Brick’s Anthony Starego: Back in the Game
Munching on a hot pretzel under the cover of darkness outside the locker room after the cameras surrounding him were put away and lights turned off following Friday night's win over Toms River South, Brick's Anthony Starego managed a wan smile."I'm happy,'' he said. "But I'm tired."
The euphoria from early in the day had faded into the fatigue late into the night from the toll of a successful but grueling six-month legal battle in state and federal courts for Anthony and his family that ended with an unprecedented decision by the NJSIAA on Friday.
Only hours before kickoff in Brick's eventual 47-21 win over the Indians, the Staregos were informed that Anthony, 19, a kicker who has multi-symptom autism, would be granted an unprecedented fifth year of eligibility by the NJSIAA to finish this season with the Green Dragons.
"We were thrilled,'' Anthony's father, Ray Starego said. "Anthony was excited and crying and emotional when I told him. It's been so long a road. It's been really draining. We're just absolutely exhausted."
It reversed an initial ruling by the NJSIAA appeals committee in March denying him a waiver for a fifth year after he made national headlines in 2012 following a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of an upset win over Toms River North. He may be the first athlete to ever combine words "autism" and "competitive advantage" in the same sentence, thanks to his heroics last year in wins over Toms River North and Toms River East. In its ruling on Friday, the NJSIAA waived its age limit and semester restriction to allow Anthony to play the rest of this season after having never seen a case like his in its existence.
While mulling over whether to reverse its stance on Starego's eligibility, the NJSIAA contacted all of Brick's remaining opponents from this season to see if they had any objections to him possibly returning, and there were no complaints.
The team was in the locker room preparing for the game when it received word that Anthony would be back in pads and his No. 40 jersey after spending the first two games on the sidelines in his kelly green shirt and white tie cheering on his teammates. Junior quarterback Carmen Sclafani, a Toms River North transfer who was on the losing end of Anthony's game-winning kick last year, already grasps Anthony's impact in just the short time he has known him.
"In the locker room when we found out, it got a little emotional,'' Sclafani said. "It gave us a little more juice for this game. Anthony is a great figure to have in this program. He just raises everyone's spirits. It was awesome to find out Anthony could come back and be part of this team."
"That was absolutely amazing,'' said junior running back/linebacker Ray Fattaruso. "Hearing that in the locker room just made us want to win even more."
Anthony attempted one extra point with the Green Dragons up by 26 points in the fourth quarter, but it was wide right. While he has been able to practice with the team, his reps have been limited because of his eligibility situation, so he is trying to shake the rust off as he competes with incumbent Steve Ferlisi for the starting placekicker job.
"I'm hoping he does eventually win the starting job,'' his father said. "Whether he does or doesn't, it's still a tremendous story, and now the awareness starts. The key in all this is to show what kids can do that no one expected them to do."
The family received indications on Thursday that a possible decision by the NJSIAA was coming Friday, leading to a long night as they hoped to hear that Anthony would be eligible in time for the Toms River South game.
"We weren't sleeping last night, that's for sure,'' Anthony's mother, Reylene Starego, said. "It's just been a very long day. All day, we were like, '(The ruling) has to get to this person, now it has to get to that person, and now it needs a revision, and on and on."
What made it clear that Anthony was back where he belonged on Friday night wasn't the moment where he trotted out to attempt the extra point. It was seeing him chest bumping and fist-bumping teammates, high-fiving and celebrating the win, only a few years after he used to become hysterical when anyone touched him because of his symptoms. It was watching the pure joy he gets from being an official part of the team.
"I'm happy for Anthony,'' Brick head coach Rob Dahl said. "It was great to see him smiling today."
His bond with his teammates runs deep and has become a crucial part in his improvement off the field. He and his family are diehard Rutgers fans, and it was Jeremy Ito's game-winning kick in an upset of Louisville in 2006 that inspired him to become a kicker. However, he turned down his usual great seats at High Point Solutions Stadium for the Scarlet Knights' game against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 14 to instead stand on the sideline and cheer the Green Dragons on to their 21-14 win over rival Brick Memorial in the season opener.
"Rutgers is like a family to him,'' Fattaruso said. "But he chose to come to our game because he wanted to be with our family even more."
Football has given Anthony the quality of life that few thought he could one day attain when Ray and Reylene adopted him as a 3-year-old orphan in 1997 after he had bounced around to 11 different foster homes. He had an asthmatic condition and kidney reflux disease. He also had a tactile issue that made him hyper-sensitive to being touched or held, and he was largely non-verbal. That's a far cry from the teenager who instinctively reached out to shake this reporter's hand on Friday night and was right in the middle of a joyous huddle following the win.
The repetitive nature of kicking makes his autism an asset because of his tendency to constantly repeat things, but the camaraderie he has experienced and the way it has transformed him as a person is really the reason why the NJSIAA made the right decision to allow him back.
It wasn't about Anthony making a game-winning field goal or even hitting his extra point last night. It was about him putting on that No. 40 jersey and showing that athletics can propel a boy with autism to accomplish way more than anyone ever thought, on and off the field.
The time for court battles and legal wrangling has come to an end. Now it's just about football again, and soaking up the last few precious moments like any other senior.
"He didn't care if he missed that extra point or not,'' Dahl said. "At the end of the game, he was smiling, and that's what it's all about."