On the first snap of Brentsville’s first football game without Austin, the school’s quarterback mimed a handoff to his absent fullback, then took a knee. He pointed to the night sky, where cheerleaders with the number 43 painted on their cheeks had released the same number of balloons. The whole school wore white. Cody and Walker wore jerseys bearing their brother’s number, 43, and watched from the sideline. At the end of the game, a Brentsville player carried Walker off the field on his shoulders.
Football went on. The Trenums understood. Gil, 46, had grown up in Ohio and Texas, states where the sport is practically a religion; Michelle, 48, was raised an hour and a half from Odessa, Texas, the real-life setting of Friday Night Lights. She remembers pep rallies and rabid boosters, caravans of cars with shoe-polish-painted windows, what seemed like entire towns turning out for high-school games. Gil and Michelle attended Texas Tech, where Austin went to summer football camp. They loved the sport. So did Cody, a member of the Brentsville High JV squad, and Walker, who played on a youth team.
As the Trenums grieved, friends and neighbors brought them food, mowed and reseeded their lawn, even repainted their front door. The family watched football. Tuesday nights. Thursday nights. All weekend long. College and pro. Tackle after tackle, hit after hit. “I don’t know why,” Gil says. “We just did. It was a distraction, something you had to focus on.”
Gil and Michelle kept in touch with Gioia. They had donated Austin’s brain to the Boston University scientists, who were studying the effects of concussions and head trauma. The Trenums came to a frightening realization: Like so many others around the country, the Prince William County school system wasn’t doing enough to address athletic concussions. What happened to Austin could have happened to anyone.
Six months before Austin’s death, Virginia had passed a law requiring schools to educate students and parents about concussions and to remove students suspected of sustaining the injury from the field of play until cleared by a medical professional. In Fairfax County, education meant watching a ten-minute online video; in Loudoun County, it meant signing a two-page form. Prince William’s policy was still being written, not scheduled to take effect until 2012.
A member of the Prince William County school board, Gil wanted something quicker and better. A policy with teeth. He lobbied administrators. He had Gioia make a presentation to the board, got input from Nowinski, the former Harvard football player now with the Boston University program. Spurred by his son’s death, Gil was relentless.
Prince William’s new concussion policy went into effect in the summer of 2011, mandating stricter return-to-play guidelines and more thorough education for school athletic trainers. Students trying out for sports are now required to attend an hourlong concussion seminar with at least one parent.
“I have families contacting me all the time, telling me they can’t thank Gil enough,” says Kendra Kielbasa, an advocate for youth-concussion care and the wife of Austin’s former lacrosse coach. Working with Gil to draw up a policy that stresses post-concussion cognitive rest—the kind Austin didn’t know enough to get—Kendra had drawn on her own experience. Her son, Connor, was concussed after being dropped on his head during a seventh-grade wrestling match. Emergency-room doctors checked Connor for a brain bleed and cleared him to return to school the next day. Three weeks later, with his grades plummeting and his emotions off kilter, he asked his mother if he could lie down.
“Sure,” Kendra said. “Why don’t you go to your room?”
Connor looked around the living room. “I don’t know where it is,” he said. “Can you take me?”
“The hardest part is that people don’t understand—your child looks like he is fine, but he’s not,” Kendra says. “People have to understand that it’s not just a bad headache for a day or two. And it’s not enough to do [concussion education] in the high schools. We have to bring it to the middle and elementary schools.”
Would more education have saved Austin’s life? The Trenums think so.
Last fall, Cody played in a lacrosse tournament in Williamsburg. Michelle was in the stands. A boy from another team was hit hard and concussed. As his parents pulled him off the field, a woman approached. She said she was a nurse. Michelle could overhear their conversation. The boy was dazed, struggling to remember things.
“Well, he’s not passed out,” said the nurse. “That’s a good sign.”
Actually, Michelle thought, episodic amnesia is more of an indicator of serious problems than passing out is.
The nurse continued to offer medical advice, much of it dated. Michelle began to panic. As soon as the nurse left, she ran over to the parents. “Take your son to a doctor,” she implored. “A neurologist. Get him some rest. Keep a close eye on him.”
The parents asked, “Are you a doctor?”
“No,” Michelle said. “But my son died last year after a concussion.”
“That scared them,” she says. “And all I could think was ‘At least your son will live.’ ”
• • •
The brains come here, to a red-brick building in suburban Boston. Each is weighed, photographed, and examined for signs of trauma and disease, then carefully sliced in half. One half goes to the upstairs laboratory, where scientists create tissue samples ten microns thin, chemically stained and mounted on slides for microscopic inspection. The other half is placed in a closet-size, stainless-steel freezer, preserved for future study.
“There are more freezers,” says Victor Alvarez, a researcher at the lab. “We’re always looking for more space.”
Football has a problem. The sport kills too many players. Some slowly, some all at once. The evidence is in the freezers and in the stacks of slides cluttering the office of Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and codirector of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Each brain tells a story: former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk, dead at age 36 after leading police on a high-speed chase that began with hallucinations and ended in a fireball; former college-football player Mike Borich, dead at 42 from a drug overdose; former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, dead at 44 from shooting himself; former NFL safety Dave Duerson, dead at 50 from shooting himself in the chest—specifically in the chest—after scrawling a note to his family asking that his brain be donated to science.
Austin Trenum, dead at 17.