Way up in Section 2 of Byrd Stadium, the upper tier, Boomer Esiason could see clearly. What he saw was his life careening out of control.
It was 1980, his sophomore year. Maryland was playing Penn State down below. And Esiason, sitting out the season, was about as far as a quarterback could get from playing.
There were no press clippings, no television interviews. Nobody was calling him one of the best quarterbacks in the nation or one of the team's most popular players. In addition, he was flunking out.
"I remember leaving that Penn State game in the first quarter," he said the other day. "I kept thinking about how far up we were in the upper tier, the ridiculous seats, and I said to my dad, 'Let's get out of here.'
"That year and 1979 were the most miserable years of my life. The red-shirt year, I sat up there in the student section drinking Jack Daniels and throwing cups like everybody else. I remember thinking, 'I've got to get out of here.' Right now, Scott Tye (a teammate) reminds me that I would leave practice saying, 'I gotta get out of here, I can't stand the place.' "
Esiason's girlfriend remembered, "I resented student athletes who hadn't done a thing in the classroom. I thought they all abused the system just to party and play football for four or five years. So I pressured Boomer to study, because if he wasn't playing he wouldn't study. He didn't write his papers. He'd just put paper in the typewriter and start tapping--no rough draft or anything. He had run-on sentences and incorrect punctuation. One night, I looked at a paper he wrote and said, 'You're going to turn this in! You've got to be kidding me.' "
Frank Reich, Esiason's roommate, remembered, "Boomer was pretty down on himself and the program. His way of escaping was going out and having as good a time as he could at any cost."
And, Esiason admitted, "I would have transferred, but nobody wanted me. Where could I go? I was afraid to go home and afraid to sit down and check myself out. I never thought it would come to an end. My first semester, my grade point average was .9. The next semester, it was 2.6, but the cumulative was under 2.0, so I had to go to summer school. Nobody told me I was going to get red-shirted, and when I found out in summer school (from a teammate), I failed a class. That fall I was really in academic trouble and had to be reinstated.
"When I wasn't playing, I felt like I didn't have any responsibility to the school; I was so immature. I just wanted to know why I couldn't play, and why I couldn't play baseball. When they signed me, I told them I wanted to play baseball, too. And they said, 'Don't worry about it.' I was so mixed up, so non-existent mixed up. I had no idea of what was going on."
At this point in his remembrances, Esiason put his hands on the sides of his head, and laughed. The depressing past can be funny when the ending is almost fairy-tale happy.
Esiason was almost an afterthought under former coach Jerry Claiborne, but has flourished under the imaginative offense of Coach Bobby Ross, who came to Maryland before last season. Esiason now signs autographs for about 30 minutes after every game. He's a 6-foot-4, 200-pound charmer who's articulate, glib and never runs out of good stories. And if he isn't the best quarterback Maryland's ever had, he's close.
Anyone who doubts his importance to the Terrapins' offense can look back to Sept. 17, when Esiason was injured in the game against West Virginia. The team drooped so visibly, you could see it from Section 2, the upper tier.
But Esiason has remained about as levelheaded as a 22-year-old can with publicity swirling and smoke being blown his way. When he was asked how a player whose college choices came down to Hofstra and Maryland can emerge as an all-America, he said, "I just don't know.
"I was the seventh-string quarterback when I got here. Everybody said I had a great spring practice in 1981, but I started out third string. Then, the two guys in front of me get hurt during the first week (of the fall), and I become a starter." He has started 28 of the last 29 games.
Esiason's athletic life is filled with stories like that. When John Tice, the former Maryland tight end, once went on vacation, Esiason stepped in as the starting quarterback of the little league team in East Islip, N.Y.; Tice never threw another pass. In high school, Esiason became the starting quarterback when the incumbent pulled a groin muscle. He was a reserve on the baseball team, but became a starting pitcher because one of the stars developed arm trouble.
"Sometimes I think about it," Esiason said, "and it just seems like one long string of fate."
Jess Atkinson, the place-kicker and another of Esiason's roommates, has wondered about the factors that determine athletic fame, if a powerful runner could have been a star at a pass-oriented school like Brigham Young. "There are so many awesome athletes in sports," Atkinson said, "guys you never hear of who go unnoticed because for whatever reason they got in the wrong situation for them. The lines that decide whether a guy is great or a nobody are so thin.
"Boomer almost got choked off under Coach (Jerry) Claiborne," said Atkinson, who got his chance as a walk-on for Claiborne. "All Boomer needed was a little time to get rid of the inconsistencies--he'd have one great play then one bad one. He needed a chance, a real chance where he knew he wouldn't be yanked for one interception. With Coach Bobby Ross, it's so different. The coaches now work with Boomer as a base."
Esiason played under Claiborne, but they were opposite personality types: conservative, southern, disciplined Claiborne; bold, sporty, New York Esiason. "I'm not an all-American boy with straight-line morals," Esiason said. "Coach Claiborne and I weren't like Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner--there weren't any dogfights--but he was set in his ways, and I was set in mine.
"If Coach Ross doesn't come, where the hell am I? Whatever I say about the man will sound corny. But I'd do anything for the man. I believe in what he teaches. Look what he's done here, not just for me but for everybody."
What Ross has done is install a multiple-pro-style offense that is predicated on balance between pass and run, with a high degree of unpredictability. He didn't install it because of Esiason, but Esiason certainly has benefitted because of it. So much, in fact, that many teams have indicated they are willing to select Esiason in the first round of the 1984 National Football League draft.
Because, under Ross' system, so many people handle the ball, Esiason will not compile the sort of eye-popping statistics of, say, Brigham Young's Steve Young, who several scouts say will be the first quarterback chosen if Esiason isn't. But that doesn't stop scouts or opposing coaches from seeing just how important Ross and his system have been in developing Esiason.
Esiason has completed 98 of 177 attempts for 1,388 yards and eight touchdowns. He has been intercepted seven times.
"I think Bobby Ross is the one who really saved Boomer's career, there's no doubt," North Carolina Coach Dick Crum said this week. "He's getting to pass, not just giving the ball to the tailback and telling him to run."
Esiason holds seven Maryland career records and is in reach of several others. He was the career yardage leader in passing before this season began. So, naturally, this year brought high expectations. And despite an increase in almost all of his statistics over last year, some observers feel Esiason hasn't played as well as he should have.
One of them is Esiason, who two weeks ago said, "I'm just now starting to play with the confidence and authority I finished last season with. But maybe that's good. Maybe I, and the rest of the team, peaked too early last season."
Reich, the backup who was good enough to quarterback Maryland to victory over Pitt when his roommate was injured, is as close to Esiason as anyone. "Just before the season," Reich said. "I think Boomer was pressing, a little uptight. He wasn't playing with the same air he had last season. I think it just came back against Wake Forest."
Clearly, Esiason's game has improved greatly in three years. And in those three years, signs of maturing also have been clear.
He still drives the wild-looking truck with all those lights, and collects anything with the No. 7 on it (as a child he idolized Bert Jones). He's as bold as he was four years ago when he cut in on a senior dancing with the girl who was to become Esiason's girlfriend.
But there is more to Esiason. He is intensely interested in cancer research and has visited several dying patients. His grandmother died of cancer and his mother died of cancer when he was 5. "I can remember her tying my shoes, and then later on my father telling me that I wouldn't be having a mother anymore."
"What's happened to him in college is what happens to most kids," said his father, Norman Sr. "I've seen a gradual maturity; he's polished now, represents himself very well and he's happier."
Saturday will be Esiason's final time playing in Byrd Stadium. "The saddest day in my life," he said, three years after being so miserable he wanted to transfer, and three months before he will graduate a B- student with a degree in communications. "So many things happen in a college lifetime, it's unbelievable. Isn't it funny that, now, I won't want to leave? I think I'll just stand there at the end of the game and look around the stadium for a while."