Pete Blieberg can’t help but marvel at the impact the Empire Challenge has had on the lives of high school football players and those living with cystic fibrosis.
Blieberg, the game’s coordinator, has been involved with the all-star game ever since former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason hatched the idea for a game that celebrated local football stars and helped a worthy cause.
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“I think the game has grossed over $2 million just in the game itself in the fight against cystic fibrosis,” Blieberg said. “Boomer has raised over $100 million. We’ve done our little part, and we’re proud of that fact.”
Esiason’s son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with CF in 1993, influencing his vision for the Empire Challenge. The game began as the Nassau vs. Suffolk Heroes Bowl in 1996 and has evolved into a matchup of Long Island’s and New York City’s top graduating seniors. The 21st edition is Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Hof stra’s Shuart Stadium.
As the game has grown in scale, Blieberg’s goal has been to help the athletes feel like stars. The locker rooms are dressed up NFL-style, the uniforms and helmets are stylish, and near-capacity crowds give the game an exciting atmosphere.
“If you get a good crowd of 12,000 to 13,000 in there, it looks like it’s full,” Blieberg said. “It really looks good the night of the game.”
Although there are modified rules — no blitzing, for example — no one takes the game lightly. Blieberg said there’s plenty of motivation for the athletes to give full effort, unlike the NFL’s Pro Bowl.
“They’re playing for pride,” he said. “They’re playing for Long Island. They’re playing for New York City.”
Long Island has won five straight games and has the firepower to make it six in a row. Quick wide receivers, shifty running backs and strong-armed quarterbacks will make its offense a handful.