It is appropriate that the UnitedHealthcare Empire Challenge — a contest that pits the top high school football talents from New York City against their peers from Long Island on Tuesday night at Hofstra’s James H. Shuart Stadium — will take place two days after Father’s Day. The only reason this all-star contest is a reality is because of a father’s endless love and tireless support for his son.
“I was traded to the Jets in 1993 and at that point of time — I’ll never forget it — it was May of 1993 and my son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis,” former Jets QB Boomer Esiason told me this week inside a Hofstra locker room. “I hadn’t even put the Jet uniform on yet and I was contemplating retirement. That’s how significant a diagnosis like that can impact a parent. Any parent who has a special-needs child I’m sure would tell you the same thing.”
Leaving a professional football career and ceasing to work would have been understandable. For a father to see his son in pain brings about a feeling that is indescribable. Here is a child you’re supposed to protect and you feel so helpless that it can bring the strongest of men to his knees.
But thankfully “retirement” was never in the cards for Boom. With Gunnar just 2 and life expectancy for those diagnosed with CF set at 18, Esiason decided to lead the fight.
“Cooler heads prevail, and you realize you’re playing quarterback for a New York franchise and it’s the media capital of the world,” he said. “Why not support that and why not put a name and face to a disease that not many people would know anything about?”
In October 1993, Boomer and Gunnar took to the cover of Sports Illustrated and told the nation their story. Then in 1994 Esiason launched the Boomer Esiason Foundation to improve the quality of life for those affected by cystic fibrosis while providing financial support for research aimed at finding a cure.
“Well, our foundation is close to raising $100 million dollars over the last 17 years now. Not a lot of that comes from this football game because we have to put a lot back into this game to make it what it is,” Esiason said while both the New York City and Long Island squads waited out a rainstorm that would eventually force the cancellation of a pair of pregame practices.
“But at the end of the day, what I love about football is it is a game that has afforded me fame and fortune coupled with the fact that I’m trying to raise money for the fight against cystic fibrosis to save my son’s life.”
Gunnar, now a student at Boston College, along with some 30,000 children and adults in the U.S. alone battle CF daily. It’s a life-threatening, genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive systems, and battling infections is extremely tough.
“It’s been a labor of love, it’s been an inspirational fight, and it’s also really opened my eyes to how many wonderful and warm people there are not only in the greater New York area but all around the country who support our fight against cystic fibrosis,” said Esiason.
The annual all-star clash has been a staple of the foundation for years for Esiason, who attended East Islip High School and went to Maryland before throwing for 37,920 yards and 247 TDs over his 14-year professional career.
“In 1994 when I decided to do that here, I figured I would take it to another level and we initially started with Nassau and Suffolk counties. That was very successful and I think the guys really enjoyed it, but then when I opened it up to New York City, it really became intense.
“The rivalry has grown over the years, but I think there is a healthy respect amongst the players. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood there were pretty good football players here in the New York area — they’re not just confined to Ohio, California, Florida and Texas.”
The 2011 UnitedHealthcare Empire Challenge will serve as a fundraising benefit for the Boomer Esiason Foundation, the Gunnar H. Esiason Endowment at Hofstra, and local youth football programs. New York City has captured three of the past four meetings, including a 15-10 triumph in 2010.
“These things are hard to put on and you have so many moving parts. If you don’t have the underwriting for it, then you can’t do it,” Esiason said. “The great thing about this is each and every year I really think we give 100 guys a whole new set of memories to take with them for the rest of their lives. We like to treat them like they’re professional football players here. We want to make sure they have a great experience and get a chance to meet the other players they played against.”
More special memories are on the way, but Esiason’s all-time favorite will never be topped. It came in 2009 when Gunnar, who took close to 100 pills a day growing up and had his father repeatedly pound his back to break up mucus that had the potential to block lungs and other passageways, actually played quarterback for the Long Island team.
“My son participated in it two years ago. Talk about a heart-warming moment,” Boom said. “I never expected that and it was a nice little surprise when the coaches told me they wanted Gunnar to take the first snap. And then to watch the New York City kids give him a big hug before the game even started really gave you chills. So that’s what this game is all about.”
Gunnar Esiason is 20 and the life expectancy of those affected with CF has increased to 37. His 50-year-old father has stated on numerous occasions that he wants his son to outlive him, but one hopes that both will be with us for a long time. The mission isn’t accomplished and Boomer Esiason never fit that role of the retiring type.
Tags: Boomer Esiason, Gunnar Esiason, Hofstra University, UnitedHealthcare Empire Challenge
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