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Tom Cutinella, Shoreham-Wading River HS football player, leaves a legacy of leadership, integrity

Shoreham-Wading River High School football players hold up

Shoreham-Wading River High School football players hold up Tom Cutinella's jersey while celebrating their Suffolk Division lV title victory against John Glenn on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. Credit: George A. Faella

There's a black spiral notebook in Tom Cutinella's room, sitting on the bed next to an array of football and lacrosse helmets and jerseys.

Inside the notebook, Tom's words from August offer insight into what made the 16-year-old from Shoreham-Wading River High School much more than an outstanding athlete. His words demonstrate leadership and character.

Cutinella, who died on Oct. 1 after a collision with a John Glenn player during a football game in Elwood, wanted desperately to call a meeting of his Wildcats teammates before their season started.

But Tom was a junior and not a team captain, and although he feared there wasn't enough team unity or sufficient work ethic to accomplish the team's goals, he couldn't call the meeting on his own.

The message he wanted to send was written in the notebook: "To win, you don't need a few skilled players you need a team, a family, a band of brothers, willing to give it all.

"Teams are more important than individuals. Teams who are united and care about each other, perform better."

Tom texted Bobby Puckey, a team captain, and several other seniors and suggested they hold a meeting after practice. And they agreed.

"We pulled the cars up and made a circle and had the meeting right in the middle of the parking lot," Puckey said.

Thirty-four varsity football players. No coaches. No parents. Just the way Tom wanted it.

Puckey, sitting in the Cutinella family's kitchen this week, wearing a gray camouflage hat with "SWR 54 Football" -- Tom wore No. 54; his number is now retired -- recalled him saying "commitment" and "family," words the team has used all season.

None of it surprised Tom's father.

"He was born to lead," Frank Cutinella said, standing in his son's room.

"He didn't need to be called the captain. Everybody respected him," Puckey said. "It was received well. It started us on the way to being a family, and that was one of his main goals."

Kevin Cutinella, 14, a sophomore on the team who yesterday played for the first time since his brother's death and made two special-teams tackles, said he wasn't surprised that Tom would take such initiative.

"I knew he would say something like that at some point, but not to the whole team," he said. "I thought he'd say it just to the captains so they could think about it and express it to the team."

Added Bobby's brother, Jimmy Puckey, who was one of Tom's best friends, "That's just typical of him. He always had a plan."

Tom's message was received. The Wildcats took a 10-0 record into Saturday's Suffolk County Division IV championship game and defeated Glenn, 47-10, to advance to the Long Island Class IV title game next Sunday against Roosevelt.

Athlete's legacy

Tom Cutinella's character is one of the reasons the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association has created an annual award in his name.

"It will be called the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Leadership Award for a two-way (offense and defense) starter who demonstrates character, leadership and good academics," said Hans Wiederkehr, president of the association and assistant coach at Shoreham-Wading River. "Tom wasn't afraid to do the right thing and say the right thing, no matter who raised an eyebrow to it.

"And the best part about it is that each time the award is handed out, Tom will be remembered," Wiederkehr said.

Memories of Tom help keep Frank Cutinella and his wife, Kelli, going.

"The . . . good that's going to come from this is to keep Tom's legacy alive and to make sure that people aspire to be like him in whatever way they can," Kelli Cutinella said. "That's what Thomas was all about. Pay it forward."

Frank Cutinella said he has received many inspirational messages from strangers and friends alike since his son's death.

Hanging in Tom's room is an orange No. 18 Denver Broncos jersey, signed by quarterback Peyton Manning, one of Tom's favorite players, with these words written on the front:

"To the Cutinella Family

May God's peace be with you"

"Peyton wrote a beautiful note on it and signed it," said Frank, whose mention of Manning in his son's eulogy caught the attention of a Broncos official. "It came about a week after the funeral from Denver."

Another message that resonated came from Paul Curran, Tom's youth league football and lacrosse coach whose son Jason had been Tom's running mate in the junior class presidential election. Jason chose to drop out of the race after his friend's death.

"Paul said to me, 'Thomas had the answers to life. He had the answers to the test.' Paul was right. With every breath he took on this Earth, with every step he took, Thomas had the answers all along," Frank Cutinella said.

"Difficult decisions weren't difficult for Thomas. He had no moral dilemmas. Peer pressure didn't exist in his world. He was rock solid with who he was. When decisions are difficult to make and I'm down -- and every one of us cries every day -- we say, 'What would Tom want us to do?' And the answer is crystal clear every time."

A different outlook

"Football was very important in my life. Football gave me my work ethic. I never missed school. I never missed work. It made me the person who I am and now it's taken away one of the four most important things in my life," Frank Cutinella said Monday.

"Football is not what it was to me and it never will be. I have four children that I love dearly and equally. A quarter of me died on that football field that day, in a sport that I introduced him to. It wasn't kicking and screaming, it was a sport that he loved and that he wanted to win in. He was a student of the game. He was a hard hitter and he was good at it. I don't want to take that away from him, but I do feel betrayed by the sport."

Until yesterday, Frank Cutinella had not been able to attend any Shoreham-Wading River games or watch football on TV. But he said he decided to attend the county championship game "because Tom is here in spirit and Kevin is playing."

Frank watched from a private box while his wife, Kelli, and daughter Carlie, 10, sat in the stands wearing SWR hats with Tom's No. 54. Their son William, 12, watched the game with the team from the sidelines, cheered big plays, joined the postgame handshake line and was included in the team photo.

Kelli Cutinella has attended all of the team's games. Sitting at the end of her kitchen table Monday, she tearfully explained why.

"I go to the games because I know that Thomas is there. That's where I belong. I'm there to support the team; I'm there to support my son's dreams. I'm there to support my other son and just the entire football family. That's the reason I go. It's extremely hard to go. It's extremely hard to watch. But I know that's the right place for me to be," she said.

"I firmly do believe this and I say this all the time: that he is in every huddle; that he's on the field with them. He's sitting there with me."

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