Column: A player’s tragic death felt beyond the field

A candlelit tribute to Tom Cutinella made during a vigil at the Shoreham-Wading River football field last Thursday. (Credit: Thomas Baker)
A candlelit tribute to Tom Cutinella made during a vigil at the Shoreham-Wading River football field last Thursday. (Credit: Thomas Baker)

Football, a sport that has been as bruised and battered as some of its players sometimes, has taken hit after hit in recent years. In the NFL, we have seen Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson involved in domestic abuse and child abuse cases, respectively. The commissioner, Roger Goodell, has come under fire for his handling — or mishandling — of the Rice case. The danger of concussions hangs over the sport like a sword of Damocles. College football has had its own misdeeds, scandals and problems. 

High school football is sometimes seen as a sanctuary where money and greed don’t rule the roost and where it’s supposed to be about good, clean competition for the sake of sport. Yet, as we have seen, even high school football has issues and makes headlines for the wrong reasons.

The tragedy that unfolded last Wednesday night has been seared into our memory.

My first hint that something really unusual had happened came in an email that night from a reporter covering the Shoreham-Wading River football game at Elwood/John Glenn High School. I was covering another football game in Southampton at the time when I read the email, stating that the Shoreham-Glenn game had been suspended in the third quarter because of an injury to a player.

Very unusual, I thought to myself. Injuries happen all the time, but games aren’t usually stopped for them. This, I thought, had to be serious, and it was, although much more serious than I would have imagined.

It was later that night, while working on my game story, that I received a chilling email from Joe Werkmeister, the Times/Review Newsgroup web editor, notifying me that school officials had confirmed the death of a Shoreham player, Tom Cutinella.

“54 down 3:51 Injury.”

That’s what Michael Lewis scribbled into his notebook at the time of the play. Lewis, believed to be the only reporter on the scene, covered the game for the Riverhead News-Review. The 54 refers to Cutinella’s uniform number. Cutinella, who played guard and linebacker for the Wildcats, went down with 3 minutes 51 seconds left in the third quarter.

What was turning into a pretty good game between two unbeaten teams, with Shoreham leading by 17-12, was forever scarred by what Lewis later described as a typical running play, one he had seen thousands of times before. Chris Rosati took a handoff and ran 5 yards for a first down. Cutinella, a junior in his first varsity season, went to block a player on that play and a collision occurred.

Moments later, after looking up from his notebook, Lewis noticed a stoppage in play. Cutinella had collapsed.

As personnel hovered over Cutinella, an eerie silence swept over the stadium for what seemed to Lewis to be the longest time. About 10 minutes after the incident, an ambulance arrived. When Cutinella was lifted onto a stretcher, the crowd applauded. As Cutinella was placed into an ambulance, spectators in the Shoreham-Wading River section could be heard yelling: “OK Thomas! OK Thomas!”

Later that night, the terrible news spread that Cutinella had died at Huntington Hospital. He was 16 years old.

“Needless to say, I was stunned beyond belief,” Lewis said. “I was speechless. No one expects this to happen. I have seen games in many sports stopped many times due to injuries. Sometimes players have the wind knocked out of them, some have been taken to the hospital for knee injuries or to repair broken bones. Never in my four decades of reporting sports have I ever encountered this situation. Nothing, nothing at all, prepares anyone for this.”

Since then, the Suffolk County sports world has gone into mourning. Television trucks have descended upon Shoreham. It immediately became a national story, covered by the likes of ESPN and The New York Times.

The grieving process included a vigil for Cutinella last Thursday at the Shoreham football field. It was attended by nearly 1,000 people, including players from opposing football teams. Memorial services were held Sunday and Monday. Cutinella’s funeral was on Tuesday, just six days after he put on a football uniform for the last time.

The Wildcats will play their next game, which had been scheduled to be in Wyandanch, at home on Saturday so they can play in front of their home fans. Teams throughout the country are expected to wear black stickers on their helmets this week with the initials “TC” in white letters in memory of Cutinella.

The Wildcats sent shock waves throughout the county on Sept. 19 with their 9-7 upset of Babylon, ending the Panthers’ 25-game win streak, the longest on Long Island. “Best moment of my life,” Cutinella wrote on Twitter.

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