The pain has not diminished -- not one bit, Frank and Kelli Cutinella say -- since the day last fall when Tom Cutinella, their 16-year-old son, died of injuries sustained in a football game.It wasn't easy for Tom Cutinella's parents to sit at the kitchen table in their Wading River home, their hearts and voices filled with emotion as they posed for a photo with his jersey and a favorite studio portrait, and talked openly about their son, a junior who played linebacker and guard for Shoreham-Wading River High School.
But when informed that Tom had been named winner of the Marcus A. Henry Award -- presented by Newsday to Long Island's top high school student-citizen-athlete -- both agreed to relive their memories.
"I am all about his legacy," Kelli said. "I'm honored that my son is seen as worthy of that award. Anything that's positive and honors Thomas and keeps his legacy alive, I'm all for it."
The Cutinella family embraces the legacy of someone who was much more than an outstanding athlete in football and lacrosse. "Thomas was the guy who people looked up to and were inspired by," Frank said. "He knew what was right and people followed him."
It is those special qualities that make Thomas Cutinella the recipient of the award that honors Henry, a man who not only loved sports but was a community leader, family man and dedicated journalist. Henry died April 1, 2014.
"It wasn't by chance that Thomas chose the United States Military Academy as his top college choice," Frank Cutinella said. "He knew he was a leader and he chose the greatest leadership school in the free world."
Tom's leadership and playing ability got his team off to a fast start last fall.
"The ball followed him on offense. They ran behind him," Frank said. "The reason why football was his favorite sport was because Tom never put himself ahead of the team. He recognized that he was just part of what their goal was -- to win a county championship. The other kids on the team followed that mindset."
Tragedy struck on Oct. 1, when Tom was pronounced dead at Huntington Hospital hours after being involved in a violent collision on the football field.
The Wildcats went on to a 12-0 season and won the school's first county and Long Island championships. Along the way, SWR defeated two-time defending Long Island champion Babylon, 9-7, on Sept. 19, ending the Panthers' winning streak at 25 games. It was a game Tom Cutinella pointed to, and he played inspired football that Friday night.
"Right after the game, he said it was the best moment of his life," Kelli Cutinella recalled.
Tom shared a key sack in the closing minutes that clinched the victory. "He did it, he popped up as quickly as he could and at that moment he knew they had done it,'' she said. "They celebrated on the bus coming home that night."
The following week, Frank and Kelli watched a video of the game with their son and pointed out that Tom was not given credit in Newsday's article for having been part of the key late sack.
"We're saying, 'That was you, Thomas,' '' Frank said, smiling at the memory. "He just looks at us and says, 'It's OK, guys. We won the game!' "
That was typical of the selfless way Tom led his life. He was involved in numerous school and community activities beyond sports. "He was a pay-it-forward kind of kid," Kelli said.
One act for which he was well known in the community was placing and later removing American flags from the graves at Calverton Cemetery.
"My father is buried there," Kelli said. "The year he died, we put flags on the graves as a family and Thomas said, 'We should do this all the time.' So even when I couldn't be there, Thomas would be there. He was a very patriotic kid."
That's one of the reasons Tom was looking hard at Army for his college choice and also considering Navy.
"School was most important to him. Lacrosse was a tool that might've helped him along, and football was one of his passions. But his ultimate goal was to serve his country," Frank said.
Tom also was an outstanding student. His parents said he carried a 94 average taking honors and AP classes and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
"He was self-motivated. You didn't have to tell him to lift weights. You didn't have to tell him to study. He just did it," Frank said.
Shoreham-Wading River football coach Matt Millheiser saw those same traits in his brief time with Tom on the varsity last fall.
"Looking back, I remember the little things that he always did, on and off the field, things that no one had to tell him to do," Millheiser said. "He was a great young man. He really was 'that kid,' the one who always did the right things."