Weighing the Cost: How the death of a high school football player shook a community
- The effect of a stunning death on two New York high school football programs was both surreal and sobering, as the community grappled with the risks and rewards of the game in the wake of a tragic accident.
In Lasting Impact: One Team, One Season. What Happens When Our Sons Play Football, Kostya Kennedy embeds himself in a high school football program for an entire season to find out the consequences of letting your kid play football. The following is an excerpt from the book, which is now available everywhere books are sold.
Michael Cascio, a 5' 10", 212-pound senior, was standing on the sideline before New Rochelle (N.Y.) High's Thursday-night football game at Ossining. In his first year on varsity Cascio had impressed the coaching staff, persevering through a thumb injury and learning the blocking schemes quickly enough that he was rotating in regularly at guard. Cascio was not, however, permitted to dress for this game. He was on the sideline wearing his jersey and ordinary pants.
"It was like two weeks ago, and when I got home from practice that night, I was pretty foggy, like dreaming almost," Cascio was saying. "My mother was looking at me, and she asked, 'Are you hungry?' I said no, but then a few minutes later I realized I was standing there holding the fridge door open and looking around inside. Then my mom said, 'I'll make you hot dogs.' But I was like, 'No, thanks, I don't want any.' But then a little while after that I was standing at the stove cooking hot dogs. It's like I kept forgetting things. I didn't know what I had said, or what I was doing. I didn't even really know if I was hungry or I wasn't hungry.
"So I went to practice the next day and did everything I normally do. It was a full-contact practice. And when I came home that night I felt weird. I fell right down on the couch. I was just totally out. The next day we found out I had gotten a concussion—and I took that ImPACT test. It wasn't that I had gotten a really big hit or anything that I know of. Nothing special. It was just the constant hitting. When you are hitting your head in practice like that, it can happen. It's happened to other guys.
"I had to sit out last week's game," Cascio continued, "but then I passed the ImPACT test and got cleared. I felt fine, and yesterday I practiced in full gear for the first time since the concussion. I felt good after that. When I went to school today, I thought I was going to play tonight.
"But then I was sitting there in class, and a security guy came into the room and called me down to the nurse's office. I thought I was going to have to fill out a form so that I could play again. But while I was in the nurse's office, she walked in—Dr. Adrienne Weiss [the New Rochelle school district's director of health services].... She said that she was not going to be able to let me play tonight. I would have to sit out again.
"I said, 'Awwww, no!' I started to try to argue with her. But then she goes, 'Did you hear about the kid on Long Island?' I said no, because at that point I hadn't heard about it yet. Dr. Weiss said, 'He died from a head injury playing football.' After that I didn't argue anymore. What are you supposed to say to that?"
The October 2014 death of Tom Cutinella of Shoreham–Wading River High sent fierce ripples through New Rochelle's own football community. Shoreham–Wading River is about an hour's drive from New Rochelle, and news items about the two schools occasionally mingle on the same area football blogs. The tragedy came in the middle of the season and had a random, inexplicable nature. (No extreme heat or evidence of prior heart issues.) Most salient, there were kids at New Rochelle who had a direct connection to Tom Cutinella.
A linebacker and offensive lineman, Cutinella also played lacrosse, the prestige sport at Shoreham–Wading River. A few top lacrosse players at New Rochelle had competed against Cutinella, among them the football team's Haitam Coughlin, a vociferous defensive back. Coughlin, like some of his teammates, had learned of Cutinella's death through a tweet by a New Rochelle sports reporter. Coughlin immediately remembered Cutinella's name, and then, when he saw a picture of it, his face. They weren't friends, but they had competed in lacrosse tournaments. They had jostled while running down loose balls. They had slapped each other's hands in postgame lineups. There is an intimacy to that kind of thing.
And so, for the Huguenots game against Ossining High, Coughlin decided to wear a headband on which he wrote RIP T.C. and 54, Cutinella's jersey number. "It just kind of hit me when I found out he had died like that," said Coughlin. "This reminds you that something could happen to anyone. You have to respect the game. You have to respect what you are doing. It can be a little scary sometimes, playing football. Not every kid will admit they feel that. But pretty much everybody does."
At 16, Cutinella stood 6 feet and weighed 180 pounds. "Never the best player but always the smartest, the hardest worker and the toughest," his father, Frank, would say at the funeral. Tommy was a leader, even as a junior, and he had moved quickly into his role at left guard, a crucial position to the offense and one demanding selflessness and a commitment to often drudging work.
It had been an ordinary play, in the third quarter of a Wednesday-afternoon game at John Glenn High. Shoreham–Wading River had possession of the ball, and on the snap Cutinella pulled to his right to block for the running back. The play unfolded predictably, with a gain of a couple of yards, but Cutinella had been leveled in a collision and knocked to the ground near the line of scrimmage. He sat up but did not immediately stand. "I saw Tommy was down, but it looked like he was about to get up," says coach Matt Millheiser. "I went to go to my quarterback to give him the next play, and that's when I saw in my peripheral vision that someone was really helping Tommy up. It didn't look right. It wasn't just a helping hand, it was a lot more assistance than usual. That's when my focus went from calling the play to, O.K., let's see what's going on here." Cutinella stood, but he was wobbly as he tried to walk, and in a moment he dropped back down. By the time Millheiser reached him, seconds later, the player was no longer able to respond. An ambulance was called, and the teams were sent to opposite end zones. Tommy never regained consciousness, and at the hospital he was pronounced dead.
He had wanted to go to West Point and had made that clear to everyone who knew him. And if not West Point, then to Annapolis. And if not there then to an ROTC program somewhere, anywhere. Tommy believed the most worthy thing a person could do with his life was serve his country. Tommy thrived in a disciplined environment, and he believed with full conviction in the power of collective effort.
He was the eldest of Frank and Kelli Cutinella's four children. Frank was a Suffolk County police officer, which partly explains why so many squad cars were parked on the side of Route 25A in Wading River on the day of Tommy's funeral. When it came time for the procession to make its way to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, 18 officers on motorcycles led the way.
It was a beautiful autumn morning, a bright yellow sun in a bare blue sky, and hundreds of people milled outside the church, many of them teenage boys in football jerseys from nearby schools: Rocky Point and Miller Place, Port Jefferson and John Glenn. You could hear the bagpiping well before the procession arrived—the steady, overlaying harmonics coming invisibly, as if from a distant magic land—and the people outside grew quiet and turned in the direction of the music. First the police cycles, and then a flatbed truck laden high with fresh-cut flowers, some of them woven into a huge 54. After that strode the bagpipers themselves, kilted, some 30 band members in all, on the pipes or banging in slow-steady fashion on big, echoing bass drums, the boom, ba-boom, boom, boom describing the solemnity of the day. And right behind traveled the hearse with Tommy's coffin inside, and the Cutinellas: Frank and Kelli and their children, Kevin, William and Carlie.
"Nothing meant more to Thomas than family," said Frank once people had packed the church and the service was under way. "He was one exceptional kid." Kelli stood beside him, stoic. Frank talked about all the ways in which Tommy had helped others and the things he had accomplished in school and his love for the military and the volunteer work he had done and the award he had gotten a few years back from the New York State attorney general for his "commitment and character." Tommy was running for junior class president, and looking at the rows and rows of stricken classmates before him, Frank pointed out that Tommy was a kid who had a lot of friends in different walks of life and that he had an "ability to open people's hearts." He said that the day Tommy was born was the first best day of his and Kelli's lives and that the day Tommy died would always be the worst. When the pastor spoke, he said by way of prayer, "May the joy that Thomas found in playing football foreshadow the joy that he finds in heaven."
The funeral Mass lasted two full hours, and every word from the lectern was broadcast into the parking lot to the gathered crowd. When the family stepped out from the church, the lot was still full, and people were still standing there in the sunshine, or seeking shade under the trees by the sidewall, wearing their jerseys, their dark suits, their long plain dresses. Mothers had tears streaked down their cheeks, and fathers stood grimly, and the teenagers were quiet and shifted uncomfortably from side to side.
The Shoreham–Wading River students and the coaching staff all climbed into yellow school buses and drove off to the cemetery, and soon after that the procession departed, the police motorcycles first and then the pipe band (having struck up again) and then that flatbed truck with the flowers and the 54, and then, in the black car, the Cutinellas. Frank had lowered the backseat window, as if making himself ready to face the world, and he sat looking out, silent and still, as the car passed the many, many people who had come to honor his son.
Things would happen for the Shoreham–Wading River football team in the weeks and then months after Cutinella's death. Things that seemed almost surreal. The Wildcats won their first game after the funeral 54–0 (Tom's number again), and they did not stop winning after that. They beat John Glenn for the first Suffolk County title in Shoreham–Wading River history and then, finally, in the stadium at Stony Brook University on the last day of November, they did another thing the team had never done or even seriously dreamed of doing: They won the Long Island Class IV championship, beating Roosevelt High 47–13. Shoreham–Wading River finished with a record of 12–0.
When the title game had ended, the whole team went by bus to Tommy Cutinella's grave site, where the players left a championship plaque and the game ball. One of the Shoreham–Wading River kids, continuing a tradition of high jinks, had stolen a pylon from the Stony Brook stadium end zone, and every Wildcats player and every coach signed his name on it. They left that at Tommy's grave as well.
Weeks later, when Coach Millheiser reflected on the season, some of the elements stood out in relief. He recalled that the team had been focused each week in a way that he had never experienced in all his years in football. They all listened so well and committed themselves so deeply, embracing every assignment without complaint. Millheiser recalled that he would hear kids on the sideline talking about Tommy at random times, nonchalantly almost, as if they might see him later in the day. He recalled how the players wrote his number on the back of their cleats and carried out his jersey when they came onto the field. Millheiser's team included Tommy's brother Kevin, a 14-year-old who had made varsity that summer as a sophomore. First, when the wound from Tommy's death was so fresh and Kelli and Frank were not ready for Kevin to play again, he worked as a coach, with a coach's shirt and a whistle and drills to run; and then a few weeks later, once the Cutinellas felt it was O.K., Kevin rejoined the team, and Millheiser got him on the field for the last, emotional, history-making wins.
Millheiser recalled the very end of the season, the Long Island championship game and the big crowd, the cheerleaders with 54 on their cheeks, the Shoreham–Wading River players with TC and 54 written on their bare calves, and the big 54 flag waving prominently from the stands.
But the most remarkable moment of the year had come earlier, just after Tommy died, and it was a reminder of the importance of high school football and what the game means to the boys who play. It had been difficult for the coaching staff to continue its routines in the days after Tommy's death. "We act like we're adults, and we've been through it, and we have answers and can be there for the kids, but I'm telling you, this was really tough on every single one of us," said Millheiser. "I am going back out there, and I'm suddenly aware, in a way that no one is aware before something like this happens, that I am putting kids ... not in danger really, danger is not what I mean. But I am exposing them to some kind of risk, on any play. At some point again I was going to have the left guard pull right to block for the running back, just a regular play call, and the players were going to execute it."
After Tommy's death, the coaches had told all the players and their parents that if anyone wanted to stay away from football for a few days, a week, two weeks, however long, and then return to the team, that would be fine. They would be welcomed back. So when the first practice neared, Millheiser says, he did not know what to expect. Kevin Cutinella was alongside as a coach, but how many of the other kids would show up? What could they get done?
That day after school Millheiser was out on the field, talking with his assistants 10 minutes before practice was scheduled to begin. "I kind of stopped talking and started to look around to see what we had," Millheiser said. "It took me a minute to realize it, but then I did. Guess what? Every last kid on our team was out on the field, and every last kid had his uniform on and had his helmet with him and was ready to play football. Every single kid was there."
New Rochelle went ahead early and stayed in command of that Thursday-night game at Ossining, with Michael Cascio applauding his teammates from the sideline. There was no mention to the crowd of Cutinella's death the day before and no moment of silence before the kickoff. Earlier in the day, though, there had been discussion about postponing the game. In an impromptu district meeting, a couple of school administrators in the region, so shaken by what had happened in the kindred suburbs on Long Island, had suggested canceling their seasons entirely. "You get schools that have small football teams and that are losing money, and that are getting beat every week," said New Rochelle athletic director Steve Young. "Something like this occurs, and it's only natural that they think, 'Is it all worth the risk?' It's an overreaction, yes, but you can understand it."
The Huguenots led 28–0 but then, just before the half, allowed a touchdown that rankled their coach, Lou DiRienzo. He had been New Rochelle's coach for nearly 25 years and won three state titles and operated as a truth-teller and a father figure to a generation of kids, many of whom needed exactly that. Now, at halftime, DiRienzo gathered the players near the end zone and warned them not to be complacent. "We just woke up a sleeping dog, and that's a dangerous f------ thing, man," he said. Ossining was due to get the ball at the start of the second half, and DiRienzo, propping up a greaseboard to write on, began to address the defensive players as they sat or knelt on the grass.
"We're a Field 50. They come out and we could be Field Okie," he said, scribbling arrows and symbols with a blue marker. "But if the tight end wing comes out to the boundary, we're in Cloud over here. And we're in Hug that way. Now if it comes out this way, and we check Squat, Sam moves out to number 1. We're going to Squat with the Sam and play Cover 4 behind him. If it comes out the other way, we're in Hug, Cloud on the backside. There is no adjustment to motion. There is no more Sky. Basically if they are in a Wing T, we're in a Cover 2."
DiRienzo stopped and spit once on the greaseboard and wiped it somewhat clean with his hand. You could smell hamburgers cooking and the old Technotronic song, "Pump Up the Jam," played into the night. DiRienzo began again: "We're in a field call, and they come out unbalanced to the boundary, then we're in an 8 Flash. If it comes out to the field, we are in 8 Slash. You guys got that? Can you guys see these circles?" (Murmurs of "Yeah, Coach" from the group.) "Because we really can't let them come down and score.
"Now," DiRienzo said, "if they come out three by one to the field, then, what do you want to do, Coach?" An assistant, Richie Tassello spoke up: "If 15 is the single receiver on the backside, we're in A-Cloud. We are in A-Cloud." And DiRienzo continued, "Remember, also it's on the loop with the Mack. If the Mack is out, there's no more Thunder. Sam, there is no more Thunder. You got that?"
After all of this DiRienzo added, not kidding in the slightest, "Let's keep it as simple as possible."
New Rochelle would indeed shut down Ossining and go on to win 48–14. The star running back, Jonathan Forrest, carried one in from 30 yards out. The slim receiver, Jack Stern, caught a 72-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Greg Powell. Haitam Coughlin, with the Cutinella inscriptions on his headband and lately added on his inner forearm as well, got into the game and broke up a couple of passes.
Afterward, standing beside the team bus, DiRienzo was reflective. "That news out of Long Island bothers me in a lot of ways," he said. "First of all it is just a tragic accident, so you feel awful for that family. Number two, there is definitely going to be a backlash against high school football, which I don't like. And number three, I still have a son who is playing football."