Anthony Starego, the Brick Township High School kicker with multisymptom autism whose game-winning field goal last season garnered national attention, has been granted an unprecedented fifth year of athletic eligibility.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which in April denied Starego a waiver to compete this fall because he was 19 and had played for four seasons, surprisingly reversed field Friday, telling Starego’s parents their son will be allowed to take the field exclusively as a kicker beginning with the Green Dragons’ home game against Toms River South Friday night.
“This isn’t about kicking the football,” said Raymond Starego, Anthony’s father, who told NJ Press Media about the NJSIAA’s decision. “It’s about affecting meaningful change in the world.
“No matter how many kicks Anthony makes, he’s still going to live with autism. It will just enhance who he is and give him more tools to take to the real world. He’ll still be limited. He’s still not going to have a chance to achieve what many will in a lifetime who don’t have a disability, but we can make it a little better.”
With approval of Brick Township Public Schools and support of the Green Dragons’ opponents, Starego will be allowed to join his teammates for the remainder of the 2013 schedule. Whether Starego actually sees action is at the discretion of the Brick Township coaching staff.
The reversal comes less than three weeks after a federal judge — ruling on a lawsuit Starego’s parents filed against the NJSIAA and state Department of Education — denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to grant Anthony a fifth season.
Raymond and his wife, Reylene, alleged that the NJSIAA and state violated their son’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires reasonable accommodations be made to include those with disabilities in interscholastic sports.
U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson wrote in her 29-page opinion that the “plaintiffs failed to show that the Association’s decision denying Anthony a waiver violates the ADA,” but she also rejected every one of the NJSIAA’s reasons for not granting that waiver.
As a result, the NJSIAA potentially faced a protracted legal battle with the possibility of another court ruling in Starego’s favor. The Starego family’s lawyer, Gary Mayerson, already had filed a new complaint in Superior Court, relying on Wolfson’s ruling.
According to Steve Goodell, NJSIAA legal counsel, once the federal court affirmed the association's position regarding the ADA, it seemed appropriate to resolve the matter promptly, without excessive, additional debate.
“Anthony is a special young man with exceptional skills and presents a unique set of circumstances,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said. “The federal court clearly established that there's been no violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so the NJSIAA is under no obligation to provide him with additional playing time. In addition, our eight-semester and age 19 rules remain firmly in place. But, given the double-digit increase in statewide classification rates, the association needs to address the needs of our student-athletes and their families.”
The NJSIAA’s decision allowing Starego to compete could benefit other student-athletes with disabilities nationwide.
“The decision granting Anthony Starego another year of eligibility to play football is a victory for student-athletes with special needs across the nation,” said Lisa Goring, vice president of Family Services at Autism Speaks. “By allowing him back on the field, where he is a respected teammate and peer, Anthony will continue to develop into the remarkable young man who captured our imagination with his kicking prowess last year.”
In addition to the association’s eight-consecutive-semester and age-restriction rules — partly in place to prevent “redshirting,” the practice of gaining a competitive advantage by sitting out a year while maturing — the NJSIAA initially rejected Starego’s appeal in part because as an incumbent starter he could displace a teammate and that his presence on the field would significantly alter the nature and competitiveness of the game.
Citing NJSIAA rules that don’t allow student-athletes to play a sport for more than eight consecutive semesters or to compete after turning 19, state Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf in July upheld an April NJSIAA eligibility appeals committee ruling that denied Starego a waiver.
Starego, who turned 19 in June, functions like a fifth-grader academically because of his disabilities, which include ADHD.
A nongraded student with an Individualized Education Program that, according to court filings, addresses football, Starego is not enrolled in a particular grade. He is entitled under federal law until age 21 to a free and appropriate public education, including nonacademic and extracurricular activities.
Starego overcame his disabilities to kick four extra points in a 28-27 upset of Toms River East last year and the winning field goal in the closing seconds of a 24-21 victory over Toms River North the following week.
The latter led to an ESPN feature on Starego titled “Kick of Hope,” a phrase Anthony’s father coined in the piece. The Starego family also appeared with Matt Lauer for a segment on NBC’s “Today.” Starego’s story ran in national publications, including USA Today.
Starego played freshman football in 2009, was a member of the junior varsity squad in 2010 and 2011, and made the varsity team last fall. Starego, who has missed Brick Township’s first two games this season because the NJSIAA barred him from competing, previously was restricted to practices and scrimmages.
Anger issues, biting, yelling and disruptive behavior were the norm for Anthony after the Staregos adopted him 16 years ago. Additionally, Starego was tactile sensitive, meaning the slightest touch would make him uncomfortable.
“After five or six years of school,” Raymond Starego said, “we were no closer to two plus two equals four than we were when we started.”
After becoming a member of the Brick Township football program, some things suddenly and unexpectedly began to click, not just from the kicking tee, but in many aspects of Starego’s life.
The redundancy of kicking extra points and field goals in practice suits Starego’s autism, whose core symptoms include repetitive behaviors.
In seventh grade, Starego couldn’t reach the goal line from 10 yards away. By eighth grade, he attempted three extra points in Pop Warner games, badly missing each.
Starego, who trains under former Rutgers University kicker Lee McDonald, booted a career-long 33-yard field goal in a 6-3 loss to Lacey.
The greatest strides Starego made, however, were off the field, as Raymond Starego attributed his son’s academic and social progress largely to his membership on the football team.
Raymond Starego said his son cradled the special-teams game ball he received after his winning field goal last fall while saying out loud: “All my life I’ve been a knucklehead, and now I’m not a knucklehead anymore.”
Greg Tufaro writes for the Asbury Park Press, a Gannett property.