The Empire Challenge: Fight for Cystic Fibrosis
Hempstead, NY — Gunnar Esiason, the son of Boomer Esiason, retired NFL quarterback and co-host of WFAN’s “Boomer & Carton” radio program, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis when he was 3 years old. Back in 1989, when Boomer was quarterbacking the 8-8 Cincinnati Bengals, a 24 year old with CF was unheard of, because it is an incurable respiratory disease, but Gunnar has beaten the odds.
“At that time the average age was about 19 for kids with CF and now it’s closer to 40 because of all the things we have been able to accomplish the last 20 years,” said Boomer, a proud father of two who both graduated from Boston College.
“[It] can have much more severe downward effects later on in life and even at a young age [than other pulmonary diseases],” said pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Brian Bezack, DO, FAAP, who is in private practice in Commack.
The Empire Challenge, a high school all-star football game, was Boomer’s creation 20 years ago, merging two of his passions: football and the Boomer Esiason Foundation.
“I remember my all-star game back in 1979 or ’78, I believe it was,” remarked Boomer, continuing, “It was just a North/South Suffolk County all-star game and if those memories live with me, you can imagine the memories that are made, here at Hofstra’s field, can do for these players moving forward,” said Boomer, who often admits on-air that he has a poor memory.
In the Empire Challenge’s first two installments in 1996 and 1997, the game was between Nassau County and Suffolk County all-stars, but it became Long Island versus New York City all-stars in ’98, when an influx of sponsors, like NFL’s New York Jets, for which Esiason played quarterback for 3 seasons, and NHL’s New York Islanders, who’s former home at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is down the block from the “Boomer Bowl’s” home turf, became involved.
Since the Boomer Esiason Foundation’s inception in 1994, when Gunnar was diagnosed with CF, it has raised over $100 million to support research toward a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, as well as programs benefiting the CF community. Many people do not realize, though, that Boomer was involved in Cystic Fibrosis fundraising about 4 and a half years before Gunnar was even born.
“It was a little bit of destiny and irony,” Boomer said. The current CBS Sports “NFL Today” analyst first heard about the disease in 1989 at an awards dinner where he received the “Quarterback of the Year” honor in Washington, D.C. “There was a charity that was attached to it. I had no idea; I was clueless at the time. I was 25 years old; I had no idea what the hell was going on in the world,” Boomer said, chuckling. However, young, blonde Boomer was inspired by sportswriter Frank Deford’s speech about Cystic Fibrosis, which took the life of his 8-year-old daughter Alexandra. A crying Boomer vowed to get involved. “Just don’t show up and be a celebrity; really get involved,” Boomer recalls Deford’s advice to him, when the stud QB approached the sportswriter about putting his “heart and soul” into the fight for Cystic Fibrosis. Boomer took that advice, getting his Bengals teammates involved in the surrounding communities in Cincinnati.
Today, Gunnar keeps himself as busy as he can. He works for Nestlé and he coaches high school football and hockey on Long Island. However, CF holds him back a little bit. Gunnar has overcome adversity and embarrassment, forced to wear a mask on the sidelines on some days.
“He’s really getting the most out of life,” said Gunnar’s 54-year-old father. “He’s living, breathing proof that if you take care of yourself, you can fight the disease,” Boomer said, adding, “You’re never going to beat it, but at the end of the day, you want to live with it and you want to be able to be a productive part of society, and I can happily and proudly say that exactly what he is.”
Gunnar is also immersed in the Boomer Esiason Foundation, handling the Empire Challenge social media accounts. He also interacts with people online, through a blog, sponsored by the foundation. Gunnar serves as an inspiration for those who suffer with Cystic Fibrosis, while he deals with his own battle. One blog post is an instructional video titled “Own Your Feeding Tube with Gunnar Esiason,” where he teaches one how to feed oneself. Boomer said his son independently feeds himself about 3,500 calories while he is sleeping at night.
Meanwhile, the 20th Annual Empire Challenge was a major success, drawing a record crowd that persisted through two lightning delays and torrential rain at James M. Shuart Stadium on the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, and witnessed Long Island’s 12th Empire Challenge victory over New York City and its 5th straight win with a score of 34-27.
“It’s 20 years; it’s amazing,” pronounced Boomer Esiason.