Anthony Starego is already practicing for another season as kicker on the Brick Dragons varsity football team.
Anthony, 18, a senior at Brick Township High School who has autism, became a well known figure in Brick – and across the country – after he overcame the odds to compete in varsity athletics and scored key points to win games for the Dragons last fall.
As the offseason has lingered on, he's attended a camp hosted by former NFL kicker Michael Husted and has traveled to Florida to hone his skills.
But Anthony's family members and supporters in the community worry his inspiring football career may be over. Under the rules of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association – the state's governing body for high school sports – Anthony's age, the length of time he's played high school athletics, as well as his ability to influence games means he may not be eligible to play another season.
While Anthony will remain a student at Brick Township High School until age 21 due to his autism, his ability to compete in high school athletics is an uncertain – and rare – issue in the high school sports world.
Earlier this month, the NJSIAA's executive committee sent the case to its eligibility appeals subcommittee, which will meet March 11.
"Being part of this team, and being part of a purpose … all the things that he learns as being part of this team, he needs to continue," said Ray Starego, Anthony's father. "It's all part of his growth and development being a multiple-symptom autistic kid. This would be in his best interest."
But even more than his son's personal growth hinges on his ability to keep playing football, Ray Starego said.
"Getting another year of high school eligibility is critical to getting this story to a much wider audience," he said, looking forward to experiences similar to an ESPN segment on Anthony that aired this season.
The continuation of the story of Anthony's heroic rise to Shore football stardom can serve as a national example of what students with autism can achieve, Anthony's father says.
"The only way we can affect millions, is for this to continue," said Ray Starego.
Bill Bruno, the Brick Township school district's athletic director, sits on the NJSIAA's appeals subcommittee and will have to recuse himself from the vote on Anthony's eligibility.
The executive committee "didn't want to rubber stamp it in either direction," so they sent it to the appeals committee, he said.
Bruno could comment only in a limited fashion for this story, but he said the subcommittee will take into consideration Anthony's age, the length of time he has played varsity sports, his physical strength and his ability to influence the outcome of games.
Ray Starego said his son plays a contact sport in a non-contact role, and would be replaced on the team by another talented kicker anyway. He also said Anthony is not larger or stronger than any other high school football player.
As for his son's age: "These kids are disabled kids," he said. "Should they be penalized because they do not have the ability to learn as fast as some of the other kids?"
Anthony did not wish to comment personally for the story, but said he hopes to play next year as he continues his education at Brick Township High School, where he'll move into his first mainstream math class in the fall.
He has found support from officials in the athletic department at Rutgers University, his favorite school and the team that inspired him to play football, as well as from Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), who played in the NFL before running for U.S. Congress.
"They can affect the world by this decision," said Ray Starego, of the appeals subcommittee which will hear the case. "The decision that they're making really has nothing to do with football, it has to do with affecting change in the world, and Anthony's story can do that. He's just the right kid to do it."