Death of Long Island high school football player has family fighting for changes

Stacey Sager Image
Monday, March 7, 2016
Long Island family pushes to change high school football culture after son's fatal game injury
Stacey Sager reporting live

WADING RIVER, NY (WABC) -- A family on Long Island is opening up about the death of their son during a football game, all while fighting for changes they believe could have helped save his life.

Tom Cutinella died in 2014, but now his parents are hoping his story will help make the game safer at the high school level.

Cutinella was in a game at John Glenn High School when what school officials called a freak accident occurred. He died from a helmet-to-helmet hit after an opposing player led with the crown of his helmet.

"Our son is dead because of football, because of a football play," dad Frank Cutinella said.

Frank and Kelli Cutinella say while they blame no one, it was not an accident.

"Tripping on the ground as you're walking, that's a freak accident," Kelli said. "This was a hit that could've been avoided."

The Cutinellas also say that an autopsy showed no prior concussion, that it was just that one hard hit that led to his death on the football field.

"Tom died from a helmet-to-helmet hit, a targeting play where an opposing player led with the crown of his helmet and hit him in the face mask," Frank Cutinella said.

Research shows that high school players are as much as three times more likely than college players to suffer catastrophic head injury.

"Players are getting much stronger, and it converts into high impact hits," said Don Webster, of the Suffolk County Public High School Athletic Association.

And there's a trickle down effect from the NFL, high school players, their parents and fans that promotes a so-called killer instinct in players.

The Cutinellas say they owe it to their son to fight for change in the culture of high school football, and Suffolk County has made some alterations.

Beginning next season, there will be specially-designated safety coaches, pre-game safety announcements and stiffer penalties for all types of helmet-to-helmet hits.

Frank Cutinella will promote the new guidelines at a statewide conference, and the family vows they won't give up until they also get a meeting with the NFL.