A pair of autistic placekickers square off in Allentown and prove anything is possible with a step forward
Morning Call - 7/17/2019
Jul. 16--The mission statement of the East Penn Raiders, a new semi-pro football team that plays its home games at Allentown's J. Birney Crum Stadium, is laid out on its website.
The mission of the Raiders and Major League Football (MLF) is to develop young athletes who have both football and professional goals and help them as they aspire to further their playing careers on both the collegiate and professional levels.
But the mission is also to provide athletes of all ages the opportunity to play the game of football, for the true love of the game.
The last statement would apply to one Raiders player in particular.
Michael Schroeder is the East Penn kicker. He's autistic.
Last Saturday night, Schroeder successfully booted the Raiders' lone extra-point in the their season opener against the Brooklyn Seminoles.
For a while, it appeared Schroeder scored the game-winning point, but Brooklyn rallied with a late touchdown for a 12-7 win.
Perhaps the night's biggest winners, however, were Schroeder and his kicking counterpart from the Seminoles squad, Anthony Starego, another autistic young man with a Lehigh Valley connection.
While the world of semi-pro football is rough, rugged and rowdy, Schroeder and Starego give the sport a reminder of what's really important. They show no obstacles are too large if you want something bad enough.
Starego didn't get to try a field goal or PAT against the Raiders but did handle three kickoffs in addition to lots of practice on the field before the game and at halftime. The lefty booter also prepared feverishly for a potential game-winning field goal with the game winding down and Brooklyn driving while trailing 7-6.
Starego, now 25, was a kicker at Brick High School in New Jersey and then went to Jersey Coast Academy. His parents are 1979 Whitehall High graduates Ray and Reylene (Rex) Starego. The family holds assemblies at elementary schools in New Jersey emphasizing inclusion for kids with special needs.
"Anthony started kicking when he was in seventh grade," his father said. "He was inspired by the Rutgers-Louisville Thursday night game in 2006 when both teams were nationally ranked and Rutgers was undefeated. Rutgers won the game on a last-second field goal. He watched that game-winning kick by Jeremy Ito over and over and two weeks later he told me wanted to play football and he wanted to be a kicker. That's where we started."
Starego also has a cognitive impairment that causes him to read at a third or fourth-grade level, but on the field, the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder looks like any of the other pro players and approaches the game with the intensity any coach would appreciate.
The Staregos, who lived in Easton before moving to New Jersey, adopted Anthony out of the Topton Lutheran Home when he was 3 years old in 1997 and encourage him every step along the way.
They still get excited when he lines up for a kick.
They were thrilled when he kicked the game-winning field goal in the 2014 U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic when Starego's Ocean County all-stars beat Monmouth County's best 17-14.
But it's the mere participation and not the heroics that motivate him.
"I enjoy kicking," he said. "I can kick a 35-yard field goal with no problem. I like being on this team. Autism isn't going to stop me. Nothing is going to stop me. The rest of the guys on my team treat me well."
Schroeder is popular with his Raiders teammates because of his passion. When he put East Penn on top with his PAT he celebrated as though the Raiders had won the Super Bowl.
"It's exciting and fun to play here," Schroeder said. "We have fun every game. We have great times."
Schroeder played high school football at Line Mountain High in Herndon, Northumberland County, before graduating in 2006. He has stayed with the game, looking for opportunities to pursue his passion.
"I was playing for a spring league semi-pro team in Harrisburg, but there are not that many 11-man teams in the 570 [area code]," Schroeder said. "I came to Harrisburg a few years ago because they needed a kicker and I knew a bunch of guys there from my high school days in the Tri-Valley League. I attended college at Penn State-Harrisburg so I was familiar with the area and knew people."
At Line Mountain, Schroeder said he once kicked a 31-yard game-winning field goal and has a range of 50 yards.
Schroeder, who works full-time for MI Windows and Doors LLC in Gratz, Dauphin County, considers Starego a friend and a fellow inspiration. Saturday night's game wasn't the first time they were on opposite sidelines.
"A couple of months ago we met in the regular-season finale in the North East Atlantic League when I was playing for the Harrisburg Sharks and he was playing for the New Jersey Pitbulls," Schroeder said. "I heard about Anthony a couple of years ago when he was featured on ESPN's College GameDay and SportsCenter. It was great to see a guy like him do what he wanted to do."
Schroeder would love to get a shot at the NFL or the top Arena League, but for now he's enjoying his time with the Raiders and relishing each celebration with his teammates.
"They love me," he said. "They treat me like I'm one of their own. When I make a kick, we do our own celebration where we clap three times and make it rain money. I try to personalize it a little bit and have fun. That's what it's all about."
Mike Keefer, the owner of the East Penn team that's in its first year, said he wants his team to give back to the community, and Schroeder offers an opportunity to show what a franchise can do.
"We've had adult football here before, but we want to do things differently," Keefer said. "Before we even knew about Michael Schroeder, we decided that we're going to give $1 back of every ticket sold to Autism Speaks. We want to do good in the Valley and deliver good football."
The Raiders are back at J. Birney Crum Stadium for a game at 7 p.m Saturday.
Morning Call reporter Keith Groller can be reached at 610-820-6740 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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