A life lost, a school shaken, a community devastated

(Credit: Paul Squire)
Pallbearers carry the casket of Tom Cutinella at Tuesday’s funeral service in Wading River. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Oct. 9 print edition of the Riverhead News-Review.

It was second-down-and-five with 3 minutes, 51 seconds remaining in the third quarter on the overcast afternoon of Oct. 1. The Shoreham-Wading River football team led host Elwood/John Glenn by a score of 17-12.

The call was for a simple running play.

Wildcats quarterback Danny Hughes handed the ball to tailback Chris Rosati, who began to run to his left. 

As guard Tom Cutinella went to block a defender, a collision occurred between him and a Glenn player.

Rosati gained five yards and secured a first down at the 50-yard line.

Cutinella rose to his feet briefly following the play before stumbling to one knee. The 6-foot, 180-pound athlete stood up again and attempted to walk off the field but collapsed several feet from the sideline.

The crowd went silent.

A few hours later, in a hospital room six miles away, Cutinella succumbed to an apparent head injury.

He was the third U.S. high school football player that week to die from an injury sustained on the field.

Members of the Shoreham-Wading River football team walk out onto the field during last Thursday's vigil. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
Members of the Shoreham-Wading River football team walk out onto the field during last Thursday’s vigil. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Born July 11, 1998, Thomas Robert Cutinella was the eldest of Frank and Kelli Cutinella’s four children. He was the older brother of 14-year-old Kevin, a sophomore who is also on the varsity football team, William, 12, and Carlie, 10.

TR1009_Cutinella2_C.jpgLike so many kids growing up in Wading River, Tom loved to play lacrosse and football, having competed in both sports since he was in elementary school.

When he was in eighth grade, he received a Triple C Award from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, an accolade presented to students who represent commitment, character and courage.

Those who knew Tom have spoken this week about how well he embodied all three characteristics.

“The lacrosse and football was just the tip of the iceberg,” Shoreham-Wading River football coach Matt Millheiser said in an interview Tuesday. “Everyone in the community knew him well.”

School principal Daniel Holtzman said at a press conference last Thursday that Tom was an “amazing student” and Superintendent Steven Cohen said the junior volunteered with Natural Helpers, a peer mediation program at the school.

“He had a great sense of humor and was just a great individual overall,” Mr. Cohen said. “He was well-liked among students and staff and he will truly be missed.”

Even a simple peek at Tom’s Twitter account reveals an all-American kid who cared deeply for others, his country and the game of football.

After the Wildcats ended Babylon’s 25-game win streak Sept. 19, Tom tweeted that it was the “best moment of my life.”

He was running for junior class president and shared patriotic messages on Twitter on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and September 11.

“Thomas loved his country,” his father said during the eulogy at his funeral Tuesday. “He was extremely patriotic … He was a red, white and blue kid who believes in hard work and commitment.” He even placed flags at Calverton National Cemetery each Memorial Day weekend, Mr. Cutinella said.

After watching the film “Lone Survivor” — which tells the story of local Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was also once a high school linebacker and had ties to Wading River — Tom tweeted about how he believed it was the best movie ever made.

“I’ve never heard a person say anything bad about Tom,” said family friend Brian Sheehan, a father of four who has coached youth sports in the community. “We’re going to heal as a community slowly over time, but God really did reach down and grab an angel.”

Another family friend, John Higgins, said, “My two kids looked up to him a great deal … It’s been devastating.”

At a gathering held by his peers at a local farm in Shoreham the night after his death, more than 200 of Tom’s classmates lit candles and floated lanterns — including one featuring the stars and stripes of the American flag — in his memory.

“Anyone he met, he made them feel special,” said friend and classmate Jennifer Lohrius.

Brian Baker, who coached Tom in lacrosse at Shoreham, described him as a role model and a leader.

“Tommy didn’t have a best friend; he had a ton of best friends,” Mr. Baker said.

He recalled that after one tough loss, Tom came up to him and said, “Hey, coach, don’t worry, it’s just a lacrosse game.”

“Tommy was a role model not just for his peers, but for everyone that came around him,” Mr. Baker said. “He comes from a great family.”

His father gave all the credit to his son during his eulogy.

“He was rock-solid,” Mr. Cutinella said. “He was a man long before his peers, and we knew he was special.”

Many of Tom’s classmates and players from other football teams across Suffolk County — including Elwood/John Glenn, Port Jefferson, Ward Melville, Centereach, Babylon and Mount Sinai — attended a vigil on the Shoreham-Wading River high school football field the afternoon following his death.

The scoreboard reflected a 0-0 game with 54 seconds left as hundreds of community members stood around the field. Fifty-four was Tom’s number.

Mount Sinai football player Nick Bongiorno, who also wears the number 54, said his team was supposed to play Hauppauge that day but felt it was important to pay their respects at Tom’s memorial.

“Walking around and seeing all of these blank faces on everyone — all of them crying — it shows how he impacted Shoreham and the whole community,” he said.

Bongiorno said two of Tom’s cousins play on his team and described their reaction to his death as devastating.

“They can’t even talk,” he said. “They are completely shocked.”

Reid K’Sean, who plays tight end and linebacker for Babylon, played against Tom last month. He described him as “a tough kid.”

“He was a hard hitter and flew to the ball,” he said. “It felt like a brotherhood [today]. It brought everyone together and it was very supportive.”