John Ottaunick, a 19-year-old Oyster Bay High School senior, has been deemed ineligible to play varsity football because he missed the age cutoff by 17 days.
Ottaunick, who said he played on the varsity team last year, turned 19 on June 13. The cutoff, according to the state high school athletic association handbook, is July 1. Ottaunick's father, Christopher, said he is looking into appealing the decision.
Until then, support for John continues to grow. As of Thursday afternoon, there were more than 300 signatures on the Change.org petition to let John play. His hashtag -- #letjohnplay -- has cropped up on Twitter and Facebook and, John said, the support at school has been significant.
"When I walk down the hall, people scream out, "Let John play,'" he said. "We just watched the news clip of me in history ... I get a lot of support. It's just really great."
Christopher said that John was adopted from a Siberian orphanage when he was 11. John did not speak English and was placed in the fourth grade instead of the sixth grade without being tested, he said.
Since John aged out of athletic eligibility through no fault of his own, the rule is unfair, Christopher said.
The age of eligibility is governed by the state education commissioner's office. Christopher has spoken to both Nassau athletics and the state athletic association, but since the matter is not under their purview, he said he planned to petition the commissioner for a waiver as a last resort.
"I was really sad and disappointed. I was looking forward to my last time being on the field, probably," said John, who is 5-10, 150 pounds and plays a host of positions on the small team, including running back and linebacker. "There were other kids that didn't speak English [when he joined the district], but they got put into the appropriate [age] group . . . I didn't understand it, but I couldn't question it because I didn't speak English."
Oyster Bay Superintendent Dr. Laura Seinfeld declined to comment. Oyster Bay High School athletic director Kevin Trentowski called the situation "unfortunate . . . but we do have to follow the rules set out by the [athletic] association and state education." He referred further inquiries to those organizations.
According to Nassau athletics executive director Nina Van Erk and state athletic association executive director Robert Zayas, the state athletic handbook -- under the section titled Commissioner's Regulations -- only allows age extensions for students who have disabilities and who do not pose a physical threat.
This only applies "If you have an IEP [Individualized Education Program], you participate in a noncontact sport and in a nonscoring manner," Zayas said, adding that the student would have to have prior playing experience, have not graduated and have gotten the OK from the district superintendent.
"Ultimately, there's never been any leniency on the age rule," he said. "It is unfortunate, but at some point the rule has to be [established]."
Christopher said his son should be allowed to play because the handbook does allow for an extensions in other types of eligibility, "if sufficient evidence is presented by the chief school officer to the section to show that the pupil's failure to enter competition ... was caused by illness, accident or similar circumstances beyond the control of the student."
Zayas said this only applied to pupils under 19. A spokesman for Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. said he could not clarify the rule or give further comment since the case could be the subject of a future appeal to the commissioner.
If the decision is upheld, John, who found out he was ineligible the day before football practice was set to start, will also be unable to participate in his other varsity sport, winter track.
"I understand [Nassau athletics] saying, we don't want to start something like this because everyone is going to want to play, all the 19-year-olds," John said. "But that's not the purpose of this. It's just my circumstance."
John added that this would be the latest in a string of difficulties borne out his previous placement.
"I was pretty much an outcast," he said about his earlier years, noting that even now, all his friends are 16 years old. "Kids didn't make me feel like that, but mentally, it felt like that because you're going through stages no one else is going through."
Football, he said, "that was the bridge."