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Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?
Comments () | Published July 23, 2012
Photographs courtesy of the Trenum family.

This is my field! Everyone laughed. They laughed at the way Austin had gotten emotional on the field, too, cussing out one of his buddies, something he never, ever did.

On Saturday morning, Austin attended football film study; that afternoon, he went fishing; in the evening, he took Lauren to a Sugarland concert, a belated celebration of her birthday. They sat on the Jiffy Lube Live lawn, taking pictures under the stars. When Austin got home, he texted Lauren good night. The next day, he was sitting in his family’s dining room doing homework, texting her again about meeting up two hours later to watch a Redskins game.

Austin was a good student, ranking in the top 6 percent of his class. He planned to study chemical engineering in college and was deciding between Virginia Tech and James Madison. The former had a better football team; the latter, he deduced during a campus visit, had better-looking girls. As Austin studied for his Cold War history class, Michelle went online to check his academic progress. There was a problem. He hadn’t turned in two papers. Michelle was upset and lectured him about slacking off.

Gil came home around 2:30 pm. Michelle gave her husband a kiss and cut him a slice of cheesecake. She told him about Austin’s schoolwork. Austin looked irritated—almost angry. That was out of character. Michelle saw his jaw clench. His mouth moved. She was stunned. Did he just call me a name? Austin stared straight ahead.

“If you don’t finish your work,” she said, “you can’t see Lauren tonight.”

Gil and Michelle went outside. Cody and Walker were on the living-room couch, watching a football game. At some point, Austin went upstairs.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with Austin,” Michelle said. “He shouldn’t disrespect me like that.”

“He’s a teenager,” Gil said. “I’ll go talk to him.”

Gil went inside. He passed the kitchen table, where his cheesecake sat untouched. He walked up the stairs, the same stairs where Austin would ambush Walker when he came home from school, peppering him with foam darts from a toy gun. The door to Austin’s room was open.

Michelle Trenum heard her husband scream.

• • •

On her way to the hospital, Patti McKay made a deal with God. Not Austin. Please. Take me instead. The boy was like a second son. Every summer, the McKay and Trenum families vacationed together at a lake in Maine, where the kids would play King of the Dock—wrestling for control of a wooden swimming platform, tossing one another in the water, Austin always making sure the younger children won their share.

When her cell phone rang, Patti was in her sister’s garden, kneeling in the dirt. It was Cody, panicked. Austin wasn’t breathing. Gil was trying to resuscitate him. An ambulance was on the way. What should they do?

Keep performing CPR, Patti said.

A cardiology nurse, Patti suspected a subdural hematoma. A brain bleed. Which was odd. She had just seen Austin, about 90 minutes earlier, pulling up in her driveway—the top down on his little yellow convertible, Cody in the passenger seat.

Austin had been grinning. He had a gift with him, a Snickers cheesecake.

“Here, Ms. McKay,” he said. “Look what we brought for you.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Okay.”

“No, really—how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. My headache is almost gone.”

Patti had been at the game on Friday night, standing with Austin in the Brentsville High parking lot, holding his arm to help him balance. But today his gait was normal, his hands weren’t shaking. She called the emergency room, professional instincts taking over. You’re getting a boy who had a concussion two days ago. You need a neurosurgeon. If you don’t have one, have a helicopter ready to evacuate. Arriving at Prince William Hospital, she didn’t see a helicopter. She saw Rob Place, the Trenums’ next-door neighbor.

Austin hanged himself, Place said.

• • •

Nothing made sense. Not suicide. Not Austin. Not the boy who went deer hunting in West Virginia with his father and crafted elaborate zombie-apocalypse defense plans with Walker. Not the young man who always said “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” and was adored by his friends’ parents. Not the charmed kid who never got mad on the lacrosse field, who’d scored a goal six seconds into his first high-school game.

“If someone came to me and asked me to rank, 1 to 25, the kids on the team most likely to have problems and the kids who were the most stable, Austin was number one on the stable end of the list,” says Carl Kielbasa, Austin and Cody’s former high-school lacrosse coach. “His maturity level was extremely high. Never experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Almost fatherly to his brothers. Had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a great teammate, very attentive and aware, very patient and kind. A big-time leader on the team and in school—he could hang out with the kids who were partyers and be in an honor-society meeting the next day. Everyone loved him.”

Austin was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he died at 2 am on Monday. The entire community was stunned. The boy was beloved. Football was beloved. In the Nokesville area, plans were underway to build a new $850,000 youth-football complex; elementary-school students were let out early on Friday afternoons, the better to high-five Brentsville High players as they made their march down the town’s main road.

How could this have happened?

The Trenums went home. Later that day, their phone rang. Laura O’Neal answered. She was Austin’s godmother, one of Michelle’s best friends. She’d been there for Austin’s first birthday, eating cowboy-themed cake; there when he got his first lacrosse stick, which he carried everywhere, like a scepter. Now she would plan his funeral.

There was a man on the line, Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, calling on behalf of scientists at Boston University.

They wanted Austin’s brain.

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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