Autistic Kicker Anthony Starego with Father Ray Starego
Midway through the 2012 football season, Brick Township, New Jersey “senior” Anthony Starego, who is autistic, finally was made a starting placekicker for the Dragons, Brick’s varsity football team.  But as the season came to a close, so did Anthony’s eligibility to play for his high school team.

So in the Spring of 2013, Brick High School filed and supported an application with the NJSIAA (the state athletic association regulating play at the high school level) to secure a limited exception from its “four year” and “eight semester” rules in order to allow Anthony one further season of competitive play. 

According to Ray Starego, Anthonys' fater, not a single coach or team publicly opposed Brick’s application; nor did any student playing for Brick or any other team. 

In March of 2013, the NJSIAA’s board unanimously denied Brick’s request for a “one further season” waiver.  The NJSIAA ruled that Anthony was too old to continue to play, would “displace” other players, would create an undue safety risk, and would give Brick an “unfair competitive advantage.”

In July, after the Starego family had retained counsel, New Jersey’s Education Commissioner, Christopher Cerf, affirmed the NJSIAA’s ruling. Anthony would not be allowed to play a fifth year of high school football.

But that was not to be the end of the Anthony’s story. Ray Starego was going to make sure of that.

Just days after the Commissioner affirmed the NJSIAA’s ruling, Anthony’s attorneys, Gary Mayerson and Jacqueline DeVore, moved for a preliminary injunction against the NJSIAA, alleging that the NJSIAA, by refusing Anthony’s request for the “one further season” waiver and exception, had violated federal law.

After many months of court litigation and uncertainty for Anthony, the NJSIAA changed its ruling.

Husted Kicking: How did this "final" decision allowing Anthony a 5th year of eligibility come about?

Ray Starego: This decision was put into motion in a conference call initiated by the federal judge who denied our federal injunctive motion.  She read in a local paper that the NJSIAA had just granted a waiver to a Down syndrome field hockey player to play as a 19 yr. old, and she encouraged the NJSIAA to do the same with Anthony. 

After a letter and conversation between Gary Mayerson my attorney and NJSIAA council the association polled the remaining schools on Brick High's schedule and got either positive or at least no negative feedback when they broached the idea of granting Anthony's waiver. After that it took a few days to do the legalese.

HK: How long have you been working on trying to get this eligibility for Anthony?

Ray Starego: The process began in February, 2013, when I approached Brick High School about the possibility of Anthony getting a waiver.  It ended September 27th at 4:05pm with an official waiver.

HK: How many "stops" were there on the way (i.e. how many committees did you have to present this to?).

Ray Starego: The first was the eligibility committee NJSIAA. Next was the eligibility appeals committee NJSIAA. The next stop was the commissioner of education of the State of NJ Christopher Cerf.

After that was the federal injunctive motion, and then the deal to drop all legal action which was two federal appeals as well a newly filed motion in State District Court for a waiver to allow Anthony to play.

HK: How many times were you told "no" before you were told yes?

Ray Starego: Four times.

HK: How was Anthony's attitude as he went through this series of "negative" decisions?

Ray Starego: It was a real roller coaster ride of hopeful to real disappointed.  After the injunction denial four days before the season opener we told him he would not be able to play this year and we would be working toward next season. 

HK: How is he feeling now since he realizes he does get to play again?

Ray Starego: He is the most joyful I have seen him in months.

HK: How does the school feel about it? Have they been supportive? How about the community in general?

Ray Starego: The school and community have been supportive since day one.

HK: Does this case set any sort of "precedent" for a person who is autistic when it comes to high school sports?

Ray Starego: We believe this is the first granting by any high school association for a 5th season of eligibility.  The judges finding of fact where she dismissed each and every reason they gave for denying him can help others in the same fight. 

The days of an association saying "Any student who has played a sport for four years (eight semesters) is NEVER granted a waiver for a 5th season" may now be over.

HK: How do you feel about this all now? Was it worth all the time and energy you spent (and money)?

Ray Starego: Worth it all the way.  This fight was for all students with disabilities.

HK: What would you say to other parents who are facing similar "bureaucratic" challenges when it comes to their children and high school sports?

Ray Starego: There is no doubt the three pending legal cases at the time plus the threat of additional litigation played a significant part in the decision to grant this waiver.  I was lucky enough to have a pro bono attorney who had put in about 150K worth of time and effort for a case he believed in.  As he explained it for some things money has nothing to do with it.  It's about righting an injustice.

Unfortunately, most parents no matter how much they love their child they simply don't have the money to fight the system. 

Continue to fight the fight.  If it will help the development of your child leave no stone unturned.  It's the only way meaningful change happens for your child and others.
 Anthony Starego Training at The 2013 National Camp Series (NCS) Super Camp VII