Most athletes take the ability to breathe clearly for granted. I have a cough and sinus congestion as I write up this blog post and I was just thinking that I should probably give up my Soul Cycle seat for tomorrow morning. The discomfort from the cold largely stems from the fact that I cant take a full breath without "coughing up a lung." Now imagine feeling like that every day of your life because that is what it is like to live with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Gunnar Esiason is the featured guest on the podcast for Episode 69 and he was diagnosed with CF at 2 years old.
Gunnar is a recent graduate of Boston College, host of the "Making it Matter" podcast, and is an Advocate for the Boomer Esiason Foundation. At this point you've probably made the connection that Gunnar's Dad is former NFL quarterback, Boomer Esiason. In the beginning of our interview, Gunnar teaches us about Cystic Fibrosis, which is a terminal genetic illness that effects the respiratory system and digestive track. Gunnar says CF is not a cookie cutter disease, which means severity and symptoms can vary significantly. Like concussions, CF is an invisible illness because those affected by it more often than not look healthy.
Gunnar played two of the more violent sports growing up, which were ice hockey and football. During our conversation he discusses the countless obstacles athletes with CF face, especially in such physically demanding sports. For starters, breathing is difficult and is often compared to breathing through a straw. Gunnar talks about the struggle to keep up with his teammates on longer, more endurance focused activities. Another hurdle is bodyweight or lack there of. Gunnar says that he has been considered underweight by American standards his whole life and discusses the frustrations of trying to put on weight and muscle mass. Later on in the episode we talk about the recent addition of a feeding tube to his routine and how that has been a tremendous help in gaining and keeping on weight. Gunnar now tries to break down the stigma surrounding feeding tubes because it has been a game-changer for him. Despite these obstacles Gunnar never wanted to be treated any differently than his teammates nor did he want to use them as an excuse not to participate. He is grateful for his coaches and teammates knack for knowing when to push him and when to pull him back in both practice and games.
Exercise and sports participation is extremely important for people with CF because they help to clear the lungs better than any alternative treatment. Like many things associated with the illness, exercise and sports can also be a doubled-edged sword due to the increased risk of infection. Anyone who has smelled a hockey bag knows what I'm talking about. During the interview Gunnar takes us through some of the many setbacks he faced throughout his athletic career. One of the more serious setbacks came when he contracted mono during the summer between his junior and senior year of high school. He was sick for two months, lost his job as starting QB, and when he returned, it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t fit to play and still wasn’t well. Gunnar had to miss his entire senior football season to have a shot at playing hockey in the winter. This was devastating to him at the time, but by exuding positive energy and keeping his sights set on hockey, he ultimately found joy in seeing his friends succeed on the field.
Gunnar also talks about a couple other setbacks including coughing up blood during a football practice and two bouts with pneumonia in college, which have since hindered his athletic performance. He stresses the importance of having a good balance with athletic activity and rest because you can easily run yourself into the ground. I think this is a great message for all athletes, listen to your body and trust your gut! Gunnar also talked about the ways he protects his health such as wearing a surgical mask to prevent infections and avoiding situations with poor air quality (ex. second hand smoke).
Hockey is still a huge part of Gunnar's life as both an athlete and coach. Like most of my hockey guests, I asked about his opinion on fighting in hockey. Gunnar believes fighting and the physicality of the sport should remain, stating that fear is a part of the game. These are similar to my thoughts on the sport of football. However, Gunnar emphasizes the importance of hitting properly. He says that there is a lot of training for coaches especially in regard to concussions. During this episode Gunnar talks about how he doesn't agree with USA Hockey's checking ban until kids reach the age of 13 (bantam level). He feels it is important to teach proper ways to hit and take a hit at a young age and provides an example of an instance when he broke his wrist because he didn't know how to take a hit when he was young.
Being an english major at Boston College, the creation of the Gunnar Esiason blog and Making it Matter podcast was a natural transition. He decided to create this blog to use some of his experiences as an educational platform for people with cystic fibrosis, or their families, looking for some sort of guidance. Due to concerns of spreading infections, individuals with CF can not interact with one another, so the creation of the blog and podcast with his co-host Julia Rae serves as a platform for them to interact. Their hope is to prove to listeners that kids with CF can grow up to live long, fulfilling and normal lives. The slogan of the podcast is to "Own It." To Gunnar, this means people with CF need to share their stories with the world, become their own advocate and for the CF community so people can identify with them, because there are only about 30,000 patients in the world.