Tom Cutinella was a gifted athlete, an exceptional student and a patriotic young man who planted flags at Calverton National Cemetery and had dreams of going to West Point, his father Frank said to hundreds during a eulogy opening his funeral service Tuesday morning.
But while the teen loved his country and competing in sports, to Tom, his family always came first.
Frank Cutinella, a Suffolk County police officer, told mourners of a card Tom had tacked to his bulletin board. It had been given to him by his parents, wishing him good luck on his first day of middle school. The card had been pinned to the board for four years, still hanging there on the day Tom died.
A 12-year-old Tom had written a message on the card, reminding him to re-read it.
“Nothing meant more to Thomas than his family,” Mr. Cutinella said at Tuesday’s funeral, his voice unwavering. “He was one exceptional kid.”
Hundreds crowded onto the grounds of St. John the Baptist R.C. Church in Wading River Tuesday morning to mourn the 16-year-old Shoreham-Wading River junior who died after being injured during a football game last week.
Firefighters and police officers in dress uniform lined the path of the procession as Suffolk County police bagpipers played. Shoreham Wading River closed school Tuesday so classmates could attend the funeral.
As the police motorcycles led the procession to the funeral down the closed road, a car drove behind with a three-foot-tall Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats jersey made from blue, white and yellow flowers bearing 54, Tom’s number. It was the same number written on many of Tom’s classmates wrists and on buttons honoring him.
Mourners from across the community — including classmates, local politicians, school administrators and police brass — were bused to the parking lot of the church using school buses before the service began at 10 a.m.
“We’re going to heal as a community slowly over time, but God really did reach down and grab an angel,” said Brian Sheehan, a family friend of the Cutinellas.
Tom’s cousins, brothers and teammates carried his casket into the church, which was packed to capacity. Hundreds of additional mourners waited outside, listening to the service as it played through loudspeakers.
Tom was an offensive lineman for the school’s varsity team and was playing with a 17-12 lead in the third quarter at Elwood/John Glenn High School Wednesday when he suffered a head injury after colliding with another player.
He was taken to Huntington Hospital at 6:05 p.m., 20 minutes after the hit, and later died. The game was suspended and on Monday Section XI officials voted to count the score as final, awarding SWR the win.
Mr. Cutinella said the day Tom was born was one of the best days of his life. The day he died was the worst; nothing could compare, he said.
“We say what could be worse,” the father said. “Nothing is worse. Then it keeps popping into my head that the only thing that could ever be worse is if Thomas had never been born.”
Mr. Cutinella said his son had an “amazing ability to open people’s hearts.” He had too many best friends to count and looked up to volunteer firefighters, police officers and members of the armed forces as his heroes.
On the field, Tom was always exceptional, Mr. Cutinella said.
“He was never the best player, but always the smartest, the hardest worker and the toughest,” he said.
After the funeral, the hearse carrying Tom’s casket drove alongside the assembled crowd. Some made a cross as the casket drove by, and afterwards classmates and family hugged in the parking lot.
“Thomas was a tremendous student, a tremendous person and it’s just such a loss from the community,” said John Higgins, whose children were close to Tom and his siblings. “You can tell from the outpouring [of support] and everyone that’s here that we loved him very much and that he was a role model and an example for the entire community.”
Tom’s classmates said he was beloved by everyone in school, from his fellow students to teachers.
“Everyone was so affected by him, because he was friends with every single kind of group,” said 16-year-old Katie Dunn, who was a fellow member of Natural Helpers with Tom. “He knew the jocks because he was in sports, he knew the brainiacs because he was smart, and he was friends with all the teachers. Even if he didn’t have them, the teachers knew him because he was so friendly.”
Ashley Meier, 16, said she never heard anyone say a bad thing about Tom.
“You could never meet him and not like him,” she said.
Frank Cutinella urged mourners to honor Tom by not dwelling on his passing.
“I know that Tom would want each and every person affected by his death to move forward — go back to school, go back to work, play the sports you want to play, and do the things you love to do,” he said. “Please live life, and love life, like our Thomas.”