Lights beamed down on the Shoreham-Wading River football team as the players huddled together in the chill of late November. With a championship on the line and the team trailing early in the most important game of their lives, the leaders of the Shoreham-Wading River football team knew exactly what to say… “Tommy Tough.”
Tom Cutinella was the heart of the SWR football team. Even though he had not reached captain status – as a junior, he had to wait until his senior year – Cutinella possessed the qualities of a strong leader.
“He was like an unofficial defensive captain,” said Tom Fabian, SWR assistant coach. “On the field, he was one of our better players. Off the field, he was a kid that students from all social circles respected and knew well.”
Under the leadership of its captains and Cutinella, SWR was making a run for its first championship, but on Oct. 1, the team experienced a tragic loss. Cutinella collapsed on the field after a head-on collision and passed away the following day in a hospital room surrounded by loved ones. But even after his death, Cutinella continued to serve as a motivating force for his team.
“After Tommy passed away, we weren’t 100 percent sure what was going to happen to the rest of our season,” said Fabian. “The team and the Cutinella family decided to move forward, to keep going. Tommy wouldn’t want anything otherwise. He was a real football kid.”
Inspired by Cutinella’s memory, SWR players used the phrase “Tommy Tough” as a reminder that, with teamwork and perseverance, they could overcome any adversity.
“’Tommy Tough’ was the model the team adopted to honor his memory,” said Fabian. “It was Tommy’s strength, the strength of the Cutinella family and the strength of the community that carried us forward.”
SWR fought to an undefeated record, and after trailing early in the Long Island Class IV championship game, went on to win 47-13. It was SWR’s first championship, and it was all for Tom Cutinella. Even with a Suffolk County and Long Island championship, the SWR football team wanted to do something else to honor Cutinella’s memory. In a seemingly impossible task, the team summarized its season – the tragic and the historic – in less than 500 words for a chance to win the Fight Like Dylan Award and add to Cutinella’s legacy.
Created in 2011, the Fight Like Dylan Award honors the life of Dylan Rebeor, a football player whose last wish after being diagnosed with colon cancer was for his teammates to receive new equipment. Russell Athletic, after having heard Dylan’s story, decided to honor Dylan in a way that stayed true to his fighting spirit.
“Russell Athletic contacted us about starting something in Dylan’s memory,” said Heather Rebeor, Dylan’s mother. “So, we sat down and after collaborating over it for a while, we created the Fight Like Dylan Award.”
The Fight Like Dylan Award provides a $50,000 uniform and equipment grant to a high school football team that has shown determination through adversity. Representatives from the winning team are flown to Orlando to be presented with the award at the Russell Athletic Bowl. This year, SWR was chosen to carry on Dylan’s legacy.
“All of the judges were deeply touched by Tom’s story,” said Robby Davis, senior vice president and general manager of Russell Athletic. “We are honored to present this award to the entire Shoreham-Wading River community.”
In its first four years, the Fight Like Dylan Award has become one of Russell Athletic’s premiere programs, having received nearly 200 contest entries this year alone. As more communities share their own stories of hardship, Dylan’s mother is struck by Russell Athletic’s continued efforts to share her son’s.
“It’s very, very surreal,” said Rebeor. “It just brings tears to my eyes. We’re really proud, just very grateful, for everything that Russell does.”
What Russell Athletic has done is build a family across the country. Though separated in more ways than one, this family is nevertheless held together by the greater forces of perseverance, strength, community, and the ability to “Fight Like Dylan.”