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The Brentsville community strives to overcome the heartache of Austin Trenum's death

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:35 AM

Grieving friends say that Austin Trenum was an idea man, whether it was hooking up a tattered tarp to a four-wheeler for some backyard parasailing, proposing a T-shirt line that featured holsters on the arms to accentuate the wearer's bulging "guns," or suggesting to his lazy buddies at a campout that they all brand themselves with a hot dog stick. Playful brainstorming came naturally to the popular Brentsville High School honor student and football and lacrosse player.

Two days after suffering a concussion during a football game, the second head injury of his young life, Austin acted on another impulse, this one tragic. He hanged himself, stunning Nokesville, deeply saddening a prominent family and delivering the national concussion issue to the doorstep of a tightly knit community that celebrates its Tigers with personalized football placards on utility poles, including one near the Trenum home that has a memorial bouquet wrapped around it.

Family members found Austin, 17, on the Sunday afternoon of Sept. 26, and he died at Inova Fairfax Hospital at 2 a.m. the next day. His parents, Gil, a Prince William County School Board vice chairman, and Michelle, suspect that their son's concussion perhaps led to his suicide and have donated his brain to head trauma research.

So the boy who was so full of ideas, and had already decided to be an organ donor, will continue to spur thinking posthumously. But last week, that did little to dull the pain for teammates as they bummed tissues off each other and confronted the death not so much by asking "Why?" but "Why this way?"

"I want everybody to know [who] didn't know him that what happened in his last moments was completely out of character," close friend and senior teammate Ryan Hall said. "He was one of the happiest kids you would ever meet. He loved his life. It was completely out of character. I don't know what happened."

Brentsville's enrollment has swelled to 1,668, necessitating the installation of 23 trailers behind the school, but it has retained its rural charm and small-town feel, with silos and farmland in view of campus. Some seasons, the football team makes the mile-long walk from the school down main drag Fitzwater Drive to eat together at a restaurant before games. Nokesville Elementary School students at times are dismissed early to slap five with the big guys as they lumber past. Generations of families have attended Brentsville, which opened in 1929 in what now is the elementary school, and one observer noted how that town unity is "contagious" to new families who move in.

So school and community are largely the same, and they leaned on each other last week, from the concerned gathering at the hospital Sunday night through the funeral Saturday morning, through Facebook consolation and YouTube tributes, a co-dependency that Tigers football Coach Dean Reedy termed at once "heart-wrenching and heartwarming."

"To see the things that these kids have done and drawn on each other, it does something for you," Reedy said. "At their age, there's always tomorrow. They grew up hard and fast."

Brentsville players bused to Gilbert Allen Austin Trenum III's open-casket viewing at Manassas Assembly of God in Bristow on Friday afternoon, the first such experience for many of them, and they marked his passing with a number of touching flourishes at that night's home game against James Wood.

Austin's surviving brothers, Cody, 15, himself a Brentsville football player, and Walker, 10, donned their brother's No. 43 jerseys and led the team onto the field before the game and accompanied the captains to midfield for the coin toss.

"They lost their big brother," football and lacrosse player Garrison Ernst said, "and we've all got to be that big brother for them now."

The coin toss took place on a tribute to Austin; the Tigers earlier in the week had held up a tarp to keep the rain off teammate Cole Stoy as he painted the deceased teammate's name and number on the field. The Austin-themed banner that students had made for the football team to run through turned out so well that the players opted not to destroy it.

Cheerleaders, with 43s painted on their cheeks, released 43 orange, white and black balloons that disappeared into the cool air. One did not immediately take flight, symbolic of a community that was having trouble letting one if its own go.

Players wore No. 43 decals on the backs of their helmets in honor of the hard-working player known more for making himself a good athlete than for being one, the same kid who liked to scarf down two Hostess cherry pies before games.

"I play better with 'em," Austin would insist to senior Thomas Breeding, who would buy sunflower seeds on those pregame 7-Eleven trips. "I cramp up when I don't get 'em."

For the first offensive snap, only 10 Tigers lined up so that senior quarterback K.C. Willard could mime a handoff to an absent 6-foot, 190-pound fullback-linebacker with piercing eyes and a choppy laugh. Willard then took a knee to end the play and pointed skyward after he got up.

The ball, one used in a game in which Austin had played, was given to Gil Trenum, who with other family members and mourners observed the scene from behind the bench, leaving shortly after the ceremony to return to the church for the evening viewing.

"It's amazing to see them," Reedy said afterward. "I don't know that I'd be able to stand."

The surviving Trenum boys stayed on the sideline to cheer on the team, first to a 7-0 lead and eventually to a 40-7 defeat. The youngest rode Stoy's shoulders part of the night and raised his arms in faux machismo when the home crowd chanted, "We love Walker!"

Not long after the game, about 300 students, some in homemade T-shirts bearing Austin's name, held a candlelight vigil on the field and sang "Amazing Grace" and "Let It Be." Friends told stories about the boy some called "Papa" for how he took care of everybody.

"This is what matters now," senior teammate Alex Klaasse said quietly amid his classmates' sniffles, laughs and hugs. "Everyone being together."

Donations can be made to the Austin Trenum Memorial Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 389, Manassas, VA 20108, or at www.poweredbyspark.org, by clicking on "donate." 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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