A ‘Star’ is Born: Kicker With Autism Lifts Brick [VIDEO]
As the ball rocketed through the uprights and the incredible story of Brick’s kicker with autism came to vivid life, those closest to him wondered if Anthony Starego fully grasped the enormity of what he had just done.
With a story this hard to believe, it's not surprising that Starego himself turned out to be the one who remembered it more clearly than anyone.
On his first varsity field goal attempt, Starego nailed a 22-yarder with 21 seconds left in regulation to give the Green Dragons a stunning 24-21 victory on Friday night over a Toms River North team ranked No. 4 in the All Shore Media Top 10. In the split-second before the home stands erupted, the people who knew everything Anthony had been through to reach that moment short-circuited from the stress and emotion.
“It’s hard to stay in the moment when your autistic kid, who wasn’t even a starter two weeks ago, now has the chance to kick a game-winner against a top-four team in the Shore out of nowhere,’’ said Ray Starego, Anthony’s father. “I saw him kick it, I saw the officials put their arms up and as soon as they did that, I was a blubbering idiot. I basically blacked out for probably a minute or minute-and-a-half. I couldn’t control myself. I was crying, I was sobbing.”
“I never even saw the kick until I saw it on video because I just walked away,’’ said Brick kicking coach Kurt Weiboldt, who has worked with Anthony for four years. “It was just too much. I was so nervous because if he makes it, it’s what he is today. If he misses it, what does it do to his ego? You don’t know.’’
With the seconds trickling down in a tie game and Weiboldt telling Anthony to get the kicking net to warm up, Anthony’s rigid adherence to routine insulated him against the mounting pressure. The inclination to repeat things that causes limitations in other areas of Anthony’s life has become an asset to him as a kicker, which is all about repeating the same routine to ensure success. He jogged on the field, paced off his usual steps just like he was in practice and calmly drilled the biggest kick of his life as tears began to streak down the faces of the Brick supporters.
“I wasn’t nervous,’’ Anthony said. “I felt confident and happy. I was enjoying myself.’’
“He was just happy he helped the team win,’’ said his mother, Reylene. “That was his big thing.’’
In a video shot by a Brick student that was posted on YouTube, it’s clear that Anthony knew what he just accomplished. He can be seen sprinting down the sideline in jubilation after his game-winning kick. Anthony once yelled at his teammates and coaches, “Don’t touch me!’’ on his first day of Pop Warner because his condition made him acutely sensitive to the slightest contact. Now he was giving a teammate a mid-air chest bump.
“I went in and kicked the winning field goal, then I ran all the way down the sideline,’’ Anthony said. “It was nuts.’’
“He is such a great kid who works so hard,’’ said Brick senior linebacker/running back Doug Cuccinello. “We earned this hard-fought win when people doubted us, and Anthony earned this opportunity."
In Anthony’s mind, he simply was having his own Jeremy Ito moment. The Staregos are Rutgers season-ticket holders and Anthony is a popular fixture in section 112 at Rutgers Stadium. Anthony and his father were in attendance the night in 2006 when Ito hit a 28-yard field goal as time expired to help the Scarlet Knights shock previously unbeaten Louisville 28-25 and touch off a wild scene in Piscataway. Anthony, who was in seventh grade at the time, watched the highlight over and over in the following weeks, telling his father he wanted to be a kicker. Ray signed him up for the local Pop Warner team, beginning a six-year journey that climaxed on Friday night when Anthony touched off the Brick version of that Rutgers celebration six years ago.
“I remember all those days we practiced together, those thousands of balls that he kicked, when I would say to him, ‘Three seconds left on the clock, Anthony Starego lines up for the winning field goal….and it’s good!’’ Ray said.
“I kept thinking, ‘Does he know what’s going on?’’’ said Brick head coach Rob Dahl. “I can’t even explain it in words. He made the kick and he thought the game was over, like it was a walk-off field goal. He was ready to run into the locker room.’’
The average kicker attempting a field goal of that magnitude in his first varsity attempt would be overwhelmed by the pressure, but Anthony’s condition became a weapon instead of a limitation.
“After the game, we probably thought he was the best one out there in that situation because he just thinks it’s practice,’’ Weiboldt said. “There’s a holder, there’s a snapper, and he kicks the ball just like he does 50 times a day with me.’’
The kick was anything but ordinary, as his story is now receiving national attention. The video of Anthony’s field goal has been viewed nearly 7,000 times, and he and his parents appeared on NBC’s TODAY Show on Wednesday morning. Two weeks ago, he wasn’t even the starting kicker.
Six Years in the Making
Ray and Reylene Starego adopted Anthony in 1997, when he was a 3-year-old orphan that Ray said was considered “unadoptable.’’ He had bounced around to 11 different foster homes and 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.
The diagnosis of autism was made official in 2005. The family had moved from Easton, Pa., to Brick to help get him the proper help he needed to develop, and in 2007 he signed up for Pop Warner after being inspired by Ito’s game-winning field goal.
“When he started, he couldn’t reach the goal line from the 10-yard line,’’ his father said.
His father sent him to work with another former Rutgers kicker, Lee McDonald, who is the owner of Special Teams Solutions, which trains kickers, punters and long-snappers.
“Lee had to simplify his teaching methods because it’s very easy to overwhelm Anthony, but it started to come together,’’ Ray said.
Coming into this season, Ray thought his son had a legitimate shot to secure the starting kicker spot. At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Anthony had plenty of strength in his left leg, so it was more a case of improving his accuracy.
“At the beginning of the year I was very disappointed because he clearly didn’t earn the job,’’ Ray said. “He wasn’t better than the other two kids.’’
He kept working hard, and his opportunity arrived on Oct. 11, one day before the Green Dragons were to square off against Toms River East. Weiboldt, who starred as a kicker at Brick in the late 1980s, was unhappy with the performance of the other kickers, while the team as a whole was trying to avoid the first 0-6 start in the 55-year history of the program.
Weiboldt held an open competition in the walk-through practice that Thursday, and Anthony won the job over a kicker who was an All-Division selection last year and another one who is a converted soccer player. Anthony was hitting field goals from 45 yards away in practice, making Weiboldt jokingly nervous that his school-record 46-yard field goal from the 1980s might be in jeopardy.
“The other kickers were missing and I said, ‘Anthony get in,’ and he hit eight in a row,’’ Weiboldt said. “I said to coach Dahl, ‘I’m going to let him kick tomorrow. We’ve got nothing to lose. Let the kid play. He’s a senior, and he’s the best kicker.’’’
“I watched him in pregame in the games leading up to Toms River East, and he was just banging the crap out of the ball,’’ his father said. “Somehow he had just gotten much better in that short time.’’
In his first varsity start, Anthony earned the game ball from Dahl. He went 4-for-4 on extra points, which proved to be huge in a 28-27 win over the Raiders.
“He not only does the kicking but he participates in a lot of the fundamental drills with the wide receivers and the defensive backs, so he has earned the respect of his teammates,’’ Dahl said. “That moment was incredible, and then it got even better a week later.’’
The respect for Anthony carries off the field. If anyone messes with him in the hallways at school, there is a line of teammates behind him ready to have his back.
“Everybody has been happy for me,’’ Anthony said. “The whole team and the coaches are happy, and coach Weiboldt and coach Dahl gave me a hug because they are the best coaches ever.’’
“The whole atmosphere of our practices and everything else is different now because of him,’’ Weiboldt said. “The other kids love him, so to see him do that has lifted the whole team.’’
As the tension mounted on Friday night with Brick leading 21-14, Ray Starego jokingly confided to his wife that he wouldn’t mind if Toms River North scored and the game came down to a field goal attempt by Anthony.
“She says, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’’’ he said.
The six years that father and son spent working together alone on empty practice fields seemingly went by in an instant as Anthony’s kick hurtled toward its destination.
“Nobody works harder than him,’’ Ray said while becoming emotional. “I pushed him probably sometimes more than maybe his level would allow. Knowing what he’s meant to the team and the parents, that all just came crushing down at that moment in time.’’
Only days later, the television trucks were pulling into the Brick parking lot, the reporters were calling and Ray’s cell phone was buzzing with a TODAY Show producer on the line.
“This has come just out of nowhere, all of a sudden,’’ Ray said. “It’s an act of God.”
The boy who once hated to be touched is now an 18-year-old who will give you a firm hand shake and a smile after you are done interviewing him. He blames the siege of reporters on his dad, telling him, “This is all your fault,’’ but unfailingly breaks out in a grin when it’s time to relive his magical moment.
“I still remember everything,’’ Anthony said. “I will never forget it.’’