Read below for a guest post from Ron Sandison.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin.”
– Zechariah 4:10
Ray and Reylene Starego felt a divine call to adopt an orphan who was a special-needs child. The moment Ray and his wife laid eyes on Anthony, they knew he was the child for them. Due to his severe disabilities, Anthony was able to speak only six words. The director of the foster home shared, “We thought a three year old with autism and other special needs was unadoptable. Anthony’s life has been a constant revolving door, living in 11 different homes.”
Ray said, “We know that God has a special purpose for Anthony. With a caring home and supportive community, he will fulfill his purpose.”
One of Ray’s passions is attending football games with his son. When Anthony attended middle school, Ray desired to help him discover a sport he could participate in and develop friendships. In 2006, at age 12, after watching Rutgers kicker, Jeremy Ito, hit the game-winning field goal, (ruining University of Louisville’s national title dreams), Anthony exclaimed, “Dad, I want to play football and be a kicker like Jeremy!”
Ray was afraid autistic sensory issues and social awkwardness would prevent his son from playing football. Many children with autism have difficulty with close contact, bright lights, and loud noises. Ray counseled Anthony, “Football might not be a good fit. You don’t enjoy close physical contact, and as a placekicker you could get tackled.” Anthony was undeterred.
Ray began coaching Anthony on the skills of placekicking. When Ray saw Anthony’s kicks and that he could not connect from the 10-yard line, he thought, “This is a fun activity for him, but he probably will not be playing on a competitive team.” Ray stated, “It took him a couple of weeks before he made his first kick through the upright.”
In an effort to help Anthony develop as a kicker, Ray had him attend a kicking camp with Lee McDonald of Special Team Solutions. All the children at this camp could easily hit the 20-yard goal. Ray was faced with the dilemma: Should he have Anthony kick from the 10-yard line and be singled out or missing from the 20-yard? He decided to have him kick from the 20-yard line. Anthony did not make one shot through the upright, but each day, he was able to get a little closer toward the goal. At the end of camp, he received the Most Improved award for his determination.
Autism and years of practice have empowered Anthony to become a great kicker. Ray shared, “Routine and repetition is everything to Anthony. His adherence to routine and repetition—three steps back, two steps over, foot planted in the exact spot every time, swinging through—leads to consistency and dulls the pressure.”
Football has greatly increased Anthony’s self-esteem. Years later, after kicking a game-winning field goal, he raced around the house, playfully shouting, “I am a star!”
Reylene joked, “Even stars have to do family chores.”
Brick Township High School had a nineteen-year playoff drought in football. Midway through the football season, Anthony’s junior year, he won the starting varsity placekicker job. In his first varsity game, he went 4 for 4 on extra points in a thrilling 28-27 win. Anthony declared,
“All my life I’ve been a knucklehead. But I am not one anymore.”
Five games into the football season, Anthony’s senior year, he again won the starting kicker job. The highlight of Anthony’s season was his last-second, game-winning field goal against favored, Toms River North. He made national headlines with the kick and was a guest on the Today Show. ESPN covered Anthony’s story with its film, “Kick of Hope.” Ray states,
“He’s really blossomed into a kid that makes a difference in people’s lives, and he does it just by being who he is.”
As Anthony entered his second senior year, he faced a new challenge. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) ruled Anthony ineligible to compete since he had already played four consecutive years of football and turned 19 after the cutoff date. The NJSIAA stated, “Anthony would have an unfair advantage due to his age.” Attorney Gary Mayerson, a board member of Autism Speaks, battled the NJSIAA in court under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the main ADA cases that helped Anthony to win the right to compete was my 1995 case, Sandison vs. MHSAA.
Five games into his second senior year, Anthony again won the starting kicker position. Guided by a star quarterback and great defense, Anthony continued inspiring others and making history as he became the first special needs player in New Jersey history to play in a State Championship game and hit a pair of extra points in Brick’s 26-15 win.
Anthony has an IQ of 53 and reads at a third-grade level but has the heart of a champion and refuses to quit. Ray encourages special needs parents,
“I’m not ruling anything out anymore. What Anthony’s done has already far exceeded what many expected. So why should anything be impossible? Never put a limit on your special needs child.”
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is currently writing, A Christian Concise Guide to Autism. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with their pet rabbit, Babs, and cat, Frishma. You can contact Ron on Facebook or email him.