By Peter Schwartz
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The celebration was on in the west stands of Shuart Stadium.
That’s where the New York City fans were sitting … check that … standing after a long Hail Mary pass by Long Island quarterback Mike Catanese fell incomplete on the final play of the game.
After five straight losses, New York City stopped the bleeding with a dramatic 39-34 win over Long Island in the 21st annual United Healthcare Empire Challenge, an all-star game of high school seniors to benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation and the fight against cystic fibrosis.
For the record, the winning score was a 19-yard touchdown pass from Sharif Harris-Legree to Jordan Hannah on 4th and 9 with 22 seconds left. Harris-Legree, from Grand Street Campus, was the game’s MVP throwing for an Empire Challenge-record 371 yards and three touchdowns in front of a crowd of 7,145 at Hofstra University.
Catanese, meanwhile, was no slouch for Long Island. The Carey star had put Long Island up 34-33 with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Infinite Tucker of Huntington with 1:46 to go. Catanese was the Long Island player of the game after throwing for 163 yards and a touchdown to go along with 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Despite the loss, Long Island still leads the all-time series 12-7. The Empire Challenge began in 1996 as the “Long Island Heroes Bowl,” with Suffolk County and Nassau County splitting two games. Long Island has won six of the last eight against New York City.
But at the end of the day, the final score, any of the stats from the game, and the all-time series are far from what’s important about this great event.
The evening was about all of those terrific players getting one last chance to participate in a high school football game, but more importantly the event raised money for a scholarship at Hofstra, high school athletic programs, tickets provided to local youth groups, and the cystic fibrosis community.
Most of you know by now that former NFL quarterback and WFAN morning show co-host Boomer Esiason started his foundation in 1993 after his son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Along with his wife, Cheryl, Boomer has been committed to supporting the cystic fibrosis community while pushing for advances in research to find a cure.
The game was a thriller, but the Empire Challenge is more than just the battle between Long Island and New York City.
It’s a massive undertaking by the Boomer Esiason Foundation that started long before the kickoff with a huge tailgate party in the parking lot. There was plenty of fun for the kids with the “Jets Fest” and the Islanders bounce house. Other sponsors had booths with giveaways, including the Pinstripe Bowl, Johnsonville Sausage, Gatorade and Hurricane Wings, which also catered a VIP tailgate area with food and drinks.
With the funds raised by the Empire Challenge, as well as the organization’s other efforts, the Boomer Esiason Foundation works to ensure that:
1. Researchers and scientists have the resources to expand and accelerate their efforts.
2. Doctors and caregivers have access to innovative and effective treatments.
3. People from all walks of life are educated.
4. Those directly affected by cystic fibrosis are encouraged and empowered to understand the disease and take active roles in combating it.
5. Students and hospital staffs are provided with financial resources and educational tools to prepare for life’s challenges.
The Empire Challenge has become one of the most anticipated and popular events on the local high school sports calendar. It’s a game that the players attend as a fan and hope to be able to play in. It’s an event that fans of all ages can enjoy and my family is a perfect example of that.
It’s an opportunity for the local football community to come together, a chance for kids to have some fun and take home some great giveaways like bobbleheads, sunglasses, and pins, and the game features some of the brightest football players in our area.
You can watch a replay of the Empire Challenge at http://www.msgvarsity.com with telecasts also scheduled for MSG Network on July 10 at 10 a.m. and MSG Plus on July 11 at 4 p.m.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the Boomer Esiason Foundation @cysticfibrosis