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Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?
When a well-adjusted Virginia teen suddenly killed himself, his parents looked for warning signs they had missed. But Austin had no dark secret, no teen angst. There was nothing—except for a concussion he had sustained during a football game a few days earlier. By Patrick Hruby
Gil and Michelle Trenum both loved football. All three of their sons played. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Comments () | Published July 23, 2012

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.

Austin’s brain showed he had a multifocal axonal injury, which can disrupt normal impulse control. Scientists are struggling to understand the connection between concussions and suicide. Photograph courtesy of the Trenum family.

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?”

Austin: “No.”

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  • bison1

    Deepest sympathy to the family. My boys wrestled and both had several concussions over the years. It's scary to think of the times the "trainer" said they were okay to continue, when they obviously weren't. The boys in sports are geared to "man up" and continue even when its obvious they shouldn't. I am pleased that at long last concussion awareness is being taught!

  • Bulldog

    All you people who think football is a death trap or an injury mill. I will tell you this you are no different than the people that think guns kill people. It is a free choice it is a child's choice, IT IS FREEDOM, but you go ahead and keep your kids from doing what they want. Just because they don't play football does not mean they wont get hurt or get brain injuries. If you think football is senseless, ask some of the men who through the teachings of football is what made them successful and I guarantee they will tell you they have had injuries and concussions . Your child could slip in the tube and get a concussion I would rather let my child have fun in his life whatever HIS/HER choice don't condemn a sport because of fear. Rather than do that....
    When fear creeps into your life...................Let your faith open the door
    Do not take freedom/choice away from your children for we as American's are fighting to keep freedom alive. Let your child decide, No parent wants to lose a child but keeping him off the football field doesn't mean you still wont lose him/her. Look at texting and driving, racing, drinking and driving, gang activity, suicide because of depression and the one that has touched my life the most is use of illegal and legal drugs. I have lost so many kids because of drug over doses, dui's, racing, and texting and driving. If you have not figured it out I have coached so many kids and have never lost kids to injury like concussions but have lost many because of the other Evils
    in life.

  • Shaun Best

    Football is a death trap, when will parents stop neglecting their offspring's/children's health? This is costing taxes that could be used for more important expenses like healthcare, national debt, mind research to successfully deal with cognitive challenges, etc. Those who allow their children to play sport, should also be accountable for their health insurance for life, etc.

  • For Benjamin

    How very tragic and very sad. I feel for the family. My 14 yr old son died at the end of a rugby match. During the match He was assessed 4 times for a suspected head injury. Each time they let him play on. Apparently being dazed after a big hit is acceptable by some in the sporting world. My son collapsed just before the final whistle. His brain was so severely swollen nothing could be done to save him. My son never lost consciousness during the game but had a headache was unsteady on his feet and shouted out he wasn't remembering playing the game, he looked uncomfortable and had to be assisted to his feet during play. You don't need to be hit in the head the upper body is just as vulnerable once you have sustained the initial blow. You don't need to be sparked out cold, unfortunately that's what some ill informed people believe.

  • Jon

    My sympathies go out to all the families involved in this article, I can't imagine the grief they have suffered. As a father of a active young boy, who wont be playing football, even tho he wants to, something must be done on the preventative side - maybe even radical, like taking the helmet and pads out of the equation. I would like to know what the incidence rate of concussions are in european football? Rugby?? Seems to me the head has and is a weapon and still you see most college and pros leading with it into hits they make. That wouldnt happen without a helmet. Something has to be done!

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Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 07/23/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles