In a thrilling contest that pitted the best high school football players from Long Island against their counterparts from New York City, the Long Islanders earned a 17-14 victory Tuesday night in the 16th annual UnitedHealthcare Empire Challenge All-Star Game.
High school seniors, as well as 11,992 spectators, traveled to James M. Shuart Stadium on the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead to participate in the festivities. Renowned broadcaster Kenny Albert, high school sports reporter Mike Quick and New York Jets Hall of Famer Marty Lyons called the first-ever live broadcast of the game on MSG Varsity.
The game supports the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which benefits the fight against cystic fibrosis. Esiason, a former New York Jets quarterback, started the game in 1996 as a way to raise money for cystic fibrosis research and aid youth football in the NY metro area.
“While the Empire Challenge recognizes the best high school football players, the funds raised not only help fund cystic fibrosis research but also support local youth sports programs to help get kids active—and start them on a path to a lifetime of physical activity and wellness,” said Bill Golden, chief executive officer of UnitedHealthcare New York.
This year’s sponsors—UnitedHealthcare, Outback Steakhouse, the New York Jets, USA Football, Under Armour, Xenith and the New York Organ Donor Network—made the event possible. LI now leads the all-time series, 8-6.
LI opened the scoring of its first possession of the game, with a seven play, 61-yard drive. Quarterback Tyler Heuer (Oceanside) found wide receiver Seiddrik Ervin (Lawrence) on a 26-yard touchdown pass to give LI an early 7-0.
Kicker Tim Wienclaw (Kellenberg) added a 26-yard field goal, which extended LI’s lead to 10-0 after one quarter.
LI’s offense looked good early. In last year’s game, LI quarterbacks passed for only 56 total yards. However, this year LI had 57 yards passing in the first quarter alone.
NYC struggled offensively in the first quarter, but the momentum shifted their way in the second.
Right before the end of the half, NYC drove 79 yards in seven plays, capped off by a leaping 26-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Abraham Ocasio (Cardinal Hayes) from quarterback Jordan Paul (New Utrecht). With this drive, NYC cut LI’s lead to 10-7 at halftime.
From the end of first quarter through the end of third, NYC’s offense was unstoppable, outgaining LI by 157 total yards. NYC took a 14-10 lead on a six-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Terrel Hunt (Christ the King) to tight end James Barry (Poly Prep).
In a major turning point with 6:30 left in the game, NYC was faced with a fourth-and-one from LI’s 46-yard line. Rather than punt, NYC opted to go for it. LI linebacker Mike Kozlakowski (Lynbrook) broke through the line and made a big stop in the backfield to cause a turnover on downs.
As the clock ticked down, LI drove down the field and was helped by a timely pass interference call against NYC linebacker Andrew Justice (Abraham Lincoln), placing the ball on the two-yard line. On the ensuing play, Heuer dove into the endzone to put LI back on top, 17-14.
NYC had a chance with 29.9 seconds left. After two first down conversions, kicker Michael Marando (Xaverian) came out to attempt a 52-yard field goal to tie the game.
“That’s got a chance,” said LI head coach Russ Cellan (Freeport) as the final kick went up.
However, the kick fell short, giving LI the victory.
Following the game, Esiason presented the MVP trophy to LI’s Kozlakowski, who recorded six tackles, two sacks and a pass defended. NYC’s Paul earned the Player of the Game after an 8-of-12, 114 yard, one touchdown performance.
“It’s my last high school game,” said Kozlakowski. “The great cause this game is for, everyone coming out, and the atmosphere just really add on to it. To have this [MVP award] means a lot to me,” he said.
“When you can coach and be a part of a game like this with two very talented groups of high school players and you come out on top—and on top of that you’re raising money for a great fund like the cystic fibrosis foundation—it’s just an honor, and it just doesn’t get any better,” said Cellan.
To date, the Boomer Esiason Foundation has raised over $80 million to battle cystic fibrosis.
“The support these companies have provided to the Boomer Esiason Foundation is a great example of how corporate America can make an impact in bettering the communities where employees work and live,” said Esiason. “Their support for the Foundation will help improve the lives of all those afflicted with cystic fibrosis.”
For more information on the foundation, visit www.esiason.org.