Tom Rinaldi Made Me Cry Again

English: ESPN Reporter at the 2009 US Open
English: ESPN Reporter Tom Rinaldi at the 2009 US Open (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of you have may know of the story of Anthony Starego, a person with autism who is the starting kicker on his high school’s football team. His story was covered by NBC’s Today Show earlier this fall and on Saturday he got the Tom Rinaldi treatment on ESPN’s College Gameday.

If you’re not familiar with Rinaldi, his weekly pieces on Gameday deal with triumph over adversity, tragedy, loss and inspiration. They are responsible for making more men cry than anything since Brian’s Song. Here, see for yourself. If you haven’t seen the piece on Starego, please take five minute to do so (WARNING: have tissues handy):

I saw the tease for the piece. I thought I knew Starego’s story, but watched with interest anyway. I really didn’t know his story at all, and I certainly didn’t know how much his story would resonate with me.

Starego is severely impacted by autism. A high school senior, he is said to perform at the academic level of a 10-year-old. In the piece he is shown in school in what appears to be a basic life-skills class. His speech is greatly affected. That is not our family’s autism journey. Ryan is on the mild end of the spectrum, performs at or above grade level on most academic subjects, and probably doesn’t stand out as having autism to the untrained eye.

In 2006, Starego attended a Rutgers football game against Louisville. At the time it was the biggest game in Rutgers’ program history. After an epic second-half comeback, Rutgers won on a last-minute field goal by Jeremy Ito. From that moment on, Starego decided to become a kicker. I was also at that game, and it remains one of the top-five live sporting events I’ve ever attended. The spontaneous joy in the crowd after Ito’s kick was everything that makes me love sports — something I’ve been lucky enough to share with my kids.

Six years later, and Starego has ascended to become the starting kicker on his high-school team, despite all his challenges. Or, perhaps, because of them. As Rinaldi narrates, kicking is the one discipline in football that requires precise repetition and dedicated focus on an unvarying routine. It is a skill for which Starego’s autism is actually a strength. His need for order and routine fits perfectly with the repetitive practice required to become a competent kicker.

Starego’s participation on his high school team is not just a feel-good story. What brought him national attention was not the chance to participate at the end of a game long decided, but rather a last-minute, game-winning kick to beat a highly ranked rival school — just as Ito had in 2006.

Two things about Starego’s kick struck me. One — his celebration. He runs right past the outstretched arms of all his teammates and coaches to an empty spot on the sidelines, where he throws his arms up in triumph. Hmmm, where have I seen that before? When I showed the piece to Veronica she noticed it right away, too. It was a small detail that the untrained eye might miss, but it jumped off the screen to a parent of a child on the spectrum.

Second, and even more impactful, was Starego’s father’s description of what the kick had meant. Fighting back tears, he spoke off the feeling of disbelief that his child was about to get to have one of “those moments” that he would remember for the rest of his life. A moment not about autism, but one certainly made more meaningful by the challenges autism had presented along the way.

This was the part that really hit home. Ryan has had those moments. It may have just been a house-league peewee hockey game, but watching my son be his team’s hero in one game where everything came together was as close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve had. I know I will never forget it, and I suspect Ryan won’t, either. It was no different watching him skate at the Winter Classic, watching him have an experience I’d never had, and more importantly, seeing how much it meant to him.

The Starego piece was significant for another reason: we watched it with Ryan. I debated whether to do so. We have been much more open with Ryan about autism over the last year, but we more often describe it in terms like “the way your brain works,” rather than “you have autism.” I want him to understand his strengths and challenges, but I don’t want him to feel defined by a label. And truth be told, I’m still not entirely comfortable saying it to him that directly.

Ryan asked why Starego’s speech sounded as it did, and we explained how he was more severely affected by autism. At one point Ryan asked us point-blank, “do I have autism?” leading to a moment of panic — had we failed to get through to him? We explained that yes, the challenges and strengths we talk about all the time are all a part of autism. I was very afraid of how he would react. Even though we have had the conversation with him many times over the last year, I don’t believe he has ever responded with such a direct question. I thought he might get angry, but he didn’t. He understood once we related the word “autism” back to the language we use to talk to him about his challenges.

And then Ryan went about his day, which included watching football with me for several hours. Sort of exactly the way I wanted it. We want him to understand his condition and why certain things are so challenging for him first and foremost. At this point I don’t want him fixated on a label, mostly because I don’t see the benefit in it, but it’s an area where both Veronica and I struggle with the proper direction.

Despite the question he asked, I do believe Ryan understands. He has expressed frustration when his obsessive behavior leads to meltdowns. He knows why he is in resource room classes and has an aide at school. For now, I think that’s enough.

As for Anthony Starego and his parents, I want to say congratulations — for having the courage to pursue this course, the determination to pull it off, and the perspective to understand what it means. Congratulations as well to ESPN for a well-produced piece that didn’t over-dramatize the event and managed to capture the particulars of why Starego’s autism fit together with a skill like field-goal kicking.

Please, next time just give me a warning so I can have my tissues ready.

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8 thoughts on “Tom Rinaldi Made Me Cry Again

  1. I’d seen this on Youtube and noticed how he ran past his teammates – but other than that he looked like any other teammate out there. Thank you for posting the news video. I thought I was going to escape dry-eyed until they showed him getting a Rutgers jersey and kicking the ball through the uprights.

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  2. Lunch at work is the first time I usually get to read Pucks. Crying at work isn’t good. Plus I fight crying in general so I knew I would get thru the video. But when Ryan asked if he has autisum I pretty much lost it. I know that Ryan gets all the love, support and amazing direction that could ever be shared with a child, but I just want to hug and protect him from the world. Hang in there and keep doing exactly what you are doing as a parent and advocate. I know you will get plenty of opportunities over this weekend.

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  3. hey i have been thinking of creating my own blog i have seen alot around the intertubes lol it has become a huge thing now but i have been putting it off for awhile do you have any advice for me, maybe you could hit me up with en email. thanks

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