Once Reviled, Now Revered, Top Cat Boomer Esiason Sharpens His Claws for the Super Bowl

updated 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

He is a golden-haired, ebullient child of the modern sports era, a millionaire quarterback whose blue-collar principles once got him thrown for a loss with the fans. But in one dizzying year, Boomer Esiason has soared from most vilified player in Cincinnati to Most Valuable Player in the National Football League. This Sunday in Miami he'll seek the ultimate vindication as he leads his ferocious Bengals against crafty Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.

The most intriguing element of this showdown will be the sight of Esiason driving the Bengals' unusual fast-forward offense. If the 49ers play with the subtle rhythms of the San Francisco Symphony, the Bengals dish out up-tempo heavy metal. They seldom pause to talk things over in a huddle; they even force some teams to fake injuries to slow the pace. Go for a beer and you've probably missed something—like one of Boomer's 28 touchdown passes this season, or rookie running back Ickey Woods's après-end zone "Ickey Shuffle," with ponytail flapping.

Stock the cooler by the couch.

Ever since he earned his nickname by kicking so insistently in his mother's womb, Norman Esiason Jr. has thrived on this kind of aggressive beat. He was raised with two older sisters by his father, an insurance man, after his mother died of cancer when he was 5. Boomer attacked two sports, football and baseball, with abandon. But his upbringing in East Islip, Long Island, also produced an ethical sense that carried over into athletics.

When Boomer was in high school, Maryland was the only major university to recruit him for football. He signed a letter of intent to enroll there. Then he went 15-0 in his final high school season as a baseball pitcher and attracted scores of college and pro offers. He chose to honor his commitment.

The decision couldn't have turned out better. Esiason broke every passing record at Maryland. He also began dating his future wife there. Boomer, 27, and petite, dark-haired Cheryl, 25, now live comfortably in the northern Kentucky suburb of Villa Hills. Rich, famous, good-looking and in love: It would be a rare sports star who would risk it all a principle.

Call Esiason rare. "Nobody who knows him would ever say that Boomer is selfish," says Bengals assistant general manager Mike Brown. "If anything, he is too giving, too committed. Once he pledges himself to a cause, he goes all the way with it."

Last season the cause was the ill-fated NFL players' strike. The owners broke the strike by staging "replacement games" featuring former rejects and fantasy-chasing saloon bouncers. A handful of star players helped the bosses by crossing the picket lines. Esiason, his team's union representative, took a much more militant posture.

At one point he sat down in front of a bus that was transporting a group of scab players into the Bengals' training facility. He told head coach Sam Wyche in strong terms to stay out of union affairs. And in a mind-boggling gesture, he reportedly loaned less wealthy teammates about $300,000 to keep them going and ensure solidarity. Then he added sacrilege to sacrifice by declaring that the strike was more important to him than a Super Bowl ring.

The conservative citizens of southern Ohio reacted with predictable outrage. As losses piled up during a chaotic 4-11 season, Esiason was subjected to rising boos and tasteless comments on sports talk shows. "He was the target of all the hostility that built up among fans during the strike," says Mike Brown. "I don't think I've ever seen one player take the full force of a fan reaction that bad."

Boomer figures he got off lightly compared with Cheryl. "She'd come home from the games more worn out than me," he says. "She had to take the mental abuse right there, from the seats all around her."

As the Bengals regrouped for this season, there were suggestions that the embattled Boomer be traded. But Paul Brown, the team's 80-year-old patriarch, hasn't shaped pro football for half a century by bowing to fan sentiment. He and son Mike met with Esiason over a long breakfast and, in the quarterback's words, "put all the negatives behind us."

Now the mood is strictly positive. "The city's counting on us," says Boomer. "I refuse to let it down." He might also expect an apology from some of his less restrained critics. But he wouldn't think to ask. This is a star with a style. And complaining isn't part of it.

—Pete Axthelm, and Bill Robinson in Cincinnati

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