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ZOMG! Look! A Disabled Person Does Something!
November 1st, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

On October 23, CBS News in New York ran a story about an autistic high school football player who kicked a game-winning field goal. The event was, according to the headline, “a moment for the ages.” I am not exaggerating:


Source: CBS New York

I’m going to parse the article a little bit at a time. It’s a combination of some great statements by the young man and his parents, and some absolutely atrocious inspiring-crip/perpetual-special-child material. It’s really a shame that the framing is so bad, because the statements from the player himself and the people involved in his life are really quite wonderful.

The article begins:

A high school student with autism becomes a hero on the football field. Sounds like a good movie doesn’t it? Well, it’s a true story.

So, right away, we’re in supercrip mode. The guy is a hero. And, at the same time, we’re led to believe that it is so absolutely unfathomable that a disabled guy should be a hero that it’s just like fiction. And since it actually happened in real life, we should all sit down before we faint.

It’s also kind of interesting that one kind of media is calling upon a different kind of media in order to frame the rather mundane occurrence of a football player kicking a winning field goal. We’re being asked to see the story not only from the perspective of a news report, but also as a kind of theatre. So we have two levels of interpretation layered over the fact that a young man kicked a football through a pair of uprights.

What makes the lens even more distorted is that, despite the frame of a “good movie,” I can’t think of a Hollywood movie in which a disabled person becomes an athletic hero. I can think of some in which the disabled person dies (Hello Million Dollar Baby), or ends up running madly around the soccer field with his kid on his shoulders (Hello I Am Sam), or draws with his foot (Hello My Left Foot), but I’m drawing a blank on a film with this theme. Maybe there is one, but the fact that it isn’t springing to mind troubles me, because the lens is about something that eludes my grasp. I keep thinking, “Well, of course there is one… Isn’t there?”

The score was tied with just 21 seconds left on the clock Friday night. Out trotted Brick High School’s Anthony Starego, an 18-year-old kicker who’s used to facing adversity.

Uh oh. There’s that adversity word. Always with disability, there’s that adversity word, just to make the mundane appear extraordinary. Do people not understand that life is a difficult thing for most human beings, and yet, we somehow manage to do things?

Starego was orphaned at the age of 3 and then grew up with a long list of developmental issues. So when he jogged out on the field to attempt a game-winning field goal against favored Toms River North, one couldn’t blame him if he didn’t feel overwhelmed by the moment.

The young man has certainly faced his share of hardship in losing his parents. There is no denying that. But that’s not what the word adversity is really about here. It’s about his autism. It’s about his “long list of developmental issues.” It’s about his body and what a burden it appears to be for the person narrating his story. If he had simply been orphaned, it wouldn’t be a story. His disability is the focus.

What happened next was something usually reserved for Hollywood.

What? Disabled people don’t accomplish things in real life? Are we that boring?

And let’s be clear on what we’re talking about there. The young man kicked a field goal. A field goal. In a high school football game. Don’t get me wrong. It’s really fantastic that he won the game for his team. I’m completely excited for him. I’m just trying to understand why this is some sort of heroic and inspiring moral tale.

Oh, that’s right. The subtext is “A disabled person accomplished something, and we’re all shocked and amazed, because we all thought it was impossible, and now we have to make up a story about how it was nearly impossible.”

Okay. I’m getting it now.

He split the uprights and the place went crazy. But there was nothing ordinary about that kick. It was a lifetime in the making, CBS 2′s Otis Livingston reported Tuesday.

Wait. If you’re a high school football player, isn’t just about anything you do on the field “a lifetime in the making”? How is Anthony’s lifetime of working on his game any different from anyone else’s lifetime on that field? I’m assuming they all started out throwing a football in their backyards or at the park or in the street.

“As soon as the officials went like this, I was a blubbering idiot,” father Ray Starego said, demonstrating the hand movement for a successful field goal.

“I was just crying, but I wasn’t going to stop watching him because he was just jumping for joy. It really was unbelievable,” added Reylene Starego, Anthony’s mother.

Now, I love this part. I seriously do. In my book, the only people who get to cry and kvell and act like kicking a field goal is the greatest moment in the history of humankind are the parents. That’s what parents do. We get emotional. We get over-the-top emotional. About a game. Because we want our kids to be happy, and we want them to accomplish everything they set out to do, and the last thing we want is for them to come off the field in tears of disappointment.

I went nuts when my kid played goalie for the high school varsity soccer team. I got emotional. Every single time someone came near the goal, my heart was in my throat. Every single time my kid blocked a shot, I was beside myself with joy, relief, and excitement. All that stuff is in the job description of being a parent, and Anthony’s parents are clearly quite good at the job. More power to them.

If being the hero Friday night put Starego at the top of the mountain, his entire life has been an uphill battle getting there.

“When he came to us, he had been through 11 foster homes and he had had some difficulties. He had about six words to his vocabulary,” Reylene Starego said.

“He had kidney reflux; he had an asthmatic condition. Basically, it was a special needs adoption that we had gone through,” Ray Starego added.

The guy has gone through a lot, obviously. I wonder, however, why the young man’s medical issues are germane here and available for public view. Did the reporter really have to mention them? Aren’t they Anthony’s business?

Symptoms of autism include children performing repeated body movements. They often experience unusual distress when routines are changed, but those are the same traits that make Anthony a successful kicker.

Notice that we’re talking about an 18-year-old young man and his repetitive movements and love of routine, but the text refers to “children.” We’ve now gone from supercrip mode to infantilization mode. Funny how that works.

“Fifty times a day, that’s all he does. Just three steps back, one over and he hits the ball. That’s what he knows and that’s what he did,” coach Kurt Weiboldt said.

Anthony Starego agreed. As far as he’s concerned, practice makes perfect.

“I do the same thing over and over again. It helps me a lot, and I’m having the best day of my life,” he said.

I really love what Anthony is saying here. It shows the way autistic hyper-focus and perseveration can be assets in adulthood. And he’s clearly proud of his intense focus. Awesome stuff. I wish the story had stayed closer to Anthony’s perspective, because that’s the frame that would have been most interesting.

Children with autism also have trouble with social interactions, so making friends isn’t easy, but the football field is different. It’s a safe haven.

And now we’re back to “children with autism.” Apparently, the writer does not have Anthony’s intensity of focus. If he did, he would notice that Anthony is not a child, but a young man. The fact that the writer frames Anthony’s statements with infantilizing terms takes a lot of power away from Anthony’s perspective. It’s as though we keep switching frames, from seeing him as a child being spoken for, to seeing him as an adult describing his own process, to seeing him as a child being spoken for again. It’s as though his adult status is just too much for the writer to keep in focus.

“[Anthony is] just the man. He’s always happy, always puts a smile on your face,” Brick High quarterback Brendan Darcy said.

Oh, dear. Now, not only is Anthony a supercrip and a child, but he’s also special. I highly doubt that the quarterback would have said about any of his other teammates that they always put a smile on his face. It’s just not what high school football players tend to say about one another. But it’s just so inspiring to be on a team with a disabled guy, you know?

Do people really listen themselves when they refer to others as “always happy”? How is it possible for someone to always be happy? Or does his teammate just mean that Anthony isn’t scary, the way he thought an autistic guy would be? Or maybe he’s just surprised that an autistic guy is excited to play the game, instead of moping around feeling really crappy because he’s autistic.

Anthony said he doesn’t think of himself as being different than his teammates. He said he just has a job to do.

“I feel like I’m happy and calm and enjoying myself when I kick. [It’s] the time of my life,” he said.

You go, Anthony!

The Green Dragons’ only two wins of the season have come since Anthony became the kicker. He’s perfect on kicks, including that game winner. Their next game is this Friday against Lacey High School.

Here at the end of the piece, I feel almost let down. I know I shouldn’t. Anthony has a perfect record, and that’s very cool. But what I’m feeling is that this story should never have been about Anthony kicking a field goal. That’s not the real story. The real story is that after going through 11 foster homes, the young man got adopted by supportive people and didn’t end up in an institution, and now he gets to play football. Now that’s a story.

But that’s not a football story. That’s a “let’s do something about all the others who don’t have supportive families” story. And once you start thinking of all of those people who will never have Anthony’s opportunities, you don’t feel too inspired. You feel downright pissed off and depressed.

And we can’t have that.

References

CBS New York. “Autistic Player Has Moment For The Ages, Kicks Game-Winning Field Goal.” http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/10/23/autistic-high-school-football-player-has-moment-for-the-ages-kicks-game-winning-field-goal/. October 23, 2012. Accessed November 1, 2012.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


4 Responses  
  • CelticRose writes:
    July 17th, 202411:02 amat

    Thank you for this. I often get irritated by stories like this, and I wonder if it would even be a story if the person didn’t have a disability. Or why people can’t just be recognized for their accomplishments without having their personal lives dragged into it.

  • Elizabeth McClung writes:
    July 17th, 202411:02 amat

    Just to let you know, there are already three ‘disability football’ movies, including one about making a field kick, and other about going out for ‘one play’ – that one is called Rudy. Sports is my thing, as are films. As for me, I always like the Brazilian boy with three functional legs who played ‘football’ (US soccer) until puberty, then switched to two legs. Great player, high scorer, oddly, no movie made.

    If you want a film that makes people squirmy, and who no one thinks is ‘inspirational’, try Pumpkin with Christinna Ricci (sic). It might also bring up some squirmy parts in the self, as it did for me – on what constitutes ‘sports’ and ‘relationship’.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      July 17th, 202411:02 amat

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for letting me know about those movies. I’ve seen the movie Rudy, but didn’t consider it a disability film, since the issue for Rudy seems to be that he’s a rather small man, but not a disabled one. Am I remembering that correctly?

      • Elizabeth McClung writes:
        July 17th, 202411:02 amat

        They imply that Rudy is ‘slow’ as well as small, because there is no reason a small male couldn’t be a kicker, wide reciever or running back.


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