On the day he took his own life, Austin Trenum ate cheesecake. He was 17. He loved cheesecake. He loved the Beastie Boys, too, and SpongeBob Squarepants and the silly fauxhawk haircut he spent months cultivating and two minutes shaving off because, well, that’s what teenagers do. He loved his little Geo Metro convertible, neon yellow and as macho as a golf cart, a gift from his grandfather, the two driving all the way from Texas to Austin’s home in Nokesville, Virginia, a close-knit community of 1,354 in Prince William County.
Austin loved his parents, Gil and Michelle, and his younger brothers, Cody and Walker. He loved his girlfriend, Lauren. He loved cheering for the girls’ volleyball team at Brentsville District High School, smearing his chest with paint and screaming his lungs out alongside his lacrosse teammates; loved sneaking out of his chemistry class to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with his friend Carmen in the band room; loved fishing and paintball, roller coasters and blasting “Sweet Caroline” with the top down.
He especially loved football. Loved watching the Dallas Cowboys. Loved playing for the Brentsville varsity team—fullback and linebacker—taking hits and delivering them, seldom leaving the field, eating two Hostess cherry pies before every game. He was a handsome kid, green-eyed like his mother, six feet tall and 190 pounds, growing stronger and more confident all the time. Under the Friday-night lights, in his beat-up helmet and shoulder pads, you could see the man Gilbert Allen Austin Trenum III was becoming.
• • •
It was Sunday, September 26, 2010. Michelle Trenum woke up around 8 am. Gil was out of town, returning that afternoon from a weekend drill with his Navy Reserve unit in New Jersey. Walker, ten, their youngest, was on the living-room couch, hiding under a blanket. He jumped up when Michelle walked in. Boo!
“Austin’s awake,” Walker said. “He’s in the basement playing a video game.”
That’s odd, Michelle thought. Austin never got up early on Sundays. Not voluntarily.
Michelle made her sons breakfast. Austin drove his other brother, Cody, 15, to a lacrosse game and cheered from the sidelines. He took more pride in his siblings than himself; he was that kind of brother. On the way home, he teased Cody. “You did good,” Austin said, before delivering the punch line. “You surprised me!”
Back at the house, Austin ate lunch. And cheesecake. While Austin surfed the Internet, he and Michelle talked about Adam James, a Texas Tech football player who had allegedly been locked in a dark electrical closet by the school’s head coach, Mike Leach, after suffering a concussion. The story, which ultimately ignited a media firestorm and led to Leach’s firing, began when the injured James showed up to practice in sunglasses and street clothes; Austin joked with his mother that he should do the same, just to see how his high-school coach, Dean Reedy, would react.
Austin then turned serious, balancing on one foot to mimic a neurological test.
“Am I going to be out all week?” he said. “I don’t want to be out all week. Do you think I’ll be out two weeks?”
“You’ll just have to see,” Michelle said.
During a football game the previous Friday night, Austin had sustained a concussion. Brain trauma had been in the news. There were reports of retired NFL players suffering from depression and dementia linked to their hard-hitting careers. There were congressional hearings, some of them dealing with high-school football. In the coming months, the sport would be engulfed in a full-blown health crisis. Austin’s parents were mostly unaware of the controversy. They had both grown up in Texas, where football was king, where getting your bell rung was just a part of the game. Almost a badge of honor.
• • •
Gil and Michelle had been in the Brentsville High bleachers on Friday night, chatting with friends, a full moon overhead. Neither of them saw the hit, but Gil spotted their son standing with his helmet off, touching his index finger to his nose at the direction of team trainer Richard Scavongelli. Just like last season. Good grief.
On the sideline, Austin was dazed, slurring his words. During the drive to the emergency room, he was alert enough to call Lauren, his girlfriend. By the time he was standing in line at Prince William Hospital, shirtless and sweaty, he seemed fine. He cracked jokes, flirted with the nurses who brought him a sandwich and a soda. He begged a doctor to let him leave, asked if Lauren could come back to the examination room.
A nurse asked if he wanted Tylenol.
“The last time you got a concussion, you got a headache,” Michelle said. “Are you sure you don’t want it?”
“Mom, I’m fine,” Austin said. “I don’t have a headache. Except for my normal football headache. I get them after every game.”
The medical staff gave Gil and Michelle a sheet of instructions: Watch for vomiting and clear fluid coming out of Austin’s nose, signs of a more severe brain injury. Limit their son to “quiet activities” for the next 24 hours. Wake him from sleep every few hours to check for evidence of intracranial bleeding, such as confusion and extreme drowsiness.
Heading home, the Trenums stopped at the Chuck Wagon, a restaurant around the corner from their house, where the Brentsville High players gathered after games. Austin’s teammates recounted his sideline exchange with Scavongelli.
Scavongelli: “Do you know where you are?”
Austin: “Yeah. This is my field!”
Scavongelli: “No. Do you know what school you are at?”
Austin: “Yeah. My school!”
Scavongelli: “Do you know who you’re playing against?”