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Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?

July 18, 2012

This is one of the most powerful articles I’ve read about CTE and high school sports — I’ve pulled some excerpts, however I encourage you to read the article in it’s entirety. If you are prompted to subscribe just click any area outside of the pop up to read the article.


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.”

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?

Read more about her son Austin who killed himself days after a concussion during a high school football game and their journey since Austin’s death.


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