Last week, Anthony Starego, a Brick, N.J. high school varsity placekicker with autism, made history by being the first varsity football player with autism in the United States to play in a high school state championship football game and contribute points to the game. Anthony's team, the Green Dragons, ultimately beat Colts Neck by a final score of 26-15, with Anthony contributing two extra points in Brick’s victory. Anthony rose to fame through a game winning field goal against rival Toms River North last season and in September of this year, when he was awarded an unprecedented fifth year of playing eligibility through a court-ordered settlement with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA). Anthony also was recognized as one of our 10 Big Autism News Stories of 2013 and 10 Amazing Individuals with Autism Who Shined in 2013.
We had a chance to sit down with Gary Mayerson to discuss Anthony's latest victory. Gary Mayerson serves on the Board of Autism Speaks and is the founder of Mayerson & Associates, a Manhattan-based civil rights law firm founded in 2000 as the very first law firm in the nation dedicated to the representation of individuals with autism. After the conclusion of Brick’s 2012 football season, Mayerson was approached by the Autism Speaks Legal Resource Center to represent Anthony and his parents in the litigation to allow Anthony an unprecedented fifth season of interscholastic competitive play.
How does it feel to part of this case now knowing Anthony's team has won the Central Group IV State Championship title?
Never before has anyone with autism had the opportunity to compete at this level. The tangible takeaway, of course, is a 26-15 state championship win, with Anthony making history in the process. The intangible is a valuable lesson in having high expectations and the rewards that can come from dedication and perseverance. Anthony is still floating around in the clouds and I don’t think he’s coming down anytime soon. I am right up there with him. As Anthony told us, “I am going to celebrate with my parents for the rest of my life!”
You quoted Vince Lombardi last time we had a chance to chat saying, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” What do you think Anthony’s victory here means toward our community?
You can’t win or quit unless you have the opportunity to play. Remember the story of Jason McElwain? He was his team’s equipment manager. During McElwain’s senior year, in the last three minutes of the very last game of the season, McElwain’s coach put him in the game for the very first time. McElwain then famously made six, three-pointers in less than 3 minutes. The entire autism community was elevated by McElwain’s astounding basketball prowess, but it really was a bittersweet moment. If McElwain could hit all those three-pointers under the pressure of the last minutes of the game, why wasn’t he playing on his team any earlier? Why was he stuck being his team’s equipment manager? Why did people have such low expectations for McElwain, who clearly was star material? What happens when we have high expectations? What happens is that we set the stage for someone like Anthony Starego to come along. In the next ten years, I predict that there will be more Anthonys.
Anthony’s achievement has so much to do with his highly supportive parents, particularly his dad Ray. Ray spent countless hours with Anthony practicing in the off-season to help get Anthony ready. Ray also got Anthony some help with mechanics from a college-level kicking coach. Having high expectations for Anthony was critical and, of course, “practice, practice, practice.” Anthony’s coaches were supportive, his teammates were supportive, and when Anthony came into the high school lunchroom, he saw that he was respected and accepted. Those kinds of conditions did wonders for Anthony’s self-esteem.
Anthony was part of a winning team effort but he did not win the game alone. His team’s quarterback and running back can take most of the credit for the 26-15 score. However, this unprecedented outcome shows that we must have high expectations for individuals with autism and that it is wrong and highly counterproductive for our community to presume any limits. We have to be there for everyone. We need to help those with autism who are greatly affected, and we have to be there for people with autism who have the potential to reach new heights. Not everyone can be a varsity starting placekicker for a championship team. Not even neurotypical people! However, most people with autism have the potential to learn and display valuable skills---it is up to us to help find those skills.
Do you think this win will help in providing eligibility for more individuals with disabilities in the future?
I have to believe that other state athletic associations will view Anthony’s case in its proper perspective. While there was initial conflict here between Anthony and his school and the NJSIAA, ultimately the NJSIAA did the right thing and awarded Anthony access to the playing field for this one final season. This was a case that cried out for a compromise and the NJSIAA and its counsel deserve a great deal of credit for doing just that.
What is next for you and Anthony?
While Anthony would not likely be a candidate for a traditional, 4-year college experience, Anthony’s parents and I would like to see Anthony get accepted into a flexible and innovative Division 3 college, possibly a two-year program where Anthony, with meaningful support, could continue to play football at the same time as he was developing academic and vocational skills. Anthony and his parents are looking into those kinds of options.
Thank you for your time.
My pleasure. Actually, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Autism Speaks for bringing Anthony’s situation to my attention.