As the rain that drove the Long Island team into the old Jets' bubble at Hofstra for Saturday's Empire Challenge practice session fell, Boomer Esiason's face lit up like a ray of sunshine.
He was standing outside Shuart Stadium, reflecting on all that has transpired since he helped start the annual all-star football game that began as the Nassau vs. Suffolk Heroes Bowl in 1996 and has evolved into the popular Long Island vs. New York City format. The 20th edition of what is commonly known as the Boomer Bowl is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Hofstra.
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Esiason, the former East Islip, Maryland, Cincinnati Bengal and Jets star quarterback, launched the game after his son, Gunnar Esiason, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. "He had been diagnosed in '93 and I wanted to do something to raise money and awareness," Esiason said. "I also wanted to do something for high school football in the area. Bringing in New York City after the first two years helped."
Gunnar, 23, a Boston College graduate who works for the Boomer Esiason Foundation which funds research to find a cure for CF, defied odds by becoming a high school quarterback at Friends Academy. Gunnar created an unforgettable moment in the 2010 Empire Challenge when he played in the opening offensive series. On his second play, he handed off to Hempstead's Terrell Williams, who dashed 87 yards for a touchdown.
More memorable, however, was the gesture of the entire New York City defense, which charged across the line of scrimmage before the opening snap to embrace Gunnar. That moment is the cover photo of this year's program.
"I never thought for a moment that my son would get to play in the game," Boomer said. "For me, that was the cherry on top. He was the reason and the impetus for the game."
Boomer said he feels "a sense of pride" about the game, which annually draws about 10,000 fans to Hofstra's Shuart Stadium, and is pleased so many people get to share in the big-time experience he and the game's staff provide. "I have gotten to watch over 3,000 players, coaches and administrators in this game," he marveled, "and I get the thanks. What more could I ask for?"
United Health Care Empire Challenge, an All-star football game featuring the best high school seniors from Long Island against the best from New York City. Proceeds from the 20th annual game benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation, the Gunnar H. Esiason Scholarship Fund at Hofstra University, and local youth football programs.
Tuesday at 7 p.m. Gates open at 6 p.m.
Hofstra University's Shuart Stadium.
Parking is free, but limited. Fans may also park at Nassau Coliseum for S15
Available at stadium ticket booths on game day beginning at 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person.
MSG and MSG+. Live and tape delay. Check local listings.
FanFest is from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the main parking lot near the entrance to the stadium. FanFest is free and is an interactive theme park with inflatable rides and games.
Long Island leads the series 11-6. 13 of the 19 games have been decided by less than 10 points.
Long Island won, 24-18.