Long Island community pushes for change, still recovering one year after teen died during football game

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WADING RIVER, NY- From the sideline it looks like business as usual for Kevin Cutinella as he practices for another high school football game.

“It’s my number one stress reliever,” he said.

It's been one year since his older brother, Tom, passed away, after taking a hit to the head he never saw coming. Suiting up sand putting on that helmet has never been more challenging.

“Are you still having a hard time talking about that day?" I asked. "Yes, I don’t talk about it.”

This story is not just about the family celebrating his life or how they are coping after losing him. The Cutinella's journey is also about confronting the risks of playing America's most popular sport.

Related: Funeral today for high school football player who died after in-game collision

“To have a player on your team, pass away during a game is an experience that I never thought would happen," Matthew Millheiser said. "[I] never gave real thought on how I would cope with it or deal with it.”

Head coach Matthew Millheiser says he even questions whether he would have kept the job if his players had decided to hang up their cleats.

By all accounts, Tom Cutinella was wise, kind and responsible far beyond his years.

“Did you look up to him?" I asked Kevin. "Of course, how could you not? He's smarter than you, I don't know if he was more athletic," he laughed. "Or good looking, that's most important."

As an honor student, Tom ran for junior class president and was determined to attend West Point.

“He was a go-getter," Kevin remembered. "He was a good person, he was smart, unselfish, he wasn’t just a football player.”

Tom, playing offensive line, staggered to his feet last October 1st after blocking on a run play. He then collapsed and never regained consciousness. Tom Cutinella was just 16 years old.

“The only football game I missed in my entire life was the one Thomas passed away at,” Kelli Cutinella said.

Kelli Cutinella just happened to be on a field trip with her daughter that tragic day. A year later, she's not great but doing much better and say she can relate to the three other families across the country whose sons died on the football field this season alone.

“I know what they’re going through, I know what they will be going through," Kelli said. "When you lose a child at that age, or any age for that matter, everything that you visualized for your future together all of their milestones that they're going to be achieving over their lifetime are taken from you my heart breaks for them, it absolutely breaks for them.”

Related: New Jersey high school quarterback dies following football injury

For Tom Cutinella's brother, Kevin, and the rest of his teammates, returning to the field this season hasn't been easy. You can take a look at Tom's locker and see all of the player's heartfelt notes. And you ask yourself how can they do it? How can they suit back up, and return to the field knowing that every play could be their last.

"It's scary," Kevin said. "Before every game it's like 'oh this could happen to me' but it's not I real. [I tell myself that because] we've got a guardian angel on the team and he brings us good luck I feel."

Following Tom's death last year, Kevin and the team rallied-winning its first ever Long Island championship. This season, the team is undefeated with number '54' emblazoned on their helmets.

"The kids are just working real hard and focused on the task of playing football," Millheiser said. "But at the same time, Tom's memory is never far off."

In fact, the school has named its new athletic field after Tom Cutinella.

“That’s something that he earned," Frank Cutinella smiled. "His character was impeccable, people just wanted to be around him, his legacy continues to grow every day."

Frank, Tom's father, showed me his son's room. "How often do you come in here?" I asked. "I come in here every day, many times a day."

As for what he thinks about when he does go in Tom's room? "What could have been," he said.

Frank Cutinella still finds immense joy boasting his late son. And that legacy, it lives on in body and spirit. It turns out Tom decided on his own to be an organ donor. 22-year-old Karen Hill, received Tom's heart and ran with Tom's family in this year's charity run.

“I’m appreciative that she’s in my life, and that part of Thomas is living in on,” Kelli said.

But the family's smiles conceal the inevitable pain that comes with losing a child and the angst of falling out of love with the game Tom died playing.

Related: Hundreds gather for LI teenager's vigil

“You could drive me trucks full of money right now and I don't want it, I want my son back and I can’t get that," Frank said. "As a parent it's painful, as a parent you're supposed to protect your child. At seven years old, I signed up Tom for football."

In explaining why he continues to let Kevin play football...

“That’s his courage and his decision to play,” Frank said.

Frank says he believes the problem is not with the sport but with the way it's played.

"I can't stand up here and say to parents, don't let your kid play football but there needs to be changes," he said.  “We can’t deny that he was killed from an illegal hit.”

Frank says he's already present Suffolk County officials with a set of new safety proposals. They aim to increase accountability among parents, coaches and referees. And to make sure players are aware of what makes a block illegal then penalizing those players when they break the rules.

“They’re kids, they need to be taught that, we can't assume that the coaches at the youth level or their parents have taught them properly," Frank said. "Their current coaches have to reinforce it.”

“How determined are you to continue playing?" I asked Kevin. "I'm doing the sport for myself I fell but also to keep his legacy alive”

It surely is not easy, but Kevin believes his brother Tom is with him, both on and off the field, every step of the way."

 

Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi