, his sisters, all his aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends, he was surrounded by this bottomless pit of love,” said his old friend Michael Dooley.
Boomer Becomes a Terrapin
As Esiason’s prep career was coming to a close, he began to realize that he might have a better chance playing college baseball rather than football.
“I made all-Long Island and all-state and still only got two scholarship offers,” Esiason said in 1983. “One was to Hofstra, a Division III (football) school, a school so ancient they still run the wing-T, and that went out in the ’40s. The other school was Maryland. It didn’t take long to decide.”
Esiason signed his letter of intent to Maryland and then played his final year of high school baseball.
He went 15-0 as a starting pitcher and had Division I offers from schools across the nation.
However, Boomer was committed to football and made his way to College Park, Maryland in the summer of 1979.
Maryland Great Boomer Esiason says it's not Willard. pic.twitter.com/jqtakSRO0y
— FakeFranseska (@notify2010) March 19, 2022
Fully expecting to become the Terrapins starter on Day 1, Esiason was instead humbled.
“But as naive and stupid as I was, I came down to Maryland and expected to play right away, or at least be considered for football,” said Esiason. “Not only did I not play football, I held dummies. I was the dummy.”
While the ‘79 Maryland team put together a 7-4 season, Esiason was so far down the quarterback depth chart that he watched home games from the stands.
“And nobody gave me an ounce worth of damn,” he said. “They said I didn’t have any knowledge of the game; they said I had no feet; they said I couldn’t handle the pressure. What didn’t they say?”
Before the 1980 season, the Terrapin coaches decided to redshirt Esiason and his self-confidence continued to erode.
Worn down by a lack of playing opportunities and constant hazing by upperclassmen, Esiason began flunking his classes and considered returning home.
“I was like a bucking bronco for my first 2½ years at UM [University of Maryland],” said Esiason. “I was difficult to deal with. I was a terrible student and when I look back upon that, it coincides to when I wasn’t playing. If I wasn’t playing, I didn’t have an outlet. And if I didn’t have an outlet, I was trying to run from whatever the issues were. It’s a very humbling experience. From the fall of 1979 to the fall of 1981, I was a disaster.”
Esiason Becomes Maryland’s Starter
When Maryland’s 1981 season began, Esiason was the third quarterback on the depth chart.
During the team’s first game of the year against Vanderbilt, however, the first and second-string quarterbacks were hurt.
Esiason finally got the nod and spent the next 10 games completing a school-record 122 passes.
The Terrapins went 4-6-1, but Esiason passed for 1,635 yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions and was entrenched as the starter.
After the season, head coach Jerry Claiborne left for the University of Kentucky and was replaced by Bobby Ross.
Ross had spent the past two years as the quarterbacks and running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Once he got to campus, Ross and offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen got to work shaping Esiason’s game and helping him become a top-notch college signal caller.
In 1982, Esiason led the Terps to an 8-4 record and a loss to the University of Washington in the Aloha Bowl.
— cagewx4 (@cagewx4) April 17, 2012
Along the way, he threw for 2,302 yards, a program-record 18 touchdowns, 10 picks, and two rushing scores.
Esiason also led Maryland’s offense to an average of 31 points per game, their best season since 1951.
That led to an honorable mention All-American selection and high praise from Ross.
“You can’t give Boomer enough credit,” said Ross. “His self-confidence is what you want in a quarterback. His downfield vision is tremendous and his mind is as sharp as any quarterback I’ve ever coached. With the way he works and his dedication, he’s got a great future. I don’t see how he couldn’t make a great pro.”
As if his junior year wasn’t good enough, Esiason continued the assault on Terrapin football records in 1983.
His senior year began with a heady 7-1 record before losses in three of the final four games.
Despite the late-season tumble, Esiason led Maryland to a 6-0 conference record and the Terps’ first ACC championship since 1976.
He passed for 2,322 yards, 15 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, ran for two touchdowns, was voted All-ACC, and repeated as an honorable mention All-American.
Vintage College Football
Boomer Esiason QB Maryland🐢
1983 ACC Champion🏆 pic.twitter.com/rybmGprgpk
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) March 20, 2022
Esiason’s three-year Terps career consisted of 6,259 passing yards, 42 touchdowns, 27 interceptions, and four rushing touchdowns.
Cincinnati Selects Boomer
In 1981, the Cincinnati Bengals went 12-4 and advanced to Super Bowl XVI.
Their opponent that day was quarterback Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
Cincinnati was led by quarterback Ken Anderson, and by halftime, the Bengals looked overmatched.
Down 20-0 at the half, Anderson and the Bengals came storming back and made a game of it before losing, 26-21.
By 1984, Anderson was still on the Cincinnati roster, but he was aging.
He had been part of the organization since 1971 and it was clear to general manager Paul Brown that the quarterback’s days were numbered.
With that in mind, the team selected Esiason with the 38th overall pick in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft.
— Cam Miller 🎥 (@cammillerfilms) April 28, 2023
Boomer was well aware that he was beginning his NFL career as third-string behind Anderson and veteran Turk Schonert, but he was ready to compete.
“…when my number is called, I’ll be ready,” said Esiason.
Before a Week 6 game against the Houston Oilers, Esiason’s number was called.
We're Boomer 7️⃣ Esiason days until the NFL Draft 2021!
Boomer got his first pro start on Oct. 7, 1984, in Cincinnati in a game against the Houston Oilers a 13-3 Victory! #NewStripes #NFLDraft2021 @7BOOMERESIASON @TerpsFootball 🏈@Bengals 🐅#SMSports #DaltonSignagture 🔥 pic.twitter.com/D1oL230lFj
— DaltonSignature (@DaltonSignature) April 22, 2021
In his first pro start, he scored on a three-yard run to lead the Bengals to their first win of the year.
Esiason ended the season with four starts, 530 passing yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, two rushing touchdowns, and a 3-1 record.
Esiason Takes over in Cincy
The Boomer Esiason era for the Bengals officially began in Week 3 of the 1985 season.
Anderson and Cincinnati began the year 0-2 and second-year coach Sam Wyche decided to make a change.
He replaced Anderson for Esiason before a battle with quarterback Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers.
Esiason couldn’t manufacture a win that day, but he did challenge the Bolts in a high-scoring, 44-41 loss.
Boomer remained the starter and responded with 3,443 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and an NFL-best 6.3 touchdown percentage.
He also experienced the downside of being an NFL quarterback as the victim of 32 sacks.
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) July 7, 2020
Cincy went 7-9 that year, although the team showed signs of life with Esiason, Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Brown, fellow receiver Cris Collinsworth, and a talented backfield.
In 1986, Esiason ran Wyche’s no-huddle offense to perfection and went to his first Pro Bowl on the heels of a career-best 3,959 yards and 24 touchdowns against 17 picks.
The Bengals’ secret to protecting Boomer Esiason? Anthony Munoz and seven guys who drive a Camaro and listen to Whitesnake. pic.twitter.com/KXqtnjSzDV
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) October 7, 2022
He also led the league in yards per pass attempt (8.4) and net yards gained per pass attempt (7.61) and set a team record by throwing five touchdowns against the Jets in Week 16.
The Bengals went 10-6 in ‘86, just missing the playoffs.
The 1987 Players Strike Upends Cincinnati
Expecting to capitalize on their record in 1986, Cincinnati went in the opposite direction in 1987 due to the NFL Player’s strike.
Unlike the 1982 work stoppage, NFL owners decided to use replacement players as a way of circumventing the striking players.
— Carolina Sprts Ntwrk (@csncharlotte) September 23, 2017
By then, Esiason was paid well, but he sided with his teammates and made a stand against the owners.
When a bus arrived at team headquarters to pick up Bengals replacement players, Esiason took action.
“I’m going to sit down in front of this scab bus and really make my point,” Esiason recalled in 2007.
The strike lasted three games, but Esiason and his teammates were not well received by the Bengals’ faithful when they returned.
Although Boomer passed for over 3,300 yards, he also tossed 19 picks.
As the Bengals started losing games, fans of the franchise took their frustrations out on Esiason.
“That strike,” said Esiason, “made me public enemy Number 1 in Cincinnati. The fans hated a guy making $1.2 million going on strike. I threw for 409 yards against Pittsburgh [in November] and was walking up the tunnel after the game and got hit with a full beer.”
Eventually, Cincy ended the year with a 4-11 record (during a 15-game season), but Esiason felt that there was a sense of accomplishment regarding the strike.
“But looking back, I think it was worth it. The owners saw the scars that strike left, and they knew how dangerous another strike would be to the future of the game. Another strike would be just unimaginable,” said Esiason in 2007. “The game’s too rich.”
The Bengals Rebound in 1988
The bad blood between fans and Esiason didn’t last long.
Before the 1988 season began, Cincinnati selected UNLV running back Ickey Woods and Esiason got back on track.
Woods became a rookie sensation with his stellar play and “Ickey Shuffle” touchdown celebrations and the Bengals won the first six games of the year.
Esiason was the NFL’s highest-rated passer and was named a first-team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl for the second time when he threw for 3,572 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and rushed for 248 yards and a running score.
He also led the NFL in a number of categories including quarterback rating (97.4) and yards gained per pass attempt (9.2).
Cincinnati had the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and Esiason was named the league’s MVP.
Long Island's own Boomer Esiason won the 1988 NFL MVP. pic.twitter.com/gqNznHTEJk
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) February 17, 2022
Between Week 7 and Week 11, the Bengals went 2-3 (including Esiason setting a new Bengals record by throwing five interceptions against New England) but ended the season with four wins in five games to post an overall record of 12-4.
The eight-game win improvement from the previous year helped soothe fan anger toward Esiason and the other players.
It helped even more when the team beat Seattle and Buffalo to reach the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXIII
For the second time in the 1980s, Cincinnati and San Francisco were meeting for a world title.
Super Bowl XXIII would see Joe Montana return for the 49ers.
However, unlike in 1981, Esiason would be the opposing quarterback.
A Look Back- QB Boomer Esiason
In 1988, Boomer had his BEST season in the NFL! Leading the NFL in QBR (97.4), throwing for 3572 yards & 28 TDs. He was selected to the Pro Bowl that season and took his @Bengals team to Super Bowl XXIII.
Boomer played at East Islip HS! #NYmade pic.twitter.com/gg9uwYQE8Y
— NY MADE FOOTBALL (@NYMadeFootball) December 29, 2022
Also unlike in ‘81, the Bengals didn’t get overwhelmed in the first half and played the Niners to a 3-3 tie at halftime.
Then, at one point in the fourth quarter, Cincy pulled ahead, 16-13, after kicker Jim Breech booted his third field goal of the day.
Unfortunately, Montana then took over at his own eight-yard line and proceeded to drive San Francisco down the field before finding receiver John Taylor for a 10-yard touchdown.
Esiason and the Bengals had just enough time to make a last-ditch throw, but his pass to Collinsworth missed its mark and the Niners returned to Northern California with a 20-16 victory.
Boomer’s numbers for the day were 11 completions on 25 attempts for 144 yards and one interception.
Boomer’s Time in Cincy Comes to an End
For the next two years, Esiason passed for over 3,000 yards and he was selected for the Pro Bowl after the 1989 season.
In 1990, he threw 24 touchdown passes and had a franchise-record 490-yard passing day against the LA Rams in Week 5.
— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) November 2, 2022
However, he also led the NFL that year with 22 interceptions.
Despite passing to the wrong team too often, the Bengals still won nine games and defeated the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card round before succumbing to the Raiders in the Divisional round.
The following season, Esiason failed to reach 3,000 passing yards for the first time since his rookie year.
As Cincy fell to three wins in 1991, Boomer netted 2,883 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 16 picks.
1992 was even worse as he was limited to 11 starts and passed for 1,407 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.
New coach David Shula’s team slightly improved to five wins and the organization was looking to make a change.
Believing that Esiason’s best days were behind him, Cincy drafted University of Houston quarterback David Klingler before the 1992 season.
After the year ended, the franchise traded Boomer to the New York Jets and Coach Bruce Coslet (Esiason’s former Bengals offensive coordinator).
Gunnar Esiason and the 1993 Season
Esiason was more than excited to be returning home to New York.
He had hosted family and friends on several occasions while playing in Ohio with the Bengals.
Being traded to the Big Apple meant those same family and friends could see him play more often.
The Jets' new getups are basically their Boomer Esiason era getups. pic.twitter.com/baq8U8z6eN
— Dave Dameshek (@Dameshek) April 5, 2019
After arriving in New York, Boomer was determined to be the Jets’ starter.
“They didn’t trade for me and my salary to stand on the sideline,” said Esiason. “Obviously, you’ve got to go in and battle for a job, and that seems to be the company line for now. You don’t have to be a genius to understand why they’re trading for me.”
Before playing for the team, however, Esiason’s two-year-old son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Suddenly, the quarterback’s life ground to a halt and he told his wife, Cheryl, that he should retire.
That idea didn’t last long and the Esiasons steeled themselves for a battle with the disease.
“I’m not going to quit,” Esiason recalled in 1993. “They won’t listen to me if I quit or have a bad year. I’m going to have a great year. I’m going to go on a crusade. They’ll listen to me if I have a great year. They’ll have to listen. They’ll have to.”
Just like that, Boomer returned to the field on his crusade to help the Jets and his son.
During the 1993 season, he led New York to eight victories, a four-win improvement from 1992.
Along the way, Esiason returned to his fourth Pro Bowl after he passed for 3,421 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
In October of that year, Sports Illustrated put Boomer and Gunnar on the cover of its October 4th issue.
— Emily Kaplan (@emilymkaplan) October 8, 2014
The article mentioned Esiason’s life as well as the family’s decision to start the Boomer Esiason Foundation in order to raise money to fund research to fight cystic fibrosis.
“I am going to be the biggest enemy that this disease has ever had,” Boomer said. “We’re going to beat this thing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re going to beat it.”
Boomer Returns to Cincinnati
Esiason remained with the Jets for the 1994 and 1995 seasons and experienced moderate success.
As the team won nine games combined under Pete Carroll (‘94) and then Rich Kotite (‘95), Esiason passed for over 2,000 yards both years and threw for 33 total touchdowns and 28 total interceptions.
He also received the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1995 due to his charity work.
When the ‘95 season concluded, Esiason was released by the Jets and he signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cards went 7-9 in 1996 and Boomer started eight games, passed for 2,293 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) July 18, 2022
During a Week 11 game against Washington, Esiason threw for 522 yards in an overtime win against the Redskins.
That represented the fifth-best passing yardage in a single game in NFL history.
Arizona didn’t re-sign Esiason after 1996 and he nearly retired to spend more time with his family.
However, Coslet had become the Bengals’ head coach in 1997 and he reached out to ask Esiason if he would return to the franchise that drafted him.
He accepted and returned to Cincinnati.
One Last Hurrah Before Retiring
Esiason was originally brought to Cincinnati to serve as a backup to quarterback Jeff Blake.
After starting the 1997 season 3-8, however, Blake was pulled in favor of Esiason.
As soon as he went to work in Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the old Boomer resurfaced.
Under Blake, the Cincinnati offense was mediocre.
Esiason turned that same offense into a machine and was aided by receiver Darnay Scott and rookie running back Corey Dillon.
For the last five weeks of the year, Cincinnati averaged 36 points per game and won four of the contests to salvage a 7-9 record.
In his five starts, Esiason passed for 1,478 yards, 13 touchdowns, and only two picks.
RT: KrustySoxSports : RT BobsBlitz: Rare archive video of Boomer Esiason returning to the Bengals in 1997
— trouthand (@trouthand) November 14, 2017
Bengals management was so happy with Esiason’s play that the organization invited him back for 1998.
ABC came calling around the same time and dangled an offer for Esiason to be an analyst for Monday Night Football.
The money ABC offered was too good to pass up and Esiason retired from the NFL.
In his career, Boomer passed for 37,920 yards, 247 touchdowns, 184 interceptions, and rushed for 1,598 yards and seven more scores.
Esiason was a four-time Pro Bowler, All-Pro once, Walter Payton Man of the Year once, NFL MVP once, and played in a Super Bowl.
He currently holds league records for left-handed quarterbacks in completions (2,969), passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
In retirement, Esiason has never had a dull moment.
After a two-year gig with MNF, he worked in radio for several years before returning to television roles for CBS and Showtime.
The Boomer Esiason Foundation has proven to be a huge success in its role in cystic fibrosis research, even partnering with numerous hospitals.
#HappyFathersDay here is Boomer Esiason and his son Gunnar at a recent fundraiser for their organization with gift we donated. They’re great role models as father & son and as tireless ambassdors for the @cysticfibrosis comminity. pic.twitter.com/TnVCBhCooE
— Chelsea Market Baskets (@CMBstore) June 17, 2018
Gunnar Esiason has outlived his initial diagnosis, played football and hockey in high school, and graduated from Boston College.
The Esiasons also have a daughter, Sydney, who is married to New York Islanders hockey player Matt Martin.