By Peter Schwartz
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The same thing happens every year, as my family and I settle into our seats just before the pregame ceremonies. The teams are introduced and a large American flag covers the field before the national anthem. Since we started taking him to this game a few years ago, my son Bradley will always lean over to my wife and I and say, “Someday, I’m going to play in this game!”
I expect the same Wednesday night at Hofstra University, when we attend the 22nd annual Empire Challenge, a football game between high school seniors from Long Island and New York City. The Boomer Esiason Foundation will donate proceeds from the event to support local high schools that need money for uniforms, helmets and other equipment such as tackling dummies.
The game also brings attention to a subject that is also near and dear to Esiason’s heart — cystic fibrosis. The former NFL star and Long Island native started his foundation after his son Gunnar was diagnosed with the disease at a young age. Gunnar would go on to play football at Friends Academy and then actually played in the 2009 Empire Challenge sporting his dad’s No. 7.
Esiason never expected his son to play in the game, let alone get the start.
“The way that the New York City kids reacted to him when they stood up before the snap of the first ball, walked across the line of scrimmage and gave him a big hug because all of the kids realized that maybe this game would not have taken place had it not been for his diagnosis of cystic fibrosis,” said Esiason, co-host of WFAN’s “Boomer & Carton” morning show.
Known affectionately as the “Boomer Bowl,” the event has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. It started as a game that only included Long Island kids, with a contest that pitted Nassau County against Suffolk County. After Nassau and Suffolk split the first two games, the event switched to the Long Island vs. New York City format in 1998. Long Island currently holds a 12-7 advantage.
It’s a game that the local high school football community circles on its calendar every year, and the interest in it continues to rise.
“I knew that once we got it going, presented it at a certain level and then put it on television that people would come and they would enjoy it,” Esiason said. “All of the players on Long Island and in the city wanted to get selected to come to this game. They start tweeting, ‘I’m in the Boomer game!'”
Between the selection process, the practices and the game-day atmosphere, the high school seniors are treated to what amounts to a professional-type experience. Every year, event organizers seem to outdo themselves right down to the amazing helmets and uniforms that are provided.
“I think all of these kids that do play in this game come away with really a good feeling about their high school career, the pride that they bring to the game and the fact that we treat them like they are professional players,” Esiason said.
The game has also been televised locally, but this year it goes national.
After many years of having the game on MSG, MSG Varsity and News 12 Varsity, this year’s Empire Challenge will be taped and aired July 1 on the CBS Sports Network. But there are thousands of people who attend the game in person every year, and it’s a wonderful event to experience from start to finish.
Wednesday’s kickoff at Shuart Stadium will be at 7 p.m., with the gates opening at 6 p.m. But the event starts much earlier than that. Beginning at 4 p.m., there’s a VIP tailgate party, as well as a fan fest in the parking lot with fun and games for kids, including the Jets fest.
And then comes the game, a matchup of young men who share the common bond of playing high school football. But not all of them will go in the same direction this fall.
Many kids in the game will go on to play various levels of college football. But there will also be some players who are still undecided on a college or haven’t received an offer from a school. Others know the Empire Challenge will be the final football game of their career. Regardless of their football future, all of their heart and passion will be on display in this final high school game.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Division I superstars going away to college or that this could be their last high school football game,” Esiason said. “All that matters to me is that they get to keep a memory that will last a lifetime.”
Before playing at the University of Maryland and then in the NFL for the Bengals, Jets and Cardinals, Esiason was a star quarterback at East Islip High School on Long Island. In fact, he played in a contest similar to the Empire Challenge following his senior season.
“I think it’s one of the reasons why this game means so much to me, because I do remember my own high school all-star game way back in 1979, and that was when we had a North-South game just in Suffolk County,” Esiason said. “We played that game at Central Islip High School under the lights on a Friday night, and it was the coolest thing that I had ever been a part of.”
Many of the kids who will play in this year’s Empire Challenge have attended the game in prior years hoping and dreaming that one year it will be their turn to represent either Long Island or New York City. My son Bradley has that same dream. He currently plays youth football on Long Island and hopes to continue playing in middle school and then in high school.
My wife and I always tell him to dream big, so you never know. Maybe one day Bradley will play in this game. That’s what the Empire Challenge has become: a goal for every kid who plays football on Long Island and in New York City. It’s also a great event that raises money for some very important causes, and that alone is a reason to go to Hofstra on Wednesday night.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @EmpireChallenge and the Boomer Esiason foundation @cysticfibrosis.