The room remains as it was. A lacrosse helmet. An SAT prep book. A half-empty pack of gum. All on a desk. Austin and his friends mugging in a photo booth, young and happy and full of life, the snapshots tacked to a mirror. Clothes are piled on the closet floor, the bed unmade. Sometimes Michelle will come upstairs and lie down, just to feel her son’s blanket.
Downstairs is a bathroom. When Austin was in the hospital, doctors working to save his life, Michelle tried to make a deal with God: I’ll rip out the bathroom, make it bigger. Austin can be a vegetable and we’ll take care of him. Just let him live.
“But I knew,” she says, her voice trailing off.
The first months were the hardest. Gil, a senior engineer at SAIC, went back to work. The boys were in school. Michelle, a stay-at-home mom, would lie on the living-room couch—the family’s golden retriever, Biscuit, at her feet—and sob. Before Austin’s death, she had been outgoing, involved in the community, digging up local land-use records and political-campaign contributions to lead a successful fight against a planned rock quarry. Not anymore.
She withdrew, felt vulnerable, couldn’t be around people who didn’t know Austin. She threw herself into spy novels, then science fiction, sometimes reading for seven hours a day. She had once favored Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy, selections from Oprah’s book club. “But I couldn’t read those,” Michelle says. “Nothing with mothers and kids and emotions.”
When children take their lives, parents blame themselves. Michelle wondered why she’d gotten on Austin about his homework; Gil wondered why he’d let him do homework in the first place. A grief counselor told Michelle it would take a year for the guilt to pass. “Even I have trouble sleeping sometimes,” says Patti McKay, the Trenums’ close friend. “I think about what Gil and Michelle saw. I don’t know how they sleep. I can’t imagine living with that.”
Michelle still watched football, but not in the same way. She winced at every big hit, noticed that concussed players almost always fell with their forearms extended away from their bodies, a reflex scientists call “the fencing response.” She began investigating sports concussions and teen suicide, spending hours online, reaching out to military and academic experts.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked suicides, but they didn’t correlate those deaths with recent brain trauma, never mind athletic participation. Nor did anyone else.
Michelle befriended Dustin Fink, an Illinois-based athletic trainer who runs a concussion blog. Fink’s anecdotal evidence suggested that boys who played both linebacker and running back were at greater brain-trauma risk. Michelle made a spreadsheet, one she still maintains, logging every instance she could find of high-school and college football players killing themselves: name, age, position played. She saw a pattern. Linebacker. Running back. Linebacker. Running back. Just like Austin.
• • •
Two football helmets rest on a table. One is black, matte and battered, with an orange mouthpiece wedged in the facemask. The other is reddish and gleaming, decorated with a skull and crossbones and a breast-cancer-awareness sticker. Two gashes run down the front.
The first helmet belonged to Austin. The second belongs to Walker.
Michelle pushes them together. “This,” she says, “is how it happens.”
It’s a Saturday, exactly one year after the weekend of Austin’s death.
Cody finished the previous Brentsville High football season, then quit. He didn’t say why. Walker continued to play for a youth squad, fullback and linebacker, same as Austin. Gil and Michelle didn’t want to overreact, give in to emotion, cocoon their son in bubble wrap. Besides, Austin always took such pride in Walker. The boy loved to hit, so much so that he bragged about it: Mommy, that kid is a baby. He cried, and I didn’t even hit him that hard.
Walker wore a special chin strap, rigged with accelerometers that measured the force of every blow he absorbed. If built-in software deemed any hit powerful enough to cause a head injury, three green LED lights on the chin strap would flash red. While Walker was making a routine block, his head whipped sideways. Red lights. His coach pulled him off the field. Two sideline nurses checked him out. Dizzy and frightened, he cried.
“My head,” he said. “My head.”
The Trenums followed Gioia’s instructions. They made Walker rest. They took him to a Sunday-night bonfire—a memorial for Austin—but didn’t let him run around with his friends. On Monday morning, a neurologist diagnosed Walker with a concussion. Sensitive to light and sound, he was held out of football practice and gym class for a week. One week after that, he was back on the field, Michelle looking on.
“You’re so calm,” one of the other mothers said.
Michelle wasn’t. Watching football on TV was bad enough. This was worse. Also, the chin strap. It was supposed to make things easier, safer. But the lights kept turning red, once when Walker hadn’t even been hit. Michelle made him sit out the entire game. Walker fumed, said he wouldn’t wear the device again. Michelle sent the faulty chin strap back to the manufacturer, got a replacement, then sent that one back, too. More red lights. Was the problem a bad battery? Water leaking into the electronics? Was the problem football?
Michelle wasn’t watching her son. She was watching the lights, waiting for green to go red. She worried about punch-drunk football players, the blows adding up over time—wondered if Walker’s concussion was God’s version of a yellow flag. It was all too much.
Michelle Trenum kept coming back to the same question.
“If you’re that worked up,” she says, “then what are you doing letting your kid out there in the first place?
• • •
Losing a child, Michelle says, is like jumping from one train onto another headed in the opposite direction. In an instant, you’re barreling away from everything you once knew, farther and farther with each second.
Brentsville High has a scholarship in Austin’s name. In their living room, the Trenums keep a large photo of Austin, sweaty and beaming, coming off a football field. On the ceiling above the kitchen table is a spot with his fingerprints, smudged and faded, where he and his brothers once liked to test how high they could jump. “I sometimes think we can never repaint that,” Michelle says. There’s sadness in her eyes—green like Austin’s—and pain.
“I love football,” Gil says. “I loved watching the kids play. But it’s not the same anymore.”
Twelve years ago, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman retired after suffering the tenth concussion of his Hall of Fame career, the result of a vicious hit from Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Aikman since has become a successful broadcaster, a man who owes much to football. After the Super Bowl in February, however, he said that the sport was “at a real crossroads. . . . If I had a ten-year-old boy, I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football in light of what we’re learning from head injuries.”
Michelle showed Walker the comment.
“I don’t think I want you to play football,” she said.
He was upset—for a moment.
“Can I play another sport?”
Gil and Michelle are not against football. They don’t judge others. But they’ve made their decision.
“As a mother,” Michelle says, “I’m a lot more relaxed watching basketball.”
Patrick Hruby is a culture writer for the Washington Times and a contributor to ESPN.com and TheAtlantic.com, among others. You can contact him at patrickhruby.net.
This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.