By Kevin Redding
Frank and Kelli Cutinella have always been this way. Family members and close friends say the Shoreham-Wading River couple, who were married in 1996 and together raised four kids, have always given back, helped others and been there when needed the most.
“You can’t meet a more solid person than Frankie,” said Kenneth Michaels, Frank Cutinella’s childhood friend and fellow officer within the Suffolk County Police Department. “He’s a model. He’s someone you want to emulate. I’ve never met anybody like him in my life.”
Mount Sinai’s Theresa Biegert said her sister Kelli Cutinella helps no matter who needs it.
“She’s so kind and loving and generous, and goes out of her way for everybody — her family, friends and members of the community,” she said.
So after tragedy struck the Cutinellas Oct. 1, 2014, they didn’t buckle, they didn’t wallow. The reach of their generosity only got bigger and stronger. Their mission in life began.
It’s been more than three years since their oldest son, Thomas Cutinella, died at age 16 from a helmet-to-helmet collision with another player during a Shoreham-Wading River football game. Thomas, a star Wildcat and junior at the time of the accident, had aspirations of serving his country and, like his parents, was always looking to lend a hand, or more.
When he was rushed to Huntington Hospital, and after doctors there told the Cutinellas what no parent should ever hear, they honored a wish their son made on his birthday that year to donate his organs to others. His heart, pancreas, kidneys, liver, tissue and skin all went to those in need.
“When Thomas went to get his driver’s permit that year, they asked if he wanted to be a donor even though he wasn’t old enough to register at the time,” said Maria Johnson, Kelli’s mother. “He was like, ‘Yes! What do you mean? Of course I want to be a donor!’ Thomas was a very giving boy. He had to get that from somebody, and he got it from his parents.”
Since his death, mother and father have taken it upon themselves to never stop honoring Thomas’ memory. And in signature Cutinella fashion, they’re bettering the lives of everybody around them in the process.
Frank and Kelli Cutinella have spoken in front of Suffolk County officials, athletic directors and football coaches from across the state about bringing much-needed changes to the sport that took their son’s life, and the culture surrounding it. Having seen firsthand the illegal hit Thomas took when an opposing player rammed the crown of their helmet into the side of Cutinella’s, and the brief celebration among the players and crowd that followed, Frank Cutinella became determined to make the game safer and reduce the unnecessary dangers encouraged on the field.
A former high school football player himself, Frank Cutinella presented his case to save the lives of young athletes to Section XI members, who, in the fall of 2016, began to implement the Tommy Tough Football Safety Standards across the county. In July of this year, Tommy Tough was adopted at the state level, by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Frank’s next goal is to take it to the national stage.
Focused on limiting the risk of injury, caused by certain ways of tackling and leading with the helmet, the new safety measures are read before each game by on-field officials and stricter penalties are enforced when it comes to illegal contacts and hits. Educational programs on safety and proper helmet techniques are offered to coaches.
“Frank wanted to make a difference to the game and not let Tommy’s death go unnoticed,” said Tom Combs, executive director and former football chair of Section XI. “These standards make the game safer, bring an awareness to what is an illegal hit and what isn’t, what’s acceptable on the field and what isn’t. It’s helping coaches and players and officials get on the same page and understand that this game can be as safe as possible if we follow certain standards. Frank’s amazing. I don’t think I could’ve found the strength to do what he’s done.”
Kelli Cutinella has shared Thomas’ story, and advocated for the lowering of the organ donation registration age across the state, speaking at local school districts like Harborfields and East Islip, colleges like Hofstra and Stony Brook University, and in Albany to support the passing of a law permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to enroll in the New York State Donate Life Registry, which was rolled out in February 2017. She is also a frequent contributor at events put on by LiveOnNY, an organ donation network, and a nonprofit called Long Island TRIO, standing for Transplant Recipients International Organization.
Dave Rodgers, a leader at Long Island TRIO, said he had been following Thomas’ story since the day his death was reported, and was honored to have his mom join his cause. Within the nonprofit, Kelli Cutinella speaks to high school and college students about what organ donation and transplantation means from a parental perspective.
“It’s truly amazing what she’s able to do,” Rodgers said. “She takes it full circle from raising her son and what he and his loss meant to her, to the transplantation process of another person getting that life and then being in contact with all the recipients of Thomas’ organs. Her story is quite compelling.”
Not only is Kelli Cutinella friends with Thomas’ heart recipient, she has been running alongside her at the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk in New York City since 2015.
Karen Hill, a 25-year-old Washington, D.C., native, received Thomas’ heart three days after his death, while she was a student at Fordham University. When she was 11, Hill was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease, and had been regulated with medication until she turned 21 and got on a waiting list for a transplant.
“It’s crazy because when I found out I needed a transplant, the first thing I wondered was, ‘Whose heart am I doing to get?’” Hill said. “There is no word in the dictionary that described just how fortunate I was to be able to receive the heart of such a well-loved person. I feel like since the transplant and meeting the Cutinellas, I’ve become a better person in my own life.”
Hill first met the Cutinellas in May 2015, along with the recipient of Thomas’ kidney and pancreas. She has been in frequent communication ever since and has found a real kinship with Thomas’ mother.
“Kelli is almost in a way like a second mom,” Hill said. “She has such a wonderful and warm personality. She and Frank both still have the most positive spirits and are great people to be around.”
Through The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation, the parents are also extremely hands-on and charitable within their son’s school district, granting a special scholarship in Thomas’ name — more than $14,000 in 2016 — to students of Shoreham-Wading River and beyond who exhibit characteristics of kindness, modesty and selflessness. The couple oversaw the building of the new memorial football field, and Frank Cutinella is spearheading the construction of a concession stand and bathroom on the property. Thomas was honored in the form of a buddy bench installed at Wading River Elementary School. At the high school, alongside the football field, a bust was created along with a special seating area by local Eagle Scout Thomas Leda.
“It’s overwhelming for them, but they want to give back to the community because the community gave back to them in their time in need,” Michaels said. “Thomas loved that school and that’s where they felt they could truly carry on his memory. The [Cutinellas] were dealt a bad hand, but they’ve turned that bad hand into a royal flush.”
“Kelli and Frank didn’t crawl in a hole and cry about this,” she said. “They opened their arms and thought of what they could do to make it better and make a difference.”
Kenny Gray, a family friend, said the Cutinellas encompass the small-town feeling of Shoreham-Wading River with their strong family values and love of community.
“I know that they will never fully recover from this and it continues to be a struggle for them, but they’re strong and keep life normal for the other three kids,” Gray said. “This tragedy has led Frank and Kelli to do even more for community and friends.”
Kevin Cutinella, 18, their second oldest child who also played on the high school football and lacrosse team and currently attends the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he’s most proud and admiring of his parents’ strength.
“I love that they haven’t changed at all — they stayed just as stable and strong as a rock,” he said. “It’s just what they’ve always been: strong, focused and helpful. It’s definitely rubbed off on us all.”