After suicide, Prince William County sets rigid standard for athletes and concussions


Battlefield QB Ryan Swingle throws a pass during last season’s state championship game. All athletes in Prince William County must attend an hour-long seminar on concussions with at least one parent before joining the team. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 24, 2011

If you want to know why Prince William County has the most comprehensive concussion education program among the major Northern Virginia school divisions, look no further than Gil Trenum’s wrist.

The Prince William County School Board member wears two memorial plastic bracelets handed out by Brentsville High School students. They honor his son, Gilbert Allen Austin Trenum III, who hanged himself last September.

The Trenums believe that the lingering effects from a concussion suffered in a Brentsville football game — Austin’s second in as many years and what the family now believes was his fourth concussion, including those suffered in practice — instigated the senior’s irreversible act a couple days later. It is a claim more suicide victims’ families are making as we learn more about the life-altering — and life-ending — effects of brain injuries.

The death of a popular student from a prominent family — “one silly big grin to everyone who loved him,” his mother, Michelle, noted on a concussion blog last fall — brought the issue home to Prince William. That at-your-doorstep immediacy has informed the county’s new approach to concussions.

By state law, school jurisdictions in Virginia are required to have concussion education programs to promote better understanding about head injuries and to spur communication among high school athletes, parents, coaches, teachers, school athletic trainers and outside medical personnel about how to recognize and treat them.

How seriously is Prince William taking this?

In Loudoun County, parents and athletes are required to sign a two-page form.

In Fairfax County, parents and athletes must click through an online video that takes about 10 minutes.

In Prince William County, any student interested in trying out for a sport, along with at least one parent, are required to attend an hour-long seminar on concussions, delivered by one of the school system’s certified athletic trainers.

Not just sign a form. Not just watch a video. Show up, listen and then sign a confirmation of attendance that will not be accepted until the end of the presentation.

At Woodbridge High one summer evening, there was a line out the door for one of the seminars, with about 450 athletes and parents in attendance, a typical turnout at schools throughout the county.

“We know so much more now,” Trenum said when we met up at a Bristow coffee shop recently. “So we’re accountable for what we know. To be aware of what the risks are and what needs to be done and then to ignore that, to me, that would be unacceptable.”

If communication is critical to understanding and properly treating concussions, what better way to provide that foundation than to make each kid and a parent sit together for an hour and digest the same information.

Twelve disturbing minutes of that time is spent watching a video about a former La Salle University football player, Preston Plevretes, who has never recovered physically or mentally from a concussion he suffered in 2005 after returning to action too soon following a head injury earlier that season. His speech is so garbled that the “E:60” report, “Second Impact,” used subtitles for his responses.

The slick piece has the scare quotient of a grainy driver’s ed movie, minus any nervous black humor from the back of the class. It gives both parent and student a reference point as to what can befall the concussed athlete, particularly one who does not adequately rest his first head injury and receive proper post-concussion care.

The Woodbridge auditorium was silent when the video ended.

“I can’t overstress the importance of kids knowing [this information],” said Trenum, who donated Austin’s brain to Boston University for head trauma research. “With my son, both times he was taken off the football field for a concussion, it wasn’t because he was knocked out or anything else. His teammates noticed an issue and they took him to the trainer. Kids are probably going to be able to see the differences the soonest.”

When Trenum attended a concussion seminar at Forest Park High, the speaker provided information that Trenum had gleaned the hard way during the past agonizing year, with advice and procedures that perhaps could have helped avert the tragedy that struck his family. He has shared Prince William’s concussion program with parents around the country and has urged them to contact their own school officials.

One of Trenum’s bracelets says, “Forever In Our Hearts.” With the eldest of his three sons gone, a crusading father’s only consolation is that the new policy stays forever in the books.

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com

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