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Football tragedy casts shadow across Suffolk County

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08/17/2017 6:00 AM |

It was a tragedy.

That sentiment was echoed over and over by local high school football coaches this week in reaction to the death of a Sachem High School East football player.

Sachem East junior Joshua Mileto, 16, died last Thursday morning after a log weighing 400 pounds fell on his head during a training drill at a football camp on school grounds, according to media reports.

While high school football teams throughout New York State began official preseason practices on Monday, a wake was held that day for Mileto. A funeral Mass was held Tuesday, to be followed by burial.

“Your initial reaction and the reaction you have the next day and the next week is just sadness for that family and what they lost in that community,” Shoreham-Wading River coach Matt Millheiser said after Tuesday morning’s practice. “It’s a tragedy. It’s sad because in the end, you know, the kid didn’t go home to Mom and Dad.”

The drill, in which five athletes carry a log over their heads, is said to be designed to build teamwork in Navy SEALS training. That drill isn’t used by the Bishop McGann-Mercy, Greenport/Southold/Mattituck, Riverhead or SWR high school football teams, according to coaches.

“Your thoughts go out to the family, obviously, the people that are involved, his teammates, the coaching staff there, the community,” Mercy coach Jeff Doroski said. “It’s just a terrible tragedy.”

A player’s death is a coach’s worst nightmare. Millheiser, his team and the SWR community went through it in 2014 when one of his players, Thomas Cutinella, collapsed during a game and died.

“It’s sad,” Millheiser, standing on SWR’s Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field, said of Mileto’s death. “In the end, regardless of what they were doing or what was happening, a young man lost his life. He went to practice. He went to go do something with his friends and, sadly, didn’t come home. My heart goes out to the family and that community. Unfortunately, we know that feeling.”

A memorial for Thomas Cutinella at the Shoreham-Wading River football field that now bears his name. Thomas died in 2014. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

Local coaches said the tragic event will not affect the way their teams train since they don’t employ logs, but do other things such as pushing large tires or blocking sleds to build strength.

“The reality is that accidents can happen,” Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. “You can have a kid bench press and he could drop the bar on his neck and he could die. You’re never going to bench press? … The reality is there’s an inherent risk in any sport.”

Greenport/Southold/Mattituck coach Jack Martilotta said he has had to assure some concerned parents that the Porters don’t use log carrying as part of their training. “That’s not something that we do here,” he said. “We don’t do anything like that.”

Riverhead endured a scare of its own two years ago when one of its players, Nikolas Visco, was taken to a hospital in critical condition after suffering heatstroke on the first day of practice. He spent five weeks in a hospital and was said to have suffered injuries to his pancreas, liver and kidneys before being released.

“We did everything right,” Shay said. “There’s nothing we could have done different, other than not have football. If you’re going to play a sport, you’re going to have an inherent risk of injury.”

Visco graduated from Riverhead this past June. Litigation between his family and the Riverhead School District is still ongoing in Suffolk Supreme Court. The case is before Justice William B. Rebolini.

Section XI, the governing body for Suffolk County sports, outlines guidelines for out-of-season practices that are set from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The main requirement is that any out-of-season work such as conditioning, weight lifting, intramurals or open gyms cannot be considered mandatory and it must be made available to all students.

Doroski said, “People need to continue to live their lives and appreciate every step you take, every breath you take and the people you spend time with, and I think that’s the message to our guys here.”

WITH JOE WERKMEISTER

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Top photo: Riverhead High School football players began the season Monday morning on the first official day of practice. Four days earlier, a 16-year-old at Sachem East High School died following an accident during a conditioning workout. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

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