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SportsColumnistsGregg Sarra

Empire Challenge has grown to epic heights

Team Long Island defensive end Aaron Thompson #90

Team Long Island defensive end Aaron Thompson #90 (Deer Park High School) participates in a drill during an Empire Challenge football practice at Shuart Stadium. (June 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

You have to love football in June!

Especially when 100 of New York's finest senior football players will grace the turf at Shuart Stadium at Hofstra in a battle for pride and bragging rights in the metropolitan area.

The 17th Empire Challenge, pitting the top senior all-stars from New York against the best from Long Island, gets under way at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast live on Cablevision's MSG Varsity IO Channel 14. It will also be streamed live on MSG

The exponential growth of this event has helped the Boomer Esiason Foundation raise well over a million dollars. It's football, it's community and it's for all the right reasons.

From the ticket sales, to the vendors, the corporate sponsors and fan support, the game has grown in popularity and become the premier football all-star game in the country.

"It's such a gratifying event because I get the chance to be around the game of football and raise money for a wonderful cause," said Pete Blieberg, the game coordinator, who also serves as the athletic director of all Sachem schools. "We've seen tremendous growth over the years. It's hard to believe we're in our 17th year. It's absolutely amazing."

This event was the brainchild of Esiason, an outstanding athlete at East Islip, the University of Maryland and ultimately as a quarterback in the National Football League. But the true measure of this man can be found in his way of giving. He has never forgotten his roots, never had trouble finding his way back home and for that the Long Island community should be thankful.

What should never be taken for granted is how Esiason, with all of his fame and fortune, elected to make finding the cure for cystic fibrosis his own personal battle. When he and his wife Cheryl learned that their only son Gunnar was afflicted with the disease, they could have take care of Gunnar and only Gunnar.

Instead they chose to take the fight for everyone. He chose to take the lead in finding a cure for the disease and make it personal. His march against cystic fibrosis and creating the awareness to raise funds to find the cure has gone across the country and abroad. It's really incredible how one man can delve into something and put his heart and soul into it and make it work.

Esiason may be at the forefront of this campaign. But he's also behind the scenes and right in the middle of everything that happens in his Foundation and all the events that make it so special.

The infectious smile, the wit, the charm make him bigger than life. Esiason is all that. But what separates him from most is he is so unselfish. As much as he is the point person for everything, he also drives the sponsorship.

Of course there are countless volunteers that help with the big events, including the Booming Celebration at the Waldorf Astoria in February, the golf outing on the North Shore of Long Island in the late spring, the football game, a skeet shooting contest in Kentucky, a 10k race in July called Run To Breathe in Central Park, and a Costa Rica bill fishing tournament, just to name a few.

It was only three years ago that Gunnar Esiason of Friends Academy donned No. 7 and took the field in the Empire Challenge. The poster child of this event played quarterback for Long Island and directed the game's first touchdown drive.

"That put everything in perspective," Blieberg said. "Gunnar is the sole reason why his father became so heavily involved in this fight against cystic fibrosis."

Esiason has funded the construction of wings on hospitals in Cincinnati and at Columbia University. He has escalated the awareness of cystic fibrosis and he's made it more than one man's campaign.

If you want to know more about the Boomer Esiason Foundation and get involved in any of the events, go to

Who wouldn't want to be on Esiason's team?

New York Sports