For nearly all of the 100 or so players on the Long Island and New York City teams, Wednesday night's Empire Challenge all-star football game is the final one of their senior years. For middle linebacker Marc Coles of Floyd, it will be the first.
"I can't wait. I'm honored to be accepted to play. This is a great opportunity to see how my speed is, to get back on the field and start hitting again," said Coles, a Newsday first-team All-Long Island selection as a junior in 2012 who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during a 7-on-7 competition last July and was sidelined for the entire season.
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"After the surgery [in August], I was torn apart not being able to play my senior season. I was looking forward to getting back to the LIC," said Coles, who made 99 tackles, 64 solo, in helping the Colonials win the Long Island Class I crown in 2012. Floyd was eliminated in the playoffs last fall by eventual L.I. champion Sachem North. "It was a heartbreaker for me, my family, my coach and my team. When we lost a game, it hurt because there was nothing I could do. Even when we won, I couldn't contribute. I'd celebrate but it wasn't the same on the sidelines. It wasn't like actually playing and helping my team win."
But beginning Wednesday night at 7:30 at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium, Coles will get a chance to finally take the field in earnest in the 19th edition of this all-star contest whose proceeds benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which supports cystic fibrosis research. Empire Challenge game coordinator Pete Blieberg, athletic director at Sachem North, informed Coles in November that he would be named to the L.I. squad. "I told him, 'Don't rush back.' You're on the team, you earned it," Blieberg said. "He's still one of the best football players on Long Island."
The "Boomer Game" will be the closing act on a distinguished high school career that also included second-team All-Long Island honors as a sophomore. Coles had drawn recruiting interest from Division I Stony Brook before his injury but now will relaunch his career beginning this fall at Nassau CC. "Not everyone gets the opportunity to play college football. Hopefully I'll have a good ride," said Coles, who said he "definitely" wants to prove he can play Division I football after Nassau CC. "This is where I'm supposed to be. This is the level I should be playing at."
Coles said he now measures 6-1 and 220 pounds, admitting he ballooned to "about 235" in the fall because he "couldn't get out of bed" to work out seriously until November, when he began rebuilding his upper body. Beginning in January, he began running to get his speed back. "I'm actually a little bit faster -- a 4.8 40 now -- and my upper body is back to the way it was," the rugged Coles said. "This whole experience makes me cherish my time in the game of football."
Coles, who will share the middle linebacker spot with Levar Butts of Huntington, has had some moderately solid hits in practice this week but said with a smile, "There's nothing like making a real tackle in a game. I can't wait."
Long Island's defensive coordinator, Leif Shay (Riverhead), anticipates that moment, too. "Looking at him, you'd never know he was hurt," Shay said. "He's got a year's worth of frustration. When the lights come on, he's going to light somebody up."