Frank Cutinella implored Long Island athletic directors to change the culture of high school football to make the game safer in the wake of his son's death from a helmet-to-helmet hit a year ago.
Cutinella called for a greater emphasis on sportsmanship, fundamentals, rule enforcement and accountability among players, coaches, officials and parents yesterday morning during a 30-minute speech at Section XI's safety conference at Mill Pond golf course in Medford.
"We in high school have to see the big picture," he said. "It's not the NFL."
His son Thomas, 16, a junior at Shoreham-Wading River High School, died on Oct. 1, 2014, after a collision with an opposing player during a game against John Glenn High School.
Speaking without notes and with a picture of his son as a backdrop, Cutinella said it took him 10 months to watch video of the play that killed his son. He said he recited the painful details of that moment not to place blame, but rather to show the need for change.
"The mentality of how that play went down makes me wonder," Cutinella said. "We need to change. If we're not going to change, we shouldn't play football."
Among the changes Cutinella wants to see:
He said football coaches need to spend more time on proper tackling. He said there should be a "safety coach" on each staff who watches tape of games and shows players instances when they had their head down during tackles.
Currently, coaches rate referees after games, but Cutinella said it should be the other way around. "I propose that the referees rate the head coach on safety, sportsmanship and how the team conducted itself," he said.
He described referees as "the police of the game" and said they need a better working environment free of distractions. He said more has to be done to protect them from "parents that are misbehaving [and] coaches that are misbehaving." He suggested athletic directors eject disruptive spectators.
Cutinella also wants referees "to be more vigilant with the players before the game, letting them know they're going to be looking for plays like this and that they're going to enforce it."
Thomas' younger brother Kevin is a 15-year-old junior playing linebacker and running back this season for Shoreham-Wading River.
Frank Cutinella said he's been working with Section XI executive director Don Webster, football coordinator Tim Horan of West Islip High School and safety committee chairman Tim Mullins of Bayport-Blue Point High School to help encourage change.
Spurred by a desire to protect his son's legacy as a positive person who loved football, Cutinella said he will deliver a similar speech with his vision for football before a convention of the state's athletic directors in March.
"I don't want to stand up here and tell young parents, 'Please don't sign up for football.' I don't want to do that because that's not fair to him," Cutinella said, pointing to the picture of his son. "But if we're not willing to change, I'm willing to tell parents, 'Please don't sign up for football.' "