John Trautwein’s pain was unfathomable.
His oldest child, Will, by all accounts an exceptional 15-year-old, was a talented student and popular member of his community. He starred in lacrosse, rather than baseball like his dad, but clearly inherited his athletic genes. Will dreamed of being a musician, always practicing guitar. “I love you, man,” he and his friends would tell one another each day after school. He was “a kid who had it all together,” said his father.
On Oct. 15, 2010, seemingly out of nowhere, Will died by suicide in his bedroom at the family’s Atlanta-area home. There had been no sign of depression or mental illness.
“We were all looking at each other like, ‘What happened?’” says Trautwein (WCAS84). “Everybody wanted to be like him, and the idea that he would be struggling and take his own life just shocked us.”
Days later, a devastated Trautwein, former Northwestern baseball captain and major league pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, stood at his son’s funeral to give the eulogy. It was then, in front of friends and family, that an idea began to form in Trautwein’s mind.
“All of Will’s friends and teammates were there in their lacrosse jerseys,” Trautwein says. “I looked out and saw all my old Northwestern teammates. I didn’t call them, yet here were all my wonderful friends. I realized then that the best friends in my life, the ones I really relate to and care about, are the ones I made when I was young.”
Inspired by Will’s friendships as well as his own, Trautwein and his wife, Susie, established the nonprofit Will to Live Foundation shortly afterward. The Trautweins, who live outside of Atlanta with their three other children, Tommy, Michael and Holyn, decided to increase teen-suicide awareness, beginning in their own community.
“We want these kids to recognize that they have already met probably the greatest friends they’re ever going to have,” Trautwein explained. “If they recognize and understand that, then they might reach out to each other. If kids who hear somebody say ‘I’m struggling’ know what to do when they hear that, we can really improve and save some lives.”
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, and rates have been going up since 2004–05. Among 15- to 19-year-olds, suicide is the third-leading cause of death, more than all medical illnesses combined.
“About 9 percent of teenagers in the general population will make a suicide attempt,” says Mark Reinecke, chief of psychology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “What’s worth noting is that a large majority of teenagers, better than 50 percent, will have some thoughts of death or suicide. Suicide rates ebb and flow over time, but the rate of depression in teenagers has been going up in a fairly consistent manner since the 1930s.”
Through programming designed and organized largely by teens, Will to Live helps kids find and appreciate their “life teammates.” The foundation encourages young people to confide in their peers, build lasting, supportive friendships and be there for one another in times of need.
The life teammates concept is present within all of Will to Live’s programming and events. In Will’s honor, the foundation regularly sponsors youth lacrosse and baseball tournaments, including an annual baseball invitational at Northwestern’s Rocky Miller Park, which began in 2011. Each player is given a purple “life teammate” wristband, and teams are encouraged to hug it out after games.
“We want you guys to realize you’re not alone,” Trautwein told a group of players at the inaugural tournament in Evanston. “You’ve got life teammates all around you even if you might not feel it that day. The life teammates message is simply love your teammates on and off the field. Maybe you listen a little bit harder, and maybe you talk a little more openly when you’re down.”
In 2012 the foundation raised more than $35,000 through its second Will’s Way 5K run and more than $18,000 through its Willstock student concert. Using these funds, Will to Live paid for and partnered with mental health experts for “Signs of Suicide” faculty trainings at middle and high schools in Atlanta’s Fulton County area.
“I have seen scenarios where people try to sweep this kind of stuff under the rug,” says Northwestern head baseball coach Paul Stevens. “When I went to Will’s funeral, I was riveted to the pew, because John stood there and attacked it, challenging people there to reach out to each other, to always be aware, to communicate and talk. He’s taken that message to the entire country, that teen suicide and depression isn’t something we can hide from — we’ve got to be extremely proactive. That’s what he’s done.”
Trautwein delivers his speeches almost on a weekly basis, primarily in the Atlanta area but across the country as well, helping adults understand the nature of the stresses many teens face today due to increased academic competition and constant social exposure through technology. In March Trautwein spoke to members of the Northwestern baseball team, and his message again hit home.
“I grew up in an affluent town where there are lots of pressures on kids in high school and middle school,” says Northwestern pitcher Jack Quigley, a junior from Birmingham, Mich., who planned to help deliver Will to Live’s message at Chicago-area high schools through events in the spring. “John talks about how kids are getting older faster these days, and that’s something I not only experienced growing up but saw negatively impact people I know.”
One of Will to Live’s most notable supporters has been Trautwein’s former Northwestern teammate and primary catcher, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi (McC86) (see "Great Expectations," summer 2008). On the day of Will’s funeral, Girardi called Trautwein from the Yankees’ clubhouse just before the start of the team’s American League Championship Series game against the Texas Rangers to offer his support. The Yankees agreed to wear Will to Live’s purple wristbands during a nationally televised game against the Boston Red Sox in April 2012.
“John asked me if we would do it, and I said of course,“ says Girardi. “It’s a major league game, it’s on national television, and it brings recognition to what he’s trying to do. I think his message is extremely important. Anything I can do to help, if we can save one child’s life, then everything is worth it. That’s the bottom line.”
With the help of people like Girardi, Will to Live’s message continues to spread. For the Trautweins, unbelievable tragedy has turned into something incredibly positive.
“Will to Live is the No. 1 source of my healing, and I didn’t expect that,” says Trautwein. “I knew we wanted to turn this into something good, but I had no idea how wonderful it would turn out to be and how helpful it would be to our family. We know Will would love this foundation, and that keeps us moving forward.”
Jeremy Woo is a sophomore journalism major from Chicago.
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