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Football For a Cause: Looking Ahead to the United Healthcare Empire Challenge

by Alex Kuhlke | Posted on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

On Wednesday June 25th, high school football players from Long Island and New York City will go head-to-head as they compete in the 19th Annual United Healthcare Empire Challenge. Established in 1996, the Empire Challenge benefits the Boomer Esiason Foundation- an organization founded to fight cystic fibrosis. Founded by former-famed NFL player Boomer Esiason (whose son Gunnar was born with cystic fibrosis), the Boomer Esiason Foundation expresses their mission statement as follows: “The Boomer Esiason Foundation is a dynamic partnership of leaders in the medical and business communities joining with a committed core of volunteers to heighten awareness, education and quality of life for those affected by cystic fibrosis, while providing financial support to research aimed at finding a cure.”

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The Boomer Esiason Foundation holds numerous fundraising events each year to benefit the organization, ultimately fighting for their cause, the United Healthcare Empire Challenge, of course, being one of them. Held each year at the James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University on Long Island, this Wednesday, Hofstra will also play host for this special football game. The all-star squads each consist of fifty players, all of whom were personally selected by ten participating coaches, four administrators and a game coordinator.

Boomer and Gunnar Esiason

Boomer and Gunnar Esiason

I was able to sit in on weekend practices for both Team Long Island and Team New York City, where it became very clear that the group of athletes in participation were far from ordinary. I saw smiles everywhere I looked; I even heard about an event the night before where the offensive lines of each squad competed in a chicken wing eating competition, hosted by one of the Empire Challenge’s sponsors, Hurricane Grill & Wings! But during the practices, I saw nothing but hard work, intense focus, professional behavior and most-prominently, camaraderie. The practices were run with positive encouragement on both sides, leading all players to rise to the occasion. The practices possessed a very professional atmosphere, both by how they were run and also by how all participated. Organized, clean plays were being executed, exemplifying the high-level skill one can expect to see when watching Wednesday’s game.

The View from New York City- Under the direction of head coach Shawn O’Connor from Lincoln High School, Team NYC is comprised of players from all five boroughs. I was able to speak with nineteen-year-old Brooklyn native Khendell Puryear who is a cornerback for team NYC. Puryear spoke about how working hard every day and playing as a team player helped him to secure a spot on the roster for Team NYC. Puryear credited his being selected to the fact that his team at Lincoln High School secured two NYC titles in three years. Additionally, he was selected for All Conference, All Borough, All City, All State, MSG Varsity’s All Metro Team and was also recognized as a Top 15 player for New York State by Fox News/ as a cornerback.

Puryear expressed, “It is an honor to play in this game and have a chance to represent New York. It’s not just about NYC, it’s about New York because we all play as one team.” He said that being a part of the Empire Challenge was “unforgettable so far,” mentioning how all of the players have become friends, are having a great time and are very happy. He also equated the festivities they’ve been a part of to a “smaller Superbowl atmosphere,” and joked that the only way they could have more fun would be if a roller coaster was put on the field. When asked about any advantages Team NYC has over Team Long Island, Puryear replied, “One thing is that a lot of us played youth ball together; many of us are close off the field, and speed and heart is one thing we have. Long Island kids are much bigger, but we are faster. I believe it will take more than a few hits to break us because we will be playing for our city, so we will be dishing out just as much or even more.” Khendell Puryear will be playing football next year at Central Connecticut State University.

The View from Long Island-Team Long Island features players from both Nassau and Suffolk County and is led by head coach Rick Punzone from Babylon High School. Seventeen-year-old quarterback Ray Catapano also took some time to speak with me. In addition to playing quarterback on Wednesday from Team Long Island, Catapano plays quarterback for his squad at Carey High School, and said he was given the opportunity to represent Long Island in the Empire Challenge by being named First Team All-Long Island. He told me, “It means a lot to me to be chosen for this team, and to represent all of Long Island is a true honor.” Catapano said that being a part of the Empire Challenge this year “has been awesome.”

He mentioned that in the past two weeks of practice the team has all become friends and better football players, too.  “This gives you a feel of what college football is like because everyone on the field is an All Star,” Catapano said.  The treatment the players have been getting is unbelievable. Catapano added,“I have to give a huge credit to the staff that we have; they are doing an unbelievable job with everything.” When asked about any advantages Team Long Island has over Team NYC, he told me that Team Long Island “is full of kids who want to compete and get better every day. There is no slacking off at practice. Everything we do is 100%- whether it’s special teams or we are scrimmaging, everyone is pushing each other to get better and prepare for Wednesday night.” Ray Catapano will be playing football next year at Southern Connecticut University.

The passion from these players alone is quite exemplary of the caliber of game expected on Wednesday. Expect to see a lot of heart, a lot of talent and a lot of drive. I can think of no better athletes to represent not only New York City and Long Island, but also the Boomer Esiason Foundation’s cause.

Once again, the game will be held at the James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University in Uniondale, New York on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. The tailgate party begins at 4:00pm, while kickoff is at 7:30pm. The game will be aired on MSG Varsity Network, MSG Network, and MSG Plus.


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