The most dramatic, horrific example of the dangers of concussions in high school football locally may be Austin Trenum. During a Brentsville High School football game on Sept. 24, 2010, the upbeat and popular 17-year-old suffered the second concussion of his career. He seemed fine the next day. But the following day, he committed suicide, an utterly uncharacteristic action. His parents donated his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, which found that Austin had multifocal axonal injury, or severely damaged fibers in his brain. This Washingtonian article by Patrick Hruby, titled “Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?“, captures the story in heartbreaking depth.
Austin’s parents, Gil and Michelle Trenum of Nokesville, have become deeply immersed in the study of concussions and football, and have directly improved the region’s awareness of spotting and responding to possible head trauma. In addition, Gil Trenum is a Prince William County school board member, so he sees the administrative side of dealing with this issue in the schools. I asked him about the concern expressed by Loudoun Valley High School parents about matchups between schools of different sizes, and the idea of “safety scheduling.” Here are his thoughts:
“Next month will mark three years since we lost Austin, and our friends, family and community have been very supportive this whole time. For that we are extremely grateful. We have heard of families with very similar stories who did not have that support and I can’t imagine how much harder it made things for them.
“I certainly appreciate where the [Loudoun Valley] coaches and parents are coming from. I don’t know that there are any actual studies, but a logical argument certainly exists that since the larger schools have more students to choose from, statistically they will have more bigger, stronger students and more students that play well enough to start, which allows them to limit the number of players that play both ways. This means that in addition to the smaller schools being outsized, the players for the larger schools are fresher. Since we know that when players get tired they are more prone to injury, the combination of size difference and tiredness would contribute to a situation where injuries of all types are more likely to happen.
“I like the idea of ‘safety scheduling,’ although this is the first time I’ve heard it phrased that way. I agree with the concept of keeping similar-sized schools playing against each other for safety reasons, but we have to be careful in our expectations because smaller schools can have large, strong players as well. When Austin played I remember there was a really big player for Liberty in Fauquier County that he went up against. Also, some of the smaller Winchester schools have some big kids as well. I don’t want parents and coaches to get in a mindset of ‘our team is similar in size to our opponent so we don’t have to worry about concussions (or other injuries).’
“I think the bigger issue is the players playing both ways. Just the fact that they are on the field that much means they get more tired, so their play gets sloppier and they are more prone to injuries. From the concussion perspective, just the fact that they are on the field more means that there are more opportunities for brain injuries. Also, more plays mean more hits and more cumulative sub-concussive damage. I know that players playing both ways has being going on for close to a hundred years, but with the kids getting bigger, stronger, faster and better trained I think the hits are getting harder and harder, just from the physics of it.
“Another factor is that what are now season-ending concussive injuries would not necessarily have been so in the past. As we learn more about the way the brain functions and the time it takes to recover we are more careful about putting kids back into contact situations, which is a good thing.”