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Super Dads

From We Magazine by Charles A. Riley II, Ph.D. as published in the FEAT Online Newsletter of February 14th, 2000. FEAT (Families For Early Autism Treatment) can be accessed at: .

The real heroism of quarterbacks Boomer Esiason, Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Jeff Hostetler.

Stepping up out of the pocket to fire a perfect spiral into the numbers of a wide receiver at the back of the endzone just as he's buried by a defensive end-that's what makes the quarterback the hero. He takes the hit and delivers the touchdown pass. Even as his guys pull him off the turf to join in the celebration he knows he gets to take the homecoming queen to the prom, drives the convertible around the college quadrangle and pulls down the multi-million-dollar salary in the pros.

But for five great NFL (National Football League) quarterbacks-Boomer Esiason, Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Jeff Hostetler-what happened on the field is just the beginning of the heroics. They are young dads with sons with disabilities, and it is precisely their grit and leadership that enable them to make a difference not only in their homes, but on behalf of thousands of others who benefit from their charitable work. The aggregate $100 million and counting they have raised for disability causes, and the millions of fans they reach, make their football records pale by comparison.

Every Monday night, 50 million of the faithful tune in to ABC's Monday Night Football and listen with rapt attention to Boomer Esiason's sharp observations, recalling the big plays he made during 14 years in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, during which he was the league's MVP (most valuable player) and made the Pro Bowl four times.

Many of his fans know he's huge in the fight against cystic fibrosis (CF) which affects his 9-year-old son Gunnar. Esiason's clear-eyed priorities have made the foundation he created to support research and treatment of CF a model for nonprofits of its kind. It's his focus: "When I was growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to do was to be an NFL quarterback. Well, I've already done that. Television is my second life and it's great, don't get me wrong, but it's secondary. It doesn't have the pressure that's associated with playing the game. The only thing that remotely comes close to bringing that pressure to bear is being the father of a child with CF."

Esiason and his wife Cheryl quickly recovered from the "overwhelming" shock of the diagnosis to set a game plan. "Football is just a perpetual series of fourth-and-one situations on Sunday. Gunnar faces fourth and one every day. You can't let up. You don't have time to think about yourself or feel sorry for yourself." Esiason's winning appeal is hard-charging. "Going after it, not looking back, always looking forward, never wondering why or belaboring the point. Make something happen," he says in a commanding staccato.

One issue faced by many parents of children with disabilities is the ability to control the situation. As Esiason explains, "Let's face it, when you play quarterback you're not always in total control, but it has to be perceived as if you are. Ultimately the quarterback is the one who has the confidence or doesn't and if you have a guy back there struggling, then the whole team struggles." The jump to family life is easy. "It's a lot like being the dad in the household. I know the value of great teammates and a family is nothing but a team. At times when you are raising a child who has a disability those team relationships are strained, just as they are if you lose a few games in a row during the season. But you always have to realize what the most important thing at hand is: your children."

Gunnar's sister Sydney goes with him to the hospital for treatments and, as Esiason notes, "is as important as Gunnar is-we have to make sure that everybody is always on the same page and that Sydney has her niche. But she knows where she's at, and she insists on being a part of this situation."

Gunnar Esiason is often the star who carries the ball when his dad mounts a fundraising drive. "We do exploit his beauty and personality for the cause. But he is as grounded and funny as any kid I've ever been around," says his dad, who unabashedly leverages his fame. "I get the most out of it, and I don't apologize for that. I'm a celebrity that understands because I have disability in my own house." This is no lumbering jock cluelessly glad-handing his way around a benefit dinner after stumbling through someone's ill-fitting speech. He's engaged in one-on-one conversations with doctors about the latest developments in genetics right up to the moment he takes the podium. "Knowledge is power and the more you educate yourself the better handle you will have on how to defend against being caught off guard," he says.

Boomer and Cheryl are co-chairs of a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation committee that surpassed its $20 million goal for 1999 by an astonishing $15 million with a month to go, thanks in part to a big fat check from Bill Gates ("I'd like to say I got on the phone and made him write that check, but..." ). Esiason is wonderfully open about the ins and outs of running a nonprofit that started as family and friends. "We're in business to raise money and spend money on killing this disease. It's not about selling tables and ads in journals but spending the money properly and making sure the right information is disseminated. That's quantitatively the measure of my achievement now," he says. With all kinds of numbers in the record books, one in particular stands out: 50. That's the average life expectancy for CF patients projected if research stays on pace, up from the current 31 and way past the 20 when Gunnar was diagnosed. That intensity is uniform for this ballclub.

Jim Kelly, 39, faces even longer yardage in helping his nearly three-year-old son Hunter, born on his dad's birthday, Valentine's Day, with Krabbe's Disease, a type of leukodystrophy that typically leaves a life expectancy of 14 months. The Kellys devoted themselves to making Hunter comfortable. "The first year was quite a battle. As tough as he is, our little guy struggled through it all." After a dozen bouts with pneumonia and viruses, shuttling between hospital and home, the family reevaluated its approach. Says Kelly, "Hunter's therapy sessions went from being relaxed and uneventful to very active, upbeat and fun for all of us. Our philosophy was to get him moving and to be aggressive!" The five-day-a-week regimen has shown results, and with improved motor skills Hunter is cruising the house in his KidKart, relaxing in the Jacuzzi and "smiling with his eyebrows."

Filling Kelly's shoes as the leader of the Buffalo Bills is Doug Flutie, the gutsy, pint-sized darling of the fans and the Heisman-winning architect of one of the greatest comeback victories in college football history in 1984 when he heaved an impossible, last-second TD (touchdown) pass over the outstretched arms of the University of Miami defense to lead underdog Boston College to victory. Flutie is also the most recognized spokesman for autism research in the nation. "When we first learned Dougie had autism, we thought, 'What do you mean? We can't have a child that has a problem.' But, after a while, you learn that it could be much worse," Flutie, 37, observes. "We accept Dougie for who he is. He always has a smile on his face, and when he walks into a room, he brings a smile to your own face." That smile has gone places. It is currently on the cover of the annual Toys 'R Us catalogue for children with disabilities.

A goal of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation is the perpetuation of a legacy. "It would be nice to have his name carry forward with something like this. Chances are, he will not be winning the Heisman Trophy," he says. When Dougie, now 8, got a bike with a communications system that lets his parents track his whereabouts, Flutie realized that many other parents might not be able to afford the same. Last Christmas the Foundation purchased 30 Dura-trikes from Flag House, Inc. and donated them to two organizations in Boston and one in Buffalo who made sure they were under the trees in time.

The 650 physicians on staff at Miami Children's Hospital see about 175,000 kids a year and one of those who came through the doors arrived with a famous last name. When Miami Dolphin superstar Dan Marino, 38, and his wife, Claire, realized their son Michael had a mild form of autism, they were fortunate to find specialist Dr. Roberto Tuchman. Within a few years, the Marinos gave Dr. Tuchman his own state-of-the-art building. "When Dr. Tuchman approached us with the concept of being able to diagnose and treat children with neurological problems in one location, we knew we wanted to be involved," Marino says. The Dan Marino Child NETT (Neurodevelopmental Evaluation Treatment Teams) is a stand-alone facility for pediatric sub-specialists in neurology, psychology, rehabilitative services and comprehensive diagnostic and testing services. It even sports programs in karate, music, parenting as well as support groups tailored to obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome. The Dan Marino Foundation remains its fundraising arm-and what an arm it is, posting gains of $5 million last year alone.

The rookie on this elite squad is Jeff Hostetler, 38, fondly remembered by New York Giants fans as the hero of Super Bowl XXV in 1990, when, having taken over the reins from the injured Phil Simms with two games left in the regular season, he took the Giants all the way to victory. In June of last year, his son Tyler, now 9, sustained a spinal cord injury and at last report was unable to walk. Hostetler, who was unavailable for interviews, is clearly and understandably disinclined, as yet, to become involved in the public arena of fundraising or advocacy. When and if he does, he has the splendid example of former All-Pro Miami Dolphin Nick Buoniconti, who has helped build the stellar Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to help his son Marc, whose spinal cord injury came during a high-school football game.

For all five QBs, hope outweighs pragmatism in the everlasting dialectic known to all parents of children with disabilities. As Esiason says, "I think in the end it depends upon education and logic. My main thrust has always been realism. But I believe that Gunnar will be around longer than I will be. Let's just say it's realism fueled by idealism." Guys who are accustomed to playing the hero also know that they must step up into the blitz because it is the only way to play. Nobody said this is easy.

The last lines of Esiason's novel Toss, about a Broadway Joe Namath-style quarterback, read, "You're playing football because you're one hell of a lot safer on the field." The hazards of parenting are far more subtle than the obvious perils of the gridiron, and the gains and losses of living with a disability are different from the the shuttle to and from the literal goal line. It takes all they've got. "There is so much power in the way I feel that a lot of people sense that when they are around me. I have grandiose plans and they are not going to be finished until the day we cure the disease," Esiason vows.

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