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Dragons Kicker, With Autism, Redefines 'Special Needs'

Anthony Starego has autism, but is playing a vital part of the Dragons' football team

When Anthony Starego was 12 years old, he watched as Jeremy Ito lined up to kick a 28-yard field goal for Rutgers, then watched as the ball sailed through the uprights, giving the Scarlet Knights a 28-25 upset victory over the Louisville Cardinals, then ranked No. 3 in the nation.

"He watched it and watched it and watched it," says Ray Starego, Anthony's father, who's been a Rutgers season ticket-holder since 1988.

A few days later, Anthony went to his dad and told him he wanted to be a kicker, too. So his parents, Ray and Reylene, sought out the Brick Pop Warner program and enrolled him.

The first practice didn't go smoothly. When a coach placed his hands on Anthony to move him to the right position, Anthony balked, Ray said. "He told the coach, 'Don't touch me.' "

"We didn't know how it was going to work," Ray said of his son, who has autism and is a special needs student at Brick.

Little did they imagine that six years later, Anthony would be playing an important role for the Brick High School football team and, like Ito, making a game-winning kick that would inspire everyone around him and spread like wildfire in days.

Video of Anthony making that kick – a 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to beat Toms River North recently, and then running down the sideline in pure joy after it sailed through the uprights – has more than 6,000 views on YouTube. And it has only just begun to get national attention.

"It's just amazing," Ray Starego said as he watched his son practicing his place-kicking on the field behind the school on an Indian summer afternoon.

Tough beginnings

By the time he was 3 years old, Anthony Starego had been in 11 different foster homes. He had been removed from his mother's care as an infant, and had multiple issues, says Reylene Starego.

Developmental delays meant he was essentially nonverbal, with just six words in his vocabulary, she said, "if you could call them that."

"When he wanted a drink, he would say, 'Dunk, dunk.' " 

The little boy with blond hair didn't like to be touched or held, because he had tactile issues that made him hypersensitive to touch. He was asthmatic, and more, she said.

"He was considered unadoptable," Ray Starego says.

The Staregos, who were unable to have children of their own, had decided to adopt and wanted a special needs child, they said. While many people look to adopt infants, Reylene said, they were open to taking an older child.

Their biggest concern?

"We wanted a child whose medical history we could get," she said.

When Anthony was placed in their home in September 1997, they welcomed him with open arms, and from the get-go worked to ensure he wasn't shuffled off into a program that ignored his potential, whatever it might be.

"I refused to allow them to test him for autism," Reylene Starego said.

The family lived in Easton, Pa., then.

"Too often they wanted to dump a kid like him into a life skills class and forget about them," she said.

The Staregos wanted more for Anthony. They pushed for therapy for his developmental delays, but resisted attempts to classify him as autistic until 2005, when the family moved to Brick because she had gotten a full-time job at St. Thomas Academy as its music director.

"We understood they (the school system in Brick) were very capable of handling children with autism," Reylene said.

Anthony was evaluated at Children's Specialized Hospital and placed in the program for autistic children soon after, she said.

"I remember sitting there going down the checklist of symptoms (of autism), and I had marked all but about four," she said.

Getting the diagnosis enabled Anthony to get access to the programs he needed, and he began to flourish, she said.

"Donna Previte was a Godsend," the Staregos said.

"He can't translate symbols," Reylene said, meaning 3+3 or these words on a computer screen were just gibberish to him.  The instructional programs – "they don't make any sense to us but it does to them," she said – enabled Anthony to start making sense of things.  His math skills have improved enough that he is now in a mainstream math classroom.

"It's the lowest level math class," Reylene Starego says, "but it's still a normal classroom."

That class also has allowed Anthony to participate fully with the football team. His special needs classroom meets until 3 p.m. each day, while the football team's practices begin more than an hour earlier. The mainstreamed math class allows him to join his teammates on time.

Watching Anthony jog out to practice his placekicking – his happy-go-lucky nature evident as he half-skips across the field – it's clear how much he loves to be on a football field and with his team.

It's a feeling that goes both ways.

'Our Little Brother'

Those first days when his Pop Warner coaches weren't quite sure what to do with Anthony gave way to his role as a kicker, and it is a role that is perfectly suited to his personality and to his disability, Ray Starego says.

In placekicking, having a routine helps break every kick down into basic elements, and can help a kicker refocus on the occasions where the kicks aren't perfect.

And it's having a routine – and sticking to it – that helps Anthony navigate his life, his parents say.

"Change is very difficult for him," they said, which is part of why Anthony attends Brick instead of Brick Memorial, even though he technically lives on the Memorial side of town.

When the Staregos first moved to Brick, they lived in the township's Lake Riviera section, which is how they became involved with the Dragons Pop Warner (now American Youth Football) program. When he reached high school, Ray and Reylene wanted to keep Anthony with the boys he'd been playing football with for a few years, and requested he be placed at Brick.

The result, now, is the fact that he's teammates with players who've known him since they all were in sixth grade.

"He was really shy," said Bryan Ruffus, a wide receiver and defensive back, who helped Anthony practice his kicking for a while on Monday afternoon. "Now he's this outgoing awesome character who's great to be around."

"Anthony's always got a smile on his face," said Mark Salerno. "He's always there to make a joke and pick us up."

"He just lightens up the mood around here," said Len Zdanowicz, a Dragons assistant coach. "He marches to his own drummer."

At the same time, however, he sets an example for the rest of the team, several people said.

"He's a good leader," Ruffus said. "He's always willing to learn and always ready to listen."

"I think everyone understands and comprehends that he has a disability," said Brick head coach Rob Dahl, "but they look at him as a normal player."

Dahl said Anthony takes part in all the workouts, from offseason weightlifting to summer practices to preseason workouts. While he is primarily a kicker, he's also a defensive back and wide receiver, and he goes through drills in practice with those coaches.

"He's not just off by himself kicking," Dahl said.

He saves that for the workouts with his dad and with Lee McDonald, his kicking coach, who runs a camp every summer designed specifically for special teams players.

"His enthusiasm is contagious," McDonald said, and Anthony's work ethic is even stronger.

"It could be 100 degrees outside and he wants to keep going," McDonald said. "We have to rein him back a little sometimes, tell him, 'Let's look at what we can do better and work on that the next time.' "

McDonald said the biggest challenge in coaching Anthony has been adjusting his usual coaching methods to Anthony until he found the right words that clicked. "I had to keep it simple," he said.

Between camps, sessions with McDonald and times he has worked out with his son, Ray Starego said Anthony has kicked the ball thousands of times in practice sessions over the past six years, and while he was comfortable with placekicking, it wasn't until this year that doing it in game conditions – with onrushing defenders – really fell into place.

"All of a sudden you could just see the difference," Ray said.

"It was just about getting opportunities," McDonald said. "As he gets more experience, he's just going to get better."

Brick's coaches saw that, too, and put Anthony to the test against Toms River East.

"Every one of those kicks against East was a pressure kick," Dahl said. "When the team saw him make those, he earned their respect."

Against Toms River East on Oct. 12, Anthony, who's 6-foot-4 and weighs 185 pounds, kicked four extra points as Brick won 28-27. On the third point, Toms River East was penalized for roughing the kicker. On the fourth PAT, he took three steps back, two steps to his right, leaned back, and put the ball through the uprights for the win.

"Anthony always says he's going to hit the guy back when someone hits him," Salerno said, "but because he's a kicker he doesn't really get the chance do to that. When someone hits him, we take it personally and we try to make sure they know we're watching out for him.

"We treat him like he's our little brother," Salerno said.

Lifting Spirits

As important as every point was, the way Anthony lifted the spirits of his teammates didn't go unnoticed either, Dahl said. Anthony received the game ball after that game.

Then came another game – a week later – against neighboring Toms River North.

The Mariners were ranked No. 4 in the Shore Conference, and most of the folks who pay close attention to Shore area high school football expected it to be an easy victory for Toms River North.

But the Dragons went toe-to-toe with the Mariners all game, and drove to the North 5, looking for the win.

"We were coming off a fumbled snap," Dahl said, "so in reality there was no chance at a touchdown. It was going to have to be a field goal."

"I looked at our kicking coach and said, 'Is he ready?' and coach (Kurt) Weiboldt said, 'He's ready,' " Dahl said. "There was no question it was going to be (Anthony) kicking. He's good from that distance. He's money."

"It was a no-brainer," Dahl said.

He watched as Anthony set up. Three steps back, two to his right. Lean back, step up and let 'er rip. Through the uprights. Brick wins, 24-21.

What he didn't know, Dahl said, was how much Anthony really understood about the enormity of the kick facing him.

"No, I wasn't nervous," Anthony said on Monday afternoon, as he paused in his kicking practice. "I was really happy. I ran off the field like Forrest (Gump)."

In the YouTube video, Anthony can be seen running down the sidelines, jumping for joy as his teammates on the field and on the bench erupt.

"I couldn't breathe," Ruffus said, as he watched Anthony line up and take the kick. "It was truly special. Nobody expected it but I knew he had it in him."

"I knew he's a routine-type of kid, and that he really didn't feel the pressure," Dahl said. "But what I didn't know was whether he really knew how much it meant. After I saw how he reacted after the kick, how he ran down the sideline, I knew he understood, and that made it that much more special."

"It was a storybook ending to a great game," Dahl said.

It has put a little bounce in the steps of the entire team, Dahl said, which had been suffering through an 0-5 season until the win over East, and had been through some dark years the last few seasons as the district and the program fought over the successor to long-time, legendary head coach Warren Wolf.

"It was hard to breathe there for a while," Dahl said.'

But Anthony's kicks have given the team, and the community, a lift.

"It has lifted the spirits and the morale of our team," Dahl said. "It has changed the culture in the lockerroom."

'The Kid'

In Rutgers circles, Anthony Starego has another nickname: The Kid.

That's because, when he and his dad go to the Scarlet Knights' basketball games, Anthony is known for being the loudest Rutgers' supporter in section 112, firing up the other spectators as they cheer the home team.

He's so well-known for his cheerleading, Ray said, that they were at the Texas Bowl in Houston to watch Rutgers play Kansas State and two kids recognized Anthony.

"'Hey, you're The Kid,' they said to him," Ray said.

And Anthony has been the biggest cheerleader on the Dragons' bench, urging his teammates to keep working hard, to keep trying, to never give up.

The biggest cheerleader, until now, that is.

"I've had people tell me they have never been happier for someone else's kid than they are for Anthony," Reylene Starego said.

Anthony's pretty happy for himself, too, Ray said.

"After the Toms River East game, I heard him talking to himself, cradling the game ball," Ray said.

"All my life I’ve been a knucklehead," Ray said he heard his son say. "I’m not a knucklehead anymore."

That's an understatement.

~

UPDATE: Anthony Starego has been chosen as the Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day, which features stories of people across the nation who are confronting major issues and making a difference in their community. Congratulations, Anthony, as well as your family members, friends and coaches!

Rich Squires October 26, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Dragon Pride!
Ray Starego November 10, 2012 at 06:27 AM
ESPN Update. A crew of 6 is coming up from Charlotte NC next week to do 3-4 days of filming for a short 6-15 min. story as well as a longer (30 min plus) show. Some of the best at espn are putting this together, It should be great. I'll keep you posted on air times and dates. Thanks for all of your overwhelming support.
Kevin Porvaznik November 24, 2012 at 07:40 PM
I am an Ohio state fan wishing Michigan loses every game of their life! I want you as our kicker!!!! please consider you are not only an inspirational of the sport of football, but of the sport of hockey that I coach in Cleveland, oh. and I wish I had players that had your heart because you inspire me as a coach and I wish I had your talent and your heart god bless you and your family! good luck to you!!!
donna January 20, 2013 at 03:12 PM
Wow, what a great story! Anthony you are a hero!
Brittney Gambone January 20, 2013 at 04:19 PM
Great story and even better that ESPN is picking it up. We need to bring more great stories like this into media. Individuals with autism and other special needs have so much to contribute...... Also, I'm glad to see the Brick Patch used person first language instead of the title I saw in Facebook- Autistic kicker.......Those things are important.

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