In front of a crowd of more than 40,000 at Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 29, Shoreham-Wading River athletic director Mark Passamonte stood on the field during a break in the action between the Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners. He was joined by representatives of Russell Athletic, the host of the college football bowl game.
Mr. Passamonte likely never would have envisioned himself spending part of the holiday break on the field of a college bowl game. But then again, ever since Oct. 1, life in the Wading River community became anything but ordinary.
Mr. Passamonte was there to accept the “Fight Like Dylan Award” on the school’s behalf. The award honors Dylan Rebeor, a high school football player who died from cancer in 2010. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Dylan gave a gift to his teammates, which was used to purchase new uniforms.
The fans in attendance that night in Orlando learned the name of another courageous high school football player: Tom Cutinella.
The story of Tom’s tragic death following an on-field collision during the Shoreham football team’s game at John Glenn High School generated national headlines. For his teammates, it left a wound in their hearts that will last a lifetime.
For its perseverance through tragedy, and fighting spirit to honor the memory of a fallen teammate, capped by a storybook run to a championship, the News-Review selected the Shoreham-Wading River football team as the 2014 People of the Year.
The season began as any other would, with two-a-day practices under the warm August sun. The Wildcats were the No. 3 seed for Division IV in the preseason rankings. It was a familiar spot. The Wildcats had yet to finish a season as one of the top two teams in the division since the program’s inception in 1997.
By Week 2, the season suddenly took on a different feel. On the road at Babylon, a field that had been the site of so many blowout losses, the Wildcats snapped the Panthers’ 25-game win streak and defeated the two-time defending Long Island champions for the first time on their field. Afterward, Tom wrote on Twitter: “Best moment of my life.”
Less than two weeks later, Tom’s life was cut short. He left behind his parents, Frank and Kelli, and three younger siblings. The next day, football players gathered at a teammate’s home in Wading River to mourn and try to understand what had just happened.
As the grieving process began, they eventually faced a decision: continue playing or call it a season.
“The term family took on a new meaning,” Shoreham coach Matt Millheiser said when he accepted the Rutgers Trophy Dec. 1 on the team’s behalf. “It was clear from the first day you were not there to just finish out a season, but to honor Tom. You would play by a new standard — a standard we call ‘Tommy Tough.’ ”
Ten days after Tom’s death, the Wildcats returned to the field at Shoreham-Wading River High School and defeated Wyandanch, 54-0. The 54 points matched Tom’s number, which was retired prior to the game.
The win over Wyandanch started an incredible run that will go down as the most dominant stretch of football in Shoreham’s history. In eight games, including four in the playoffs, the Wildcats scored 350 points while giving up 33. On Nov. 30, the Wildcats defeated Roosevelt, 47-13, to capture the Class IV Long Island title. The Wildcats closed the season 12-0.
“Your strength, resiliency and courage carried our community for two months,” Millheiser said during his speech Dec. 1. “You experienced pain and loss that no young man should have to bear. You carried yourself with class and dignity and did it with the whole world watching.”
The story of Shoreham football was one of hundreds of submissions for this year’s “Fight Like Dylan Award,” which came with a $50,000 grant for uniforms and equipment.
“All of the judges were deeply touched by Tom’s story,” said Robby Davis, the senior vice president of Russell Athletic, in a statement. “And we are honored to present this award to the entire Shoreham-Wading River community.”
2013: Michael Hubbard
2012: Denise Lucas
2011: Laurie Nigro, Amy Davidson
2010: Linda Hobson
2009: Chris Kempner
2008: Riverhead Blue Waves
2007: Maureen’s Haven
2006: Sister Margaret Smyth
2005: Alan Shields
2004: Phil Cardinale
2003: Vince Tria
2002: Bryan Tressler
2001: Annie Jackson
2000: Judy Young
1999: Members of the First Congregational Church
1998: Eileen Miller
1997: Vinny Villella
1996: Vic Prusinowski
1995: Pat Stark
1994: Sonny Okula, Jim Kane
1993: Jack Van de Wetering
1992: Bobby Goodale
1991: Joe Janoski
1990: Robert Tooker
1989: Jim & Connie Lull
1988: Jesse Goodale