Despite devastating injuries, football in the heartland is a way to make it through life
ELDON, Mo. - 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 helmet 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 single-parent 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 real-life 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, Missouri.
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 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," "Mustang 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.