While the crowd held its collective breath, a New Jersey high school kicker with autism about to make a game-winning field goal was having the time of his life.
On Oct. 19, Brick Township High School senior Anthony Starego produced a magical moment when he drilled a 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining to beat heavily-favored Toms River High School North, 24-21.
Video of the winning kick shot by a fellow Brick student shows Starego racing down the sideline in jubilation after his first varsity field goal attempt was a success.
“I wasn’t even nervous,’’ Anthony told Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday. “I was enjoying myself, and I was having a great time of my life.’’
“The minute that the referee went like this (and signaled the kick was good), I was kind of like a blubbering fool,’’ said Anthony's father, Ray. “I was crying so loud they could’ve heard me two sections over. I missed his run down the sideline. For a minute or so, I almost like blacked out because I was so emotional of going from not even playing a down to that. I was a mess.’’
In two games, Anthony is 7-for-7 on extra points in addition to his field goal. In his first starting game on Oct. 12, he was awarded the game ball by head coach Rob Dahl after his four extra points clinched a 28-27 win over Toms River High School East.
Anthony's developmental disabilities have become an asset as a kicker, as the repetition of practicing is an everyday part of his life.
“His condition leads to doing things over and over,’’ said his dad. “He repeats stuff over and over, which drives me crazy, but in this situation, kicking is all mechanical. His disability becomes his advantage.’’
Ray and his wife Reylene adopted Anthony in 1997 when he was three years old after he had bounced around 11 different foster homes. Anthony found the help he needed in Brick after the family moved from Easton, Pa. One of the most memorable Rutgers football games of all time inspired him to become a kicker. The Staregos are Rutgers season-ticket holders and were in the stands in November 2006 on the night kicker Jeremy Ito hit a 28-yard field goal to help the Scarlet Knights shock previously unbeaten Louisville 28-25.
“It was a couple weeks later after Anthony had watched this film (of Ito’s kick) over and over again that he said to his father, ‘I want to be a kicker,’ so that’s where we went,’’ said Reylene.
“We had some reservations because of some medical things he had, but we thought, you know, what the heck, let him go and let’s see what happens,’’ Ray said.
Ray signed Anthony up for Pop Warner as a seventh-grader, and six years of focus and determination paid off with an unforgettable moment on Friday night. Two weeks earlier, the coaching staff, disappointed with the performance of its other kickers, held an open competition for the starting spot. Anthony won, and the coaches' confidence in him was rewarded.
“One of my friends watched and looked at the ref, and he looked in the back and he saw the ref put his hands up after I made it,’’ Anthony said.
Acutely sensitive to physical contact, Anthony had once yelled at his teammates and coaches not to touch him.
But after his big kick, he jumped up — and took part in a celebratory chest-bump.