An eligibility subcommittee of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association – the state's governing body for high school sports – has denied a high school football placekicker with autism the chance to play for another year.
Anthony Starego, a member of the Brick Dragons varsity team, rose to fame last year after his success kicking field goals went viral online and in the media.
Starego is 18 years old and will be 19 next football season, but because of his disability will remain in high school until age 21. Normally, NJSIAA rules do not permit students over age 18 who have played sports for eight semesters to continue playing if they remain in high school.
His father, Ray Starego, has argued his son's ability to play on the Dragons is central to his personal development and progress as a disabled student, and his inspiring story could help millions of families nationwide who deal with autism day in and day out. He had requested one extra year of eligibility for his son.
But the NJSIAA's eligibility subcommittee, which heard the case Monday, rendered a decision Tuesday denying Anthony the chance to play for another year, citing the fact that his participation could change the outcome of a game, his father told Patch.
"They weighed everything and came up with the fact that he's a difference maker and we need to treat him like everybody else," said a disappointed Ray Starego.
"High school athletics are supposed to be a tool in developing young people," he said. "That's kind of the goal there, to help develop and mold young people. I guess they didn't take that into consideration, because Anthony's participation on this team was all about molding and developing him, more than most other kids because of his condition."
"The fact that that had no bearing is even more frustrating because that is the goal of what high school athletics is all about."
Support for the Starego family in the hearing came from a host of influential individuals, including Rutgers University Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan [R-3], a former professional football player in the NFL.
Testimony before the board also came from a representative from the organization Autism Speaks.
"That person said, having him continue high school and not allowing him to continue to be part of this could be detrimental to him," said Ray Starego.
Anthony took the news hard, his father said.
"He was very upset," said Ray Starego, adding that his son even shed tears over hearing he would no longer be able to play.
"An adult would be frustrated, angry," he said. "For [Anthony], it's much more difficult because he's a kid, and he's a kid in his condition. That makes it even harder. He just can't wrap his hands around it."
The decision by the subcommittee comes just over a month after the federal Department of Education ordered schools to include students with disabilities in sports and make "reasonable modifications" to their sports programs to do so.
Anthony Starego's rise to national attention has led to countless news articles, television interviews, and a segment on ESPN highlighting his story.
Ray Starego said the next step in the process is appealing the subcomittee's decision to state Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, a step he is planning on taking.