Brick kicker with autism has goals beyond game-winning field goal

Brick kicker with autism has goals beyond game-winning field goal

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Brick kicker with autism has goals beyond game-winning field goal

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BRICK

Anthony Starego has a dream, and perhaps somebody can give Rutgers football head coach Kyle Flood the memo on what that dream entails.

“I want to go to college and kick for Rutgers,” said the Brick High School senior kicker, who not only is 7-for-7 on extra points so far this season but also booted the game-winning, 22-yard field goal during the Green Dragons’ 24-21 upset of Toms River North on Friday.

Oh, and by the way, Anthony is on the autism spectrum, specifically described as multi-symptom autistic.

“I was on the sideline, on my knees, at about the 20-yard line, with my eyes closed,” said junior Brian DeAlmeida, who was Starego’s holder on the junior varsity squad up until several weeks ago when Starego earned the starting kicker’s role on the varsity team. “But I kept my eyes open just enough to see what was happening.”

But what was happening was something Anthony had done many times before, according to his father, Ray.

“Anthony’s kicked thousands of footballs,” said Ray Starego, who along with his wife, Reylene, adopted Anthony in 1997 when he was 3 years old, after he had been placed in 11 foster homes to that point. “We’ve played that game plenty of times — that game of, ‘There’s 3 seconds left at Rutgers Stadium and a field goal wins the game.’ He’s practiced that situation many times.”

So it was no problem, then. With 21 seconds left and the Dragons tied, 21-21, with the Mariners, who were No. 4 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 at the time, Anthony was going to line this one up and send it through without a hitch. Right?

“It wasn’t like Anthony could lose the game if he missed,” Ray Starego said. “He could only win the game at that point. But I was hysterical. This was his moment. I was really nervous.”

To make things more interesting, or nerve-racking, it was sophomore quarterback Joe Phillips’ first time holding for Anthony during a varsity game, not to mention Anthony’s first varsity field goal attempt.

“I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, and I didn’t want to do what Tony Romo did that one year,” Phillips said of the 2007 NFC wild-card game in which the Dallas quarterback dropped a snap on a 19-yard field-goal attempt which resulted in a 21-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and ended Dallas’ season.

“As soon as I put the ball down, just before Anthony kicked it, I closed my eyes until I heard the thump of his foot kicking the ball. Then I opened my eyes and saw it go through, and it was just awesome. He was so happy. It was all his moment.”

A video posted to YouTube shows the 6-foot-3 lefty kicker deliver the game-winning points, then take off in a sprint toward the bench and then down the sideline before slowing down to celebrate with teammates near the opposite 25-yard line.

As soon as the ball sailed through the uprights and the referees signaled that the kick was good, Ray Starego buried his face in his hands and cried.

“I was crying, but Ray was worse,” Reylene Starego said. “He was like a blubbering idiot and didn’t see Anthony running down the sidelines. I needed to watch it. I wanted to see his moment. I think he kept running because he didn’t really know what to do with himself. He likes the movie and identifies with Forrest Gump, so he just did what Forrest did, I think.”

The video had nearly 6,900 hits as of Wednesday evening, and it set off a barrage of national attention, which included a spot with Anthony and his parents on the “Today” show in New York on Wednesday morning.

“Anthony knew it was a big kick, but I didn’t realize he knew how big it was until he started running down the sidelines,” said Brick head coach Rob Dahl, in his second season at the helm. “At that point of the game, I couldn’t celebrate yet because I was still worried about that last 21 seconds. But when he ran off, I just smiled. He’s such a great kid and that was such a wonderful lift.”

“It was picture-perfect,” DeAlmeida said. “I’ve seen Anthony grow the past two years and I was crying when he started running. To see that was awe inspiring.”

Interestingly, at age 12, Anthony Starego became a kicker after witnessing former Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito kick a 28-yard field goal to give the Scarlet Knights a 28-25 victory against then-No. 3 Louisville. His parents signed him up with Brick Pop Warner at the time, and Anthony struggled at first to get things going in a positive direction.

However, continued practice — the routine of kicking a fitting activity for an autistic individual — helped develop Anthony into a pretty good kicker. Once he got into high school, he continued to work hard on his kicking game, and has been part of the Brick football program since his freshman year.

Still, heading into this season it was up in the air as to whether Anthony would ever be a starting kicker for the varsity club.

“We had two pretty good kickers already, besides Anthony, who was really our third kicker at the beginning of the season,” Dahl said. “We have these kicking competitions at the end of each week, and for a few weeks Anthony was coming in a close second. Then he took over the top spot.”

After winning the weekly competition just prior to Brick’s contest against Toms River East on Oct. 12, Anthony was given the nod as the starter. He didn’t fail the Green Dragons, booting four extra points en route to his team’s 28-27 victory — the team’s first win of the season.

Then came a much bigger test against a much better team on Friday, when the Mariners, who had just handed Brick Memorial its first loss of the season the week before, came to town for a game many believed North would win easily.

After Anthony delivered on three more PATs, the decision to go for the 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds to go was easy.

“He had been 7-for-7 on extra points and this was pretty much like him looking at another extra-point kick, so it was sort of a no-brainer,” Dahl said. “He wanted to take it and I was confident.”

Reylene Starego knew her son was capable.

“We always knew he could do something like that,” she said. “But still, it was one of those moments you never dream would really happen.”

Once the ball had been kicked, the celebration and the game over, Ray Starego simply couldn’t believe how much things had turned around for his son.

“To go from a backup kicker to a hero in two weeks is mind-blowing,” he said. “It’s Disney-like. It’s like magic. That kick in that situation … it was more than just winning a game against a top team.”

Of course, Anthony knew it was good as soon as his foot hit the leather.

“Yes, I knew,” he said. “I love kicking for my team, and I kick for them so we can win.”

From here, all Reylene Starego can hope for is that Anthony somehow gets a chance at fulfilling his dream.

“He wants to kick in Rutgers Stadium,” she said. “I hope sometime in his life he gets to do that, because that would be really special.”

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