Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason lies in his bunk in the room he shares with Frank Reich, another quarterback, and stares down the hall at a poster on the far, dark wall. "You probably can't read it," he says, "but it says, 'Quest for Best,' and I'm the guy in it."
The poster depicts Esiason, tall and undaunted, frozen behind two obsequious offensive linemen gripped in the throes of dutiful battle.
There is a glaze over the dark crack that is his left eye, a hint of hubris, as he squints into the sun and into glory.
"That poster hangs on a wall in a bar called The Gold Leaf back home," he says. "It's framed in gold with a pretty red border around it, huge, just huge, hanging between Olivia Newton-John and some other blond bombshell."
Back home is East Islip, N.Y., the suburb of New York where he grew up and often returns with gifts of posters and jerseys, all bearing his lucky number 7, for friends. "There's this barbershop in East Islip," he says, "and it's sort of the cornerstone of the whole town. I wouldn't cut my hair any place else. Well, they've got pictures of me in this place and a poster. They're all friends and back me all the way. Great people, great barber."
Norman Julius (Boomer) Esiason is a hero in East Islip, a hero in the true sense; he can't walk down the street without being recognized. The people of his hometown know of his fetish for the number 7: the Bronco jeep with seven yellow flood lights, the amulet 7 hanging from his neck, the seven hamsters born of the two he gave his girl. And, never stepping on cracks, always subconsciously counting in a seven-beat cadence, he is still the skinny child of the sandlot who became the all-time Maryland passing leader with a career total 3,937 yards. Back then, as now, you could spot him a mile away on a good, clear day, Boomer with his hair shining, singing under his breath, "Seven, seven, seven."
"I made all-Long Island and all-state and still only got two scholarship offers," he says. "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, a pitcher in baseball, signed a national letter of intent before his senior spring baseball season began. "I ended up going 15-0 and being recruited by Miami, Arizona State and Marietta of Ohio, to name a few," he says. "Even St. John's of New York, always in the NCAA playoffs, tried to sway me away from Maryland and football. I really did want to play baseball and Jerry Claiborne, who was coach here then, promised I could.
"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.
Not only did I not play football, I held dummies. I was the dummy. Then baseball season comes around and they say forget it, if you play football at Maryland, you don't play baseball."
As a freshman, he watched most home games from the student section in Byrd Stadium. Exiled and alone, he missed home and he missed the game. That year, 1979, the Terrapins went 7-4. "And nobody gave me an ounce worth of damn," he says. "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?
"There were three quarterbacks in front of me then. One was from my hometown. They were always stabbing each other in the back. It's sad, but the only time they ever got along was when they were beating up on me."
The next year he was redshirted. "Claiborne didn't tell me," he says. "You know how I found out about it? I read it one morning in The Post."
He said he spent most of those nights spinning round and round on a barstool and thinking: "They're telling me I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough to play."
"I was an A student in high school and all of a sudden I'm flunking out," he says. "The whole team was living in Ellicott dorm on two floors, this is before Coach (Bobby) Ross came in and let us have our own apartments. All this hazing that went on then, all the bullying of the younger guys by the older guys, I hated it, it was like a zoo. Nobody got along and it was hard to give a damn."
With encouragement from his girlfriend and his father, an insurance engineer and former Columbia football and basketball player who Esiason says has "always carried the torch," he decided to remain in school and football. "You know, I didn't cut back flips when Coach Claiborne left. But I did cut back flips when Coach Ross got here."
The year before Ross arrived, Claiborne made Brent Dewitz the starter, preferring his steady approach to Esiason's flamboyant but unpolished style. Dewitz was hurt in the opener, as was backup Bob Milkovich. Esiason started the second game, going on to complete a school record 122 passes in 10 games.
Last year, Ross' first, Maryland went 8-4, losing to Washington, 21-20, in the Aloha Bowl. Esiason completed 176 of 314 passes for 2,302 yards. Ross said Esiason deserves much of the credit for Maryland's success: "You can't give Boomer enough credit. 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."
Esiason, asked about life beyond Byrd Stadium, replied: "I'm happy here; hell, I'm ecstatic here. The other day this guy asked me the dopiest question I ever heard. He wanted to know if I'd ever consider leaving Maryland if the U.S. Football League offered me good money. I told him I wouldn't leave Maryland for a million dollars, not even for 5 million dollars. And to think that three years ago I was packing my bags and wanting nothing more than to leave. You couldn't pull me away from here now. Nobody could."