Dam­aged bod­ies, heal­ing hearts

De­spite dev­as­tat­ing in­juries, strug­gling towns still see foot­ball as a way to make it through


High­way 52 curls west around town and un­spools across the rip­pling farm­land. It is easy to miss the house tucked on a grav­elly side road called For­got­ten Lane, where Ty Bus­ta­mante of­ten wakes be­fore dawn. If it’s a bad day, he needs more time than usual to get dressed. Bend­ing to tie his shoes, his body re­sists the last few inches un­til he wills his fin­gers to the laces.

Ty turned 17 in Oc­to­ber. A line­man for the El­don High School Mus­tangs, he is in pain from old foot­ball in­juries — a stress frac­ture to a lower ver­te­bra, a bulging disk, a hard hit to his left hip. Ty re­cently started hav­ing seizures, as well as ex­treme anx­i­ety, and the com­bi­na­tion has kept him from play­ing this sea­son. Still, he wears his No. 65 jer­sey at prac­tice, trail­ing team­mates around the field, hand­ing them wa­ter bot­tles when they need a drink.

It was on this field, dur­ing a rou­tine prac­tice in late Septem­ber, where ju­nior Hunter Bush­nell low­ered his head to make a block and a mo­ment later shat­tered a ver­te­bra high on his spine. He is now par­a­lyzed from the chest down.

And just 24 miles to the north­west, it was Chad Stover of the Tip­ton Car­di­nals who sus­tained dou­ble blows to his head dur­ing a 2013 game. Af­ter the sec­ond hit, when his hel-

met smacked the ground, Chad seemed dis­ori­ented. Play was about to re­sume af­ter a time­out when Chad mut­tered, “Some­thing’s wrong,” then col­lapsed, un­con­scious. Two weeks later, the 16-year-old was dead from a mas­sive brain hem­or­rhage.

Over the past decade, a foot­ball-ob­sessed na­tion has been forced to con­front the phys­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion wrought on its play­ers, from bro­ken necks to cat­a­strophic brain dam­age. For­mer pro­fes­sional play­ers have taken the Na­tional Foot­ball League to court, the Pop Warner youth league is fac­ing a class-ac­tion law­suit, and scores of high schools na­tion­wide have aban­doned foot­ball com­pletely, in­clud­ing two dozen in Mis­souri.

But not here in the ru­ral heart of the state. And not be­cause these play­ers are more will­ing to gam­ble crip­pling in­jury for grid­iron glory. Foot­ball is not a re­li­gion here, as it is in some parts of the coun­try. For the boys and their par­ents, it’s com­mu­nity and com­pan­ion­ship. They trust the worst won’t hap­pen — or can’t hap­pen again.

“Everybody un­der­stands there are freak ac­ci­dents,” says Shan­non Jol­ley, the head coach of the El­don High team. “But we have a small fam­ily here. Our strength is our peo­ple and our com­mu­nity.”

In El­don, foot­ball is not so much a way of life as a way of mak­ing it through life.

“Mon­ster ra­zor red! Mon­ster ra­zor red!” A ca­coph­ony of whis­tles, gut­tural com­mands and the thud of hel­mets against pads echoes across the field. On a bright fall day, the goal posts cast skinny shad­ows.

Ty slowly cir­cles the play­ers with his wa­ter bot­tles.

“One time when we were out here I started shak­ing and fell down,” he says.

Though 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, Ty is still a baby-faced teen, but his lum­ber­ing walk be­lies his age. He wants noth­ing more than to re­turn to foot­ball — which he has played since he was about 8 — and says he thinks he might be ready by next sum­mer.

His mother, Jackie Bus­ta­mante, feels dif­fer­ently. Se­cretly, she prays he will never play again. She wor­ries about her old­est child all the time, lug­ging his med­i­cal records, now six inches thick, to his many med­i­cal ap­point­ments.

“School is too dif­fi­cult for him to tol­er­ate some­times — the lights and noise — es­pe­cially with the anx­i­ety,” says Bus­ta­mante, a so­cial worker who lives with her three chil­dren in a tidy ranch house. Theirs is a happy, sta­ble fam­ily life, un­like many oth­ers in El­don. And while she cringes at the thought of her son back on a foot­ball field, she re­mains an en­thu­si­as­tic tail­gater at Mus­tangs games.

Of the nearly 50 play­ers on the squad, Jol­ley says, about 35 come from strug­gling, mostly sin­gle­par­ent homes. For many, foot­ball is a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal life­line.

“I al­ways tell par­ents we can be a part of your team if you let us, if you trust us,” he says. “We can be a part of the process of rais­ing these young men.”

If El­don has any claim to fame, it is the now-gone Bur­ris Ho­tel, the model for the Shady Rest inn in the hit 1960s show “Pet­ti­coat Junc­tion.” But El­don, pop­u­la­tion 4,900, is no happy-go-lucky Hooter­ville. Dur­ing the last re­ces­sion, the main in­dus­try in town, a fac­tory that made mo­tors for small equip­ment and ap­pli­ances, moved to Mex­ico. Three car deal­er­ships also closed. Today, 44 per­cent of res­i­dents live be­low the poverty line, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau statis­tics, and more than 60 per­cent of stu­dents qual­ify for free or re­duced-cost lunches.

The dam­age is hid­den in plain sight. Along the leafy side streets, aban­doned houses mar the land­scape. Mold snakes up the sides of the lived-in homes and the empty ones, with laun­dry draped over a me­tal fence the only way to tell the dif­fer­ence.

Many small towns live for their foot­ball team. In El­don, the foot­ball team lives for its town.

The week be­fore the Mus­tangs won the district cham­pi­onship in early Novem­ber, the play­ers were in­vited to speak to an el­e­men­tary school as­sem­bly about what it means to be a role model. They talked about the times they pick up trash in the park, shovel snow from side­walks, or help a lo­cal busi­ness raise money for char­ity.

“It’s about a stan­dard of ex­cel­lence,” says El­don School District Su­per­in­ten­dent Matt Davis, a na­tive of the city. “It’s about leav­ing things bet­ter than when you found them.”

Foot­ball is only a small part of Jol­ley’s life. A crew-cut man with a mil­i­tary bear­ing, he says he spends more time coun­sel­ing stu­dents than coach­ing them. He em­braces the chal­lenge, keep­ing yel­low Post-it notes above his of­fice door to re­mind him of kids for whom he wants to pray. A sec­tion of book­shelves is stuffed with boxes of crack­ers, peanut but­ter and cook­ies for those who may have missed a meal.

“Uni­for­mity is one of our main things,” he says, lean­ing back in his weight-room of­fice. “We all wear the ex­act same equip­ment, noth­ing ex­tra, be­cause I don’t want a kid who is poor to feel he has less. When we put on our uni­forms, every­one is the same.”

Jol­ley saw the 2015 movie “Con­cus­sion,” based on the re­al­life story of the pathol­o­gist who fought the NFL over his re­search on the brain dam­age suf­fered by its play­ers. The film, Jol­ley says, helped him to take a step back and re­assess whether his pro­gram was do­ing all it could to help mit­i­gate the risks.

Each of the half-dozen or so coaches un­der­goes train­ing be­fore a sea­son starts, and play­ers are shown the rec­om­mended way to tackle. In his decade of coach­ing at El­don High, Jol­ley says, only a hand­ful of play­ers have been di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion. A doc­tor or trainer is on hand for ev­ery game. So is an am­bu­lance — un­less it’s on a call else­where in the county.

The coach says he re­spects par­ents who don’t let their kids play for fear of se­ri­ous in­jury. But few make that de­ci­sion.

He be­lieves his role goes be­yond foot­ball. “If all [my play­ers] learn is how to block and tackle, then I’ve failed them,” he says. So ev­ery spring he has the team take over Casey’s Gen­eral Store, pump­ing gas and ask­ing pa­trons for do­na­tions to help Women’s and Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Columbia, Mo.

That forges bonds, and the strong­est ones are among the play­ers them­selves. Be­fore the end of each reg­u­lar sea­son, the se­niors gather for an an­nual rit­ual. A foot­ball is split open, and each player reads a note de­scrib­ing what the game has meant to him. The notes are stuffed into the ball, which is then buried in the end zone. Jol­ley re­mem­bers one of this year’s notes par­tic­u­larly well:

“When I come to prac­tice and I’m with my foot­ball fam­ily, I know I’m loved more than at home.”

In late Oc­to­ber, the night be­fore the district semi­fi­nal, Ty vis­its Hunter in the hos­pi­tal. Af­ter weeks of in­ten­sive ther­apy, Hunter is due to go home the fol­low­ing week. He ad­mits feel­ing wor­ried.

“The hard part is that it will all be real,” he tells Ty. “You’re in the hos­pi­tal — that’s one thing. ... But when I’m home I think it will hit me.”

The two talk an­i­mat­edly about the team and school. Hunter, sit­ting in his wheel­chair, de­scribes his leg spasms and how un­com­fort­able they are.

“It’s like be­ing buried in wet con­crete up to your chest,” he

“Everybody un­der­stands there are freak ac­ci­dents. But we have a small fam­ily here. Our strength is our peo­ple and our com­mu­nity.” Shan­non Jol­ley, Mus­tangs head coach

says, “and it’s slowly dry­ing.”

El­don ral­lied around Hunter im­me­di­ately, rais­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars and help­ing to ren­o­vate his house. Nei­ther he nor his mother har­bor any bit­ter­ness; both still love foot­ball.

“What hap­pened to Hunter could have hap­pened to any­one,” Brandy Shoop says. “It could hap­pen any­where.”

Tip­ton re­acted to Chad Stover’s 2013 in­jury with sim­i­lar in­ten­sity, hold­ing prayer vig­ils and char­ity ben­e­fits dur­ing the two weeks that he lin­gered in in­ten­sive care.

Amy Stover, whose son’s death landed him on the cover of Time mag­a­zine, now works to make the game safer. She un­der­stands the hold foot­ball has on so many play­ers and fam­i­lies. “My boys loved play­ing foot­ball,” she says. “Some of my best mem­o­ries of my boys are from foot­ball.”

These days, her youngest has given up the sport — he de­cided it would be too painful for his par­ents if he con­tin­ued. Yet Amy still at­tends games in El­don to root for two neph­ews who are on teams there.

“Once upon a time a good hit would make me stand and cheer,” she says. “Now, when I watch a game and a hit hap­pens and some­one goes down, I freeze, I feel sick. Will they get up? Are they okay? The con­se­quences of the hit are so very vivid and real now.”

As El­don ad­vances in the play­offs, signs again sprout on lawns like ma­roon-and-gold mush­rooms: “All in, Mus­tangs,” “Mus- tang Pride” and “Mus­tang Power.” If there is any re­sem­blance to Texas’s “Fri­day Night Lights” — those high-wattage clashes in sta­di­ums gorged with thou­sands of fans — it is in en­thu­si­asm only. El­don’s games are al­most al­ways sold out, but the fans num­ber in the hun­dreds and the seats are bare-me­tal bleach­ers.

On game night, the wind chill is 31 de­grees well be­fore kick­off. Ty is there, stand­ing be­hind one of the end zones. He’s in charge of the video cam­era, mounted on a 30-foot por­ta­ble pole, that chron­i­cles the ac­tion for the team’s later re­view. Tonight he is re­laxed, jok­ing with an­other boy. The pre­vi­ous Fri­day, Ty was so anx­ious he lasted only seven min­utes.

It’s been a smaller tail­gate than usual be­cause of the cold, and to get out of the wind, fans be­gin to flow past the ticket booth early. Some wear cam­ou­flage hunt­ing jack­ets, oth­ers work over­alls.

Just be­fore 6, a blue Chrysler Town & Coun­try, mod­i­fied for a wheel­chair, ar­rives with Hunter, his mother and sev­eral aides. It takes 20 min­utes to get his gloves on. Fi­nally, he is out of the van. Some­one on the ath­let­ics staff tries to di­rect him to a side entrance, to avoid the crowd, but Hunter re­fuses.

“He doesn’t want to go that way,” one aide says. “He wants to be nor­mal.”

As he en­ters the sta­dium, Hunter doesn’t see the faded No. 13 — his num­ber — scratched on the walk­way. The doc­tors say the chances of him re­gain­ing sig­nif­i­cant move­ment in his legs are slim. Yet he’s a be­liever, as is his step­fa­ther.

“I think he’ll walk again,” the step­fa­ther told Jol­ley re­cently. “I think he’ll walk again be­cause of foot­ball.”

Hunter is en­cir­cled by friends and par­ents of friends as he parks his wheel­chair. Though tired, he in­sists on stay­ing un­til the end of the game, a 38-13 Mus­tangs vic­tory against the Spring­field Catholic Fightin’ Ir­ish. Ty makes it through the en­tire game, as well.

The fol­low­ing week, the pat­tern re­peats it­self at the district cham­pi­onship game. As it does Satur­day dur­ing the state quar­ter­fi­nals, when El­don goes up against the Mount Ver­non Moun­taineers.

The sta­dium is packed. No. 13 is again in the stands, bun­dled in blan­kets and try­ing to feel nor­mal. No. 65 is again by the end zone, anx­ious but will­ing him­self for­ward.

Though the Mus­tangs are fi­nally de­feated, they are sup­ported to the end by their fans. “A his­toric sea­son,” one lo­cal pub­li­ca­tion dubs it. And soon, when win­ter comes to El­don and the snow swells over the side­walks, the play­ers will rise early and, with shov­els in hand, qui­etly drift across the town.


TOP: El­don High School Mus­tangs player Ty Bus­ta­mante, 17, side­lined af­ter seizures and bouts of anx­i­ety, dis­trib­utes wa­ter at a team prac­tice in El­don, Mo. ABOVE: Ty is shown in the re­flec­tion of an MRI scan of his brain. He hopes to play foot­ball again.


TOP: Ty Bus­ta­mante, out of uni­form, joins his team­mates be­fore a Mus­tangs play­off game. ABOVE: Ty vis­its his in­jured team­mate Hunter Bush­nell at a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter. TOP LEFT: Coach Shan­non Jol­ley in his of­fice at El­don High School. BOT­TOM LEFT: Ty folds his hands dur­ing class. He strug­gles to cope with anx­i­ety.


Af­ter just a dozen blocks and a cou­ple of stop­lights, the town of El­don, Mo., gives way to rich, un­du­lat­ing farm­land.

LEFT: Hunter Bush­nell, 16, is vis­ited by his El­don High School team­mate Ty Bus­ta­mante at the Rusk Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Columbia, Mo. Hunter has had no feel­ing in his legs since in­jur­ing his spine at a Septem­ber foot­ball prac­tice. CEN­TER: Ty walks the stairs at El­don High. His old foot­ball in­juries can make ev­ery­day tasks dif­fi­cult. RIGHT: Ty rev­els in a bingo win at a meet­ing of his church youth group.

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