Former Bengals prime-time players
Esiason and Collinsworth score in front of camera

Monday, July 27, 1998

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PASADENA, Calif. -- Boomer Esiason and Cris Collinsworth laugh in wonderment at how far they have come since sweating through passing drills for five years together (1984-88) in Cincinnati, one of the NFL's smallest media markets.

BOOMER ESIASON
ESIASON Born: April 17, 1961, East Islip, N.Y.

Resides: Long Island, N.Y.

Family: Married 12 years to Cheryl; children: Gunnar, 7, and Sydney, 6.

College: Graduated from the University of Maryland (1984), where he was a football All-American, setting 17 school records for passing and total offense.

NFL history: Second-round draft pick by Bengals in 1984. Played 10 of his 14 seasons in Cincinnati, appearing in one Super Bowl (XXIII) and four Pro Bowls. Named NFL Most Valuable Player in 1988. Also played for the New York Jets (1993-95) and Arizona Cardinals (1996) before finishing his career with the Bengals last year.

Broadcasting: Did color commentary on USA cable's World League football telecasts during the Bengals' off-season in 1991-92. Also was studio analyst for ABC's NFL playoffs 1996-97. Named in January to replace Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football. Will co-host Miss America Pageant Sept. 19 with Meredith Vieira.

CRIS COLLINSWORTH
COLLINSWORTH Born: Jan. 27, 1959, Kings Mills.

Resides: Fort Thomas.

Family: Married nine years to Holly; parents of four children, ages 8-3.

College: Was an academic and football All-American at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he earned an accounting degree in 1981. He earned a law degree in 1991 from the University of Cincinnati. NFL history: Second-round draft pick by Bengals in 1981. Wide receiver for Bengals 1981-88, appearing in two Super Bowls (XVI, XXIII) and three Pro Bowls. Holds club record for career receptions, 417.

Broadcasting: In 1990, replaced Bob Trumpy as host of WLW-AM's SportsTalk and started doing NFL game commentary for NBC. Works for HBO, including covering the Wimbledon tennis championships and co-hosting HBO's weekly Inside the NFL show. Moved to NBC's pregame show, NFL on NBC, in 1996, and won a sports Emmy for his studio analysis last season. Signed with Fox earlier this year after NBC lost football rights.

It's not like these two Bengals buddies -- best friends since the rookie quarterback joined the team in 1984, and business partners in the Waterfront restaurant (with Pete Rose and Jeff Ruby) -- sat around Spinney Field talking about becoming prime-time network TV stars.

"No, I don't think either of us ever talked about anything like that," says Mr. Esiason, the former Bengals quarterback, before an ABC press conference here introducing him to TV critics as the newest member of the top-rated Monday Night Football team and host of this year's Miss America Pageant (Sept. 19).

"I thought I had really made it to the big time in 1990 when I got on WLW-AM and replaced Bob Trumpy," says Mr. Collinsworth, the former Bengals wide receiver, after a day of taping segments for Fox's Guinness World Books: Primetime in a Los Angeles TV studio. Now, after a lot of hard work and a little luck, the two score big TV breakthroughs this week:

Mr. Collinsworth, 39, who retired from the Bengals in 1989, hosts Guinness World Books: Primetime (it debuts 9 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45), a 12-week Fox summer series about stupid human tricks.

Mr. Esiason, 37, joins ABC's MNF crew for the annual Hall of Fame preseason game from Canton on Saturday.

On Labor Day weekend, Mr. Collinsworth becomes a regular analyst on Fox's top-rated Fox NFL Sunday pregame show, after winning an Emmy last spring for his commentary on NBC's pregame show.

And then comes Mr. Esiason's crowning moment, co-hosting the 78th annual Miss America Pageant with ABC's Meredith Vieira on Sept. 19. He follows in the footsteps of Bert Parks, Regis Philbin, Gary Collins and Ron Ely.

Since the brash blond quarterback from New York hooked up with the lanky good ol' boy wide receiver from Florida 14 years ago, each had figured the other was bound for glory after hanging up the helmet. "I always felt that Cris had the charisma to perform on a national level," said Mr. Esiason, who retired from the Bengals in January. subhed:Mutual admiration body:

"When I got to Cincinnati, I looked up to Cris as the guy who knew how to deal with the press. He understood the politics of the media. He always did it with flair, and style and grace, and with a smile on his face."

Mr. Collinsworth expected big things from Norman Julius "Boomer" Esiason -- nicknamed "Boomer" because he kicked so much during his mother's pregnancy -- since the first day he strutted into Cincinnati from the University of Maryland.

"I've never seen someone come in so cocky and sure of himself. After he walked through the locker room, we all said to ourselves: "He'd better be good!' " said Mr. Collinsworth, a three-year Bengals veteran in 1984.

"I knew Boomer would do something on TV. I'm more shocked at what's happened (at Fox) with me," Mr. Collinsworth said with a laugh.

"But I was surprised that he went to Monday Night Football right out of football, because that's one of the plums of all jobs."

Bengals president and owner Mike Brown said that "Boomer had an unusual presence -- a field presence and a locker room presence -- as strong as I've ever seen."

"We used to call them "the moths,' " Mr. Brown said. "Once the TV lights went on, they were attracted to it," said former offensive lineman Dave Remington, president of the Boomer Esiason Heroes Foundation. The foundation has raised $3 million for cystic fibrosis research. Mr. Esiason's son, Gunnar, 7, suffers from the fatal respiratory disease.

Now the moths have found the brightest of all lights, on national prime-time TV, as executives continue to seek fresh faces to front programs. subhed:Transition to TV body:

"There is a history of sports figures who have made the transition to in front of the camera for different kinds of programs," says Rick Ludwin, NBC senior vice president for specials and late-night shows. Mr. Ludwin supervised the Miss America telecast until it jumped to ABC last year.

TV's roster of former football players includes Fran Tarkenton (That's Incredible!), Joe Namath (The Nashville Palace), Merlin Olsen (Father Murphy); Fred Dwyer (Hunter) and Terry Bradshaw (Home Team with Terry Bradshaw).

Only a handful of retired athletes successfully make the transition to TV.

"It's a talent. It's almost equal to being able to sing on key or jump high. It's a God-given gift," said Mr. Brown, who has seen six former players and coaches become TV commentators: Dave Lapham, Anthony Munoz, Sam Wyche, Mr. Trumpy, Mr. Esiason and Mr. Collinsworth. "I take great pride in how it reflects on our team."

To transcend sports into show business takes a lot of hard work and luck.

Since retiring from the Bengals after the 1989 Super Bowl, Mr. Collinsworth has slowly worked his way up the sports broadcasting food chain. In 1990, he succeeded Mr. Trumpy on WLW-AM's nightly SportsTalk, became an NFL game commentator for NBC and did sports reporting for HBO.

His strong opinions eventually earned him seats on HBO's Inside the NFL and NBC's Sunday NFL on NBC Sunday pregame shows. He jumped to Fox last spring, after NBC lost football rights.

"Cris has really evolved. His public persona has grown from -- I hesitate to call it "hayseed' -- to a very quick, nimble-witted and incisive style, but without the harshness. He can criticize without being mean," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Esiason's TV game plan was formulated in college, when the communications major interned at Baltimore's WJZ-TV with sports anchor Gayle Gardner (who later worked for ESPN and NBC). During the Bengals' off-season in 1991-92, he was the commentator on 20 USA cable World League football telecasts, produced by Ken Wolfe from MNF.

"We learned back then that Boomer had the charisma, the knowledge and the dedication. The combination is pretty overwhelming," Mr. Wolfe said.

"I've rarely seen a guy come off the field and do as well as Boomer did (in rehearsal), I don't see how he can miss," said Al Michaels, MNF announcer since 1986. "Boomer will say a lot of things that people will find amusing, thought-provoking and infuriating."

The leap into prime-time also took luck:

A talent coordinator impressed by Mr. Esiason on the Jim Thorpe Pro Sports Awards telecast thought Boomer would be a natural for Miss America. ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg endorsed the idea. The "buzz about Boomer" could bring more viewers (and ratings) to the pageant, he said.

Mr. Collinsworth's onstage ribbing of Fox Sports' Terry Bradshaw at an affiliates meeting in May inspired David Hill, Fox Broadcasting chairman and CEO, to give him a summer show.

"Bradshaw was just killing me (with insults) for like 10 minutes," Mr. Collinsworth said. "And when it was my turn, I said, "I'm sorry you feel that way, because I was going to come up here and say that you're proof positive that Hooked on Phonics really worked.' And the place went nuts."

In three long days here, Mr. Collinsworth taped three one-hour Guinness shows, introducing segments about a man who stacked 62 glasses on his chin, and another who walked a narrow beam between two hot air balloons floating at 18,000 feet.

"The show itself is terrific, and not because I'm on it. Some of the stuff will make you laugh so hard you can't stand it," he said. "If it was crummy, I'd say so. Well, probably I wouldn't." Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Roth said he was impressed by Mr. Collinsworth. "Television is a personality medium, and his personality comes flooding forth on the show."

Mr. Collinsworth has enjoyed the Guinness experience, except for the time away from his wife and four children, ages 3-8, in Fort Thomas.

His travel schedule gets worse during the NFL season, commuting to each coast weekly from September through January, for HBO's Thursday night show in New York and Fox's Sunday afternoon program in Los Angeles. He may reduce his WLW-AM schedule this fall from four nights to one night, a Wednesday show with Mr. Esiason from New York, he said.

"My life would be much easier if I lived here in California, but I like it in Cincinnati and my wife's family is there," Mr. Collinsworth said.

Family was a big factor in Mr. Esiason's football retirement. He wanted to spend more time on Long Island with his wife and two children, particularly Gunnar, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis five years ago.

"People see Boomer Esiason as the guy who has everything. They don't know about him losing his mother at an early age (5). Or his fight for his son's life," Mr. Collinsworth said.

"He was given a tremendous burden with cystic fibrosis, but it's something he can handle. I really believe he'll have as much to do with a cure for cystic fibrosis as anybody."

Mr. Esiason brings that same drive to TV. Although starting at the top, he can't wait to do more. He talked about "doing some serious programs" on ABC, perhaps contributing to 20 - 20 or Good Morning America. "I don't want it to start and end here," he said. NBC executives admitted they never considered Mr. Collinsworth as a possible Miss America host during his eight years at the network. Mr. Collinsworth knew he wasn't ready, anyway.

"Had I done the Miss America pageant my first year out of football, it would have been a very short tenure for me," Mr. Collinsworth said. "I've taken the slow road, which is a very good thing for me."

Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the Summer Press Tour this month, but you can still write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.