Tom Cutinella dreamed of attending West Point, his father, Frank, said during a eulogy for the 16-year-old Tuesday morning.
It was a dream that, in a way, became reality one day earlier thanks to the effort of a Shoreham-Wading River alumnus and the football staff at West Point.
To honor Tom’s memory, Army football coach Jeff Monken arranged for him to receive an honorary scholarship to the United States Military Academy. In the letter addressed to Tom, Monken wrote, “I seek quality young men who uphold the values of Duty, Honor, and Country to lead West Point to the pinnacle of collegiate football. I believe you are a difference maker!”
Tom died Oct. 1 following an on-field collision during a football game at Elwood/John Glenn High School. In the aftermath of the tragedy, hundreds of mourners turned out for a vigil last Thursday and more than a thousand more to a funeral service Tuesday to remember Tom as a someone who had an “amazing ability to open people’s hearts,” as his father said.
Shoreham football coach Matt Millheiser said the idea at first was to see if West Point would send a jersey with Tom’s No. 54. Buddy Gengler, one of the more notable athletes in Shoreham-Wading River history, attended West Point and played baseball at the Academy. Gengler, who graduated from Shoreham in 1997 and recently had his baseball jersey retired there along with Millheiser, reached out to his former school.
The athletic staff at West Point took the jersey idea one step further, arranging for Tom to not only receive his No. 54 Army jersey, but also a full football scholarship.
“That was something special,” Millheiser said in an interview Tuesday. “A chance to fulfill his dream in a way.”
Monken penned a hand-written letter addressed to Frank and Kelli Cutinella, along with their children, Kevin, William and Carlie.
“From all I have read about Tom, he was the kind of young man that everyone would want on their team … loving, committed, dedicated, gracious and servant-minded,” Monken wrote. “What an example of what it truly means to be a man.”
Gengler reached out to Bob Berreta, the executive athletic director at West Point, to see what the Academy could do to honor Tom. Berreta covered Gengler’s baseball games when he attended West Point, but the two hadn’t spoken in about 13 years, Gengler said.
“When I sent him that email, I got an email back within minutes,” Gengler said. “‘We’re on it.’ That was the response. I just couldn’t be prouder of how they went above and beyond.”
Gengler had no idea exactly what the athletic department had planned. He assumed it would just be the jersey. Not wanting to risk having the item shipped, Gengler took the day off and drove to West Point with his wife Monday.
He got to the school and Berreta told him the package needed another 10 minutes to finalize. He told Gengler to go to the football stadium to pick up a letter. They were waiting for a callback from the NCAA.
“I didn’t know what any of that meant until I got up there,” he said.
In the scholarship offer to play football for the USMA, the Academy went through the protocol as if it was a real offer, Gengler said.
“They treated it as if it was a live and real offer letter and they went through compliance protocol and did everything they would do to provide that letter,” Gengler said. “As a point of detail, they even gave the envelope to me that had the full name and address that would have been sent to the high school if I hadn’t gone and picked it up.”
Gengler called it an “extraordinarily massive gesture” to put everything together in such a short time period. He was thankful his wife joined him on the trip.
“I don’t know if emotionally I would have been able to drive after seeing everything we saw,” he said. “We just had trouble taking it all in.”
Later that night, Gengler attended Tom’s wake at St. John the Baptist R.C. Church in Wading River. There, he saw the Cutinella family for the first time since the tragedy.
He presented the family with the gifts from West Point in front of the massive audience that crammed inside to remember Tom.
“They were deeply, deeply moved,” Gengler said. “They were shaken to their core at the enormity of that kind of gesture, as was I. And I think the community was, too.”