Gunnar Esiason flanked his father, Boomer, in Margiotta Hall at Hofstra University, not as his wingman, but as the healthy face of the United Healthcare Empire Challenge.
The All-Star football game, pitting the top senior players from New York City against the best of Long Island, exists because of Gunnar’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis when he was 2.
Gunnar grew up with the game, now in its 24th year. He started as the face of the game, became a ball boy and then participated as the winning quarterback for LI in the 2009 game. Now, he has been lauded for his efforts to help find a cure by traveling the country and educating folks through a speaker’s forum and lectures.
“I look at this All-Star Game and how it began and where it is now and it’s truly amazing,” he said. “I realize more and more what this game means to CF. And I also see the impact it has on all the players and the families. It’s really important.”
The 24th Annual United Healthcare Empire Challenge will be played at James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra at 7 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 and gates open at 4 p.m.
The game has had some exciting finishes over the years. The most recent may rank as one of the best. Long Island stopped New York City’s two-point conversion attempt with no time left on the clock to hold on for a stirring 28-27 win last year and halt the City’s two-game win streak. Before that, Long Island had won the previous five games, and holds a 13-8 advantage in the series, which has averaged more than 9,000 fans per game.
“I still remember the excitement of playing in the PAL All-Star Game when I was in high school at Central Islip under the lights,” said Boomer Esiason, the founder of the Empire Challenge. “And that’s what this is, a similar grassroots event that impacts the community and the players in more than one way. And it resonates with everyone because it’s a vehicle to help in the journey to find a cure for CF. Every person that attends the game, buys a ticket is indirectly helping in the fight.”
Gunnar, a 28-year-old graduate of Boston College who now travels the country to speak and lecture about CF, reminisced with his father about the way the game has evolved. The two went back and forth about their fondest memories.
The banter was heartwarming, in that strides have been made in the fight to find a cure. Gunnar, just sitting there smiling and laughing, is living proof.
Long Island stars. The LI offense will be led by Thorp Award winner Kevon Hall, a game-changing halfback from Roosevelt and Garden City’s electric halfback Trevor Yeboah-Kodie. The defense will be manned by Hansen Award winner Liam McIntyre, a rugged linebacker from Westhampton Beach, and Freeport linebacker Gerard Smikle. The game, which has hosted 46 players who went on to play in the NFL, will air on CBS Sports Network on June 29 at 3 p.m.