Meet the devastated parents who want to save football from itself

March 24, 2016, 3:22 PM

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Kelli Cutinella and a friend sewed the jersey back together after it was cut off her dying son on the football field at John Glenn High School in Elwood, New York, on Oct. 1, 2014, when Tom Cutinella, two-way starter, arrived with his Shoreham-Wading River teammates as a perfectly healthy 16-year-old with outsized dreams. He wanted to attend West Point, and he wanted to serve his country, and more than anything that day, he wanted to keep his team undefeated and on track to win the school's first Long Island championship.

But Cutinella took an illegal hit to the helmet in the third quarter, a penalty the officials missed, and before long, his family was keeping him alive in Huntington Hospital for the sole purpose of honoring a wish Tom made when he received his learner's permit. It was his birthday, and yet he was the one giving the gift. He'd decided then he wanted to someday donate his organs to those in need.

"He was a giver," said his father, Frank, "and he gave his heart, his pancreas, his kidneys, his liver, his skin, bone, tissue, his corneas. It's fitting that with Tom, there's nothing left. He gave everything in life, and again when he died."

Now Frank wants the sport that claimed his son's life to change. In fact, he won't settle for anything but a fundamental change in the game's culture. Cutinella has spoken before Suffolk County officials and, last week, before more than 300 high school athletic administrators from across the state. With his son among the alarming number of recent high school football fatalities, and with the NFL finally admitting its product causes the progressive degenerative brain disease known as CTE, Cutinella wants to speak to as many national amateur bodies that will listen to him, and he would like an audience with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, too.

Cutinella was encouraged to hear that Jeff Miller, the NFL's top official on player health and safety, recently became the first league executive to confirm the link between football and CTE. And Giants owner John Mara declared brain trauma and disease as the undisputed No. 1 issue at the league meetings in Florida. "It's important that the NFL acknowledged the link," Cutinella said, "but now the leaders have to develop a proactive plan to fix the problem, and we're still waiting for that. The NFL is still dabbling their feet in it. They need to jump in."

Frank is a youthful-looking 45, a police detective raised on the articles of football faith that say the game teaches discipline and creates lifelong bonds. Frank was a wingback and defensive back on an undefeated 1987 championship team at nearby Ward Melville High School, and like many middle-aged men who cherish the memories of athletic conquests earned before adoring homecoming crowds, he remains in contact with his former teammates and coaches.

He loves everything about football, or at least he used to. He signed up his three sons to play the game, and started coaching his oldest, Tom, when the boy was seven.

"And it hurts me to say this," Frank said, "but I wish I didn't love football and I wish I never introduced it, but I can't deny that Tom loved it. And I can't deny that I got everything from football. It's almost ironic how important it was to making me an adult, and then this happened. ... It made me better at everything I've ever done, and that's why this stings even more."

Frank and Kelli are standing near their son's made bed, the room almost exactly as it was that Wednesday morning when Tom left it for the final time and ran out to catch the bus. On the walls are certificates citing the honor student's academic achievement and character. A small crucifix hangs above the door, and a couple of upright lacrosse sticks -- one holding a ball -- stand across from a dresser that showcases Tom's trophies. Tacked to a bulletin board are photos of Tom and his friends and some cards and notes, including one Frank found in his son's desk, a reminder from Tom to himself to pray and read the bible.

The new additions to the bedroom include an Army jersey and posthumous scholarship offer sent by the coach at West Point, Jeff Monken, and a No. 18 Denver Broncos jersey sent by one of Tom's favorite athletes. "May God's peace be with you," it reads. "Peyton Manning 18. In memory of Tom."

The Cutinellas all rooted for Manning to win Super Bowl 50, in part because the quarterback was the only active NFL representative to contact the family in the wake of Tom's death. But it's hard for Frank to watch football anymore, on TV or in person, even though his middle son, Kevin, remains a prominent player on the Shoreham-Wading River team.

Kelli? "She's stronger than I am," her husband said. "She went back right away to cheer the team as it won." And yes, Shoreham-Wading River won. Kelli brought her son's repaired jersey to the games, the Wildcats wore Tom's number and name and initials on their equipment and on their limbs, and they all seized that elusive championship in Tom's honor.

Maybe for some that was supposed to be the uplifting Hollywood end to an unfathomably tragic story. Tom's number would be retired, and his name would be painted onto the school's brand new field, and an official dedication ceremony would be set for the fall. Future fans heading to the field would pass a plaque attached to a rock, memorializing Tom Cutinella and what he stood for, and the games would go on.

Only to the boy's father, the story is just beginning. Frank Cutinella is not suing anybody, and he's not blaming anybody, and he's certainly not calling for the abolishment of the sport that shaped him.

"I look at football," he said, "and it hurts me to say this, but it probably made me able to get through this nightmare. I don't know if that makes sense. It's given a lot to me, but unfortunately what it has given is not nearly of equal value to what it has taken away."

Cutinella's cause isn't centered on equipment; he's focused on how coaches coach and players play in the youth leagues on up. He wants greater emphasis on teaching safe blocking and tackling techniques, and less time spent on imploring teams to impose their win-at-all-costs will on opponents. He wants more accountability and punishment for coaches, administrators and players who fail to adhere to the standards that might've kept Tom Cutinella alive.

"And I'm not going away," Frank said.

His inspiration is right there on the game film. As he sits with Kelli in his living room, the quiet of their well-appointed street interrupted only by the sounds of dangling chimes and neighboring children at play, Frank explains how it took him 10 months to watch the video of the play that killed his son.

Tom took the field that day as a 6-foot, 185-pound linebacker and guard who had already known for six years exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. At age 10, after attending his first Army football game with friends, he announced to his parents he would be attending West Point.

As much as Tom admired Manning and Derek Jeter, his hero was a local boy named Michael Murphy, the Navy SEAL from Smithtown killed in Afghanistan and awarded the Medal of Honor. 

Tom arranged a players-only meeting before the start of the 2014 season in the Shoreham-Wading River parking lot. He was a junior, and yet his leadership was so firm that the four senior captains stood behind him as he spoke about making a commitment and establishing a brotherhood and winning every game they played.

On Sept. 19, Tom assisted on the clinching sack as the Wildcats ended Babylon's 25-game winning streak. "Best moment of my life," he wrote on Twitter. Not even two weeks later, the Wildcats were leading John Glenn 17-12 late in the third quarter of a rare Wednesday afternoon game when, on a second-and-five near midfield, Tom pulled parallel to the line to block for running back Chris Rosati. Frank was in the stands watching. As fate would have it, Kelli was away on a field trip with their daughter Carlie; Kelli had never before missed one of Tom's games.

A John Glenn defender struck the side of Tom's helmet with the crown of his. "That's a cheap shot," Frank immediately said to a friend standing next to him. He assumed his son would rise from the hit, shake off the impact and join the huddle. But with Tom still down, his younger brother Kevin -- among the few sophomores who dressed for varsity games -- motioned urgently for his father to come down to the field.

Frank approached his fallen son and immediately realized the severity of Tom's injury. "He essentially died at my feet," Frank said. As Tom was kept alive for organ donation, the Cutinellas had family and friends visit him in the hospital to say their goodbyes.

"I will never heal from this pain," Kelli wrote on Twitter four days later.

The Cutinellas needed those 10 months of separation from Tom's final game before watching the video. Frank doesn't want the John Glenn defender publicly identified, because he doesn't blame the kid and doesn't want him and his family to deal with anything more than they've already dealt with. Upon returning from the hospital after two sleepless days, Frank immediately called Dave Shanahan, the head coach at John Glenn whom he had competed against in high school, and told him that they harbored no anger or hatred in their hearts.

But what Frank saw on the video was what he saw live -- a clear helmet-to-helmet hit that was somehow missed by five officials on a play that ended with the running back, Rosati, gaining five yards for a first down.

Frank also heard and saw things that made him realize why the sport desperately needed changes at its core.

"What made me say that the culture of football is wrong, having watched my son's death live and first hand, was watching it on video," Frank said. "We've watched it countless times, and cried over and over again. The [John Glenn] player fist pumps like he had just done something good. I could hear some of their fans cheering. ... You can check every rulebook out there from youth leagues to the NFL, and every one states you can't lead with the crown of your helmet, or target another player, and five referees missed that play. It wouldn't have brought my son back to life, but no flag was thrown.

"Now my son got basically decleated; he was laid out. And while listening to the audio and watching the video, I could hear some men in the press box saying, 'Did you see that hit?' Or, 'Wow, what a hit.' I was told their sideline erupted in joy. ... And then I say to myself, 'This is what it's become because this is what they've been programmed to see and think is part of the game.' So the halfback ran for five or six yards after the [hit]. If the halfback ran for five or six yards on every play, that football team would never lose a contest. Yet that is the mentality and culture of our game, and no one is saying that. People are saying it's part of the game. It's not part of the game, and it was never intended to be part of the game."

The Cutinellas had an autopsy performed, and the medical examiner assured them Tom had no pre-existing conditions that contributed to his death. The sole cause was a traumatic brain injury. That determination was important, Frank said, because parents of athletes always seek assurances that this couldn't happen to their own.

"Tom died from football," Frank said, and nothing else.

Frank Cutinella was sitting in his kitchen reading a Newsday story when a couple of lines stopped him cold. Roger Goodell had been trying to navigate his way through his annual Super Bowl news conference, talking up new helmet and artificial-turf technology that might reduce concussions and make the NFL a safer place, before he was asked if he still felt comfortable encouraging kids to play tackle football despite the reported number of high school athletes dying from injuries suffered on the field.

Goodell spoke of the league's investment in USA Football's Heads Up program, and its stated emphasis on proper technique and injury prevention, before saying that if he had a son, he would've loved for him to play the sport because of the values it teaches. "There's risks in life," the commissioner then said. "There's risks to sitting on the couch."

If it was a terribly awkward way of saying that sedentary kids face their own health issues, many found it offensive. The Cutinellas found it hurtful. "Me, personally?" Kelli said. "I would love to introduce Roger Goodell to my son Thomas, but I can't because he died in a football game. He didn't die sitting on the couch. My son was an amazing person, and he loved a sport that [Goodell] is the sole leader of. How do you sit there and say something like that?"

When Frank read Goodell's remark, he said to himself, "We are up against a lion here." Tom's father said he forgave Goodell for the statement, and that he forgave everyone in and around football because he needed to accept apologies that were never offered in order to move forward, and in order to act as Tom would have wanted.

There will be no lawsuits. They don't believe a fight over money is the way to preserve Tom's legacy, and they are not interested in punishing people. Their goal is to alter behavior.

So he started by enlisting the support of Section XI public schools officials in Suffolk County, ones who have agreed to implement what they're calling "Tommy Tough" safety standards next fall. Among other things, Frank said, the measures would help close the communication gap between administrators, coaches and referees on what is most important in the games their children play. They include a call for the referees to read a pregame safety statement to all players, and for all staffs to identify someone to serve as a "safety coach" to monitor techniques in games and practices. Flagrant and unsportsmanlike fouls would result in stiffer penalties and ejections/suspensions, and programs would be established to educate administrators, coaches, players and fans on the dangers of helmet hits.

Frank said he wants referees rating coaches on safety issues, rather than coaches rating refs on performance, and more leeway for officials to remove verbally abusive fans. He said he couldn't push as hard as he's pushing without the backing of those Section XI officials, whom he called "fantastic." Frank left his meeting last week with athletic directors across New York believing public high schools statewide will also adopt his proposals by the fall.

"In order to change the culture," Frank said, "you need to make drastic rule changes and you have to have drastic enforcement of those rules. ... Changing football is something that keeps Tom alive."

In October 2014, Tom Cutinella was one of three high school students in the U.S. killed on the football field in the same week. According to the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 13 high school fatalities in 2014 and 2013 were directly related to football, with another 16 indirectly related. Another 13 high school players died during or after practices and games in 2015, including a reported six directly related to football injuries.

The Cutinellas did not have an easy time allowing Tom's brother to continue playing, but Kevin, who has verbally committed to play lacrosse at UMass, loves football and the idea of seeing things through for Tom. Kevin was responsible for the first touchdown scored in his county all season, on a 46-yard run, and helped the Wildcats to another Long Island title.

Frank and Kelli aren't sure if their youngest son, Will, an eighth-grader who switched this year to soccer, will follow Tom and Kevin into the Shoreham-Wading River football program. Either way, Frank will continue to speak out about a coach's chief responsibility in developing young players.

"A coach can't just say, 'Hey Johnny, you missed a block or tackle,'" Frank said. "You need somebody there saying, 'You're doing this unsafely, or you can't drop your head on that tackle,' and that's not being done throughout the country because they can't be bothered. Coaches have a certain time frame to get their student-athletes ready to win games, but they have to remember that they are teachers and this isn't the NFL.

"I'll always regret that Kelli and I relied on chance and luck when we signed up our son for football, and I'm going to tell you that way doesn't work."

As Frank handles the family's football initiatives, Kelli is the lead spokesperson on organ donation. She is scheduled to speak in early April on behalf of the Trio organization, a transplant advocacy group, before 1,500 people at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Kelli said the family maintains close relationships with the woman who received Tom's heart and the men who received his pancreas and kidneys.

But Kelli is just as passionate as her husband about the need for football's guardians to act decisively to protect those who play it. Back in Tom's bedroom, surrounded by reminders of the man her boy was destined to become, Kelli says she wants to reach through her TV screen and shake some of the more aggressive coaches and parents appearing on "Friday Night Tykes," and tell them all about what happened to Tom.

She, too, would like to have a conversation with Goodell. "It's imperative that he sees the big picture," Kelli said, "because the NFL sets the tone for the mentality of high school and youth football. ... And if you're going to really support your players and emphasize that safety comes first, don't just say it. Do it."

Frank agrees as he reaches under Tom's bed and slides out the plaque that will greet every visitor to the Shoreham-Wading River field, a plaque from the county's football coaches association quoting Tom's speech in the preseason players-only meeting he called in the school's parking lot. "To win," it reads, "you don't need a few skilled players. You need a team, a family, a band of brothers willing to give it their all. ... To win, there must be commitment, compassion, faith, accountability, respect and love. You must give a perfect effort. We must become a family."

The Cutinellas are regular visitors to Tom's bedroom, because this is where they feel his presence, his generosity of spirit. This is where it's easiest to remember him playing backyard football with his friends in the snow, or Ripstik hockey with his friends in the driveway. This is where it's easiest to hear him laughing outside with a dozen or more boys and girls, the music blasting as they talked about classwork, the upcoming prom, or the kids Tom helped in his peer support group.

This is where it's easiest to picture Tom preparing for his next game.

"I could be a guy kicking and screaming and saying, 'Don't play football,'" Frank said, "but Tom wouldn't want me to say that. I agree with Roger Goodell when he says football is a great sport that teaches you values and discipline, but you have all the examples of concussions and traumatic brain injuries and CTE, and the NFL is just putting a Band-Aid on it. And they need to realize high school players all over the country are watching, and they're not setting the best example for the kids.

"I don't blame the commissioner totally; he's got to deal with the obstacle of the players' union, and I don't see any owners denouncing players who are making dangerous hits. They all say their No. 1 concern is safety, but their words mean nothing to me if there's no substance behind them. And if it takes a small-town kid to die in Suffolk County, New York, then that's my mission. If I had the opportunity, I would ask Roger Goodell for his help."

It will take far more than a proposed rule to automatically eject any NFL player who commits two unsportsmanlike penalties in a game (players committed a record 75 such fouls in 2015) to make a significant difference. Moved by strong anecdotal evidence of parents steering their children to safer fields of play, Goodell and team owners need to focus on the issue of safety and brain trauma day and night. They need to imagine life as Frank and Kelli Cutinella, who lost their honor student and future West Point cadet to a devastating brain injury, and yet still support their next oldest, Kevin, when he straps on his helmet and pads.

They need to understand that nobody in America can talk more credibly about football's redeeming value, and its fatal flaws, than the parents who enter that bedroom every day and stare at the white jersey that hangs in haunting tribute to a giver who died decades before his time.