John Trautwein had it all.
A former pitcher at Northwestern, Trautwein had timed his cup of coffee in the major leagues to perfection, earning a spot on the 1988 Boston Red Sox team that captured the American League East before being swept by the Oakland A’s in the American League Championship Series. He successfully embarked on a second career, eventually rising to become the President of a company. Most importantly, he and his wife, Susie, were raising four children, and their oldest, Will, was a star.
On Oct. 15, 2010, everything changed. Will Trautwein, a freshman lacrosse player at Northview High School in Johns Creek, Ga., a self-taught guitar player and leader of a teen band, was dead. The popular, handsome, good student had taken his own life. His family was floored, and John Trautwein struggled to put his son’s death and his own life in perspective.
“We were so stunned by our son’s suicide,” Trautwein told USA TODAY Sports. “We thought he was perfect; a happy, big, strong, successful teen. He was successful in all walks of life, in athletics, music, school. The idea he had a mental illness never entered our minds or his sibling’s minds.”
In the days following Will’s suicide, Trautwein struggled with the things he could have done differently. Did he push Will too hard? Was he too forceful in encouraging Will to reach for success to match up with his and Susie’s accomplishments? Was he too positive about how everything in Will’s life was great, a reflection on the hard work the Trautweins tried to emphasize as parents.
Then, while delivering his own son’s eulogy, it hit the former pitcher all at once. The best thing that could possibly come from Will’s suicide was a better way to keep his peers from following suit. And, staring out at Will’s lacrosse teammates in uniform and his own baseball teammates in church pews, he felt the best way to keep that from happening was to encourage teens to develop networks of peers with whom they felt comfortable confiding their emotions, their fears, desires and, most importantly, any feelings of depression, just as John Trautwein always had with his own teammates.
There was also a clear need for new ways to help. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those aged 10-24 in the United States, per a 2015 CDC study. To put that in perspective, more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, AIDS and chronic lung disease combined. There are more than 5,000 suicide attempts per day by teenagers in America, and it’s believed that four out of every five teens who attempt suicide have offered clear warning signs of some sort.
With that in mind, the Trautweins founded the Will to Live Foundation, dedicated to inculcating emotional teamwork among teenagers, building on the same foundational connections that come from sports, school groups focused on arts and academics, or civic activities like the boy and girl scouts.
The results have been encouraging.
“We wanted to get kids more comfortable talking about this, and all my teammates, the godfathers to my children and my groomsmen, they all traveled from all over the country to be with me in my time of need,” Trautwein said. “We wanted to create something that was for the kids and by the kids, and we wanted them to know that they already had the best teammates who they would share their successes with and their downtimes with.
“Will never told anybody that anything was wrong. He had functional depression that is very easy to mask. We never thought anything was wrong, and I never even thought to think that something could be wrong with a kid like that. We founded ‘Will to Live’ to get teenagers to recognize that they have others who are their teammates who want to hear their stories. The message is really owned by Will’s former teammates who have expanded this little foundation to have all these different events. It’s improving lives and even saving lives. It’s teaching kids that they have great life teammates and teaching them to recognize their worth.”
A critical message that Trautwein emphasizes when speaking to teens and parents today — and which he details at great lengths in his new book, “My Living Will: A Father’s Story of Loss and Hope” — is the need to let teens express their frustrations with the difficulties in their own lives. One of Trautwein’s former teammates and close friends, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, has emphasized that within his own family and said that accepting the difficulties of American teenagers in modern society isn’t just necessary, it’s essential to maintaining mental balance.
“The first response (Girardi had to Will’s suicide) was disbelief because of John’s personality and Will’s personality,” Girardi told USA TODAY Sports. “We were all in disbelief and in sheer sadness for what they were going through. But what I’ve taken most from it is that we want what’s best for them as a parent. The most important thing in life is that our kid has true joy in what they’re doing.
“I have a daughter that is entering college next year, and she asked if I was disappointed that she wasn’t looking at a particular school. I told her, ‘Serena, I want you to be happy and I’ll follow you, wherever you want to go.’ Our kids are pushed too hard today and the most important thing is that they have joy and passion. The pressure that kids are under today, it’s just really hard.
“The hope is that ‘Will to Live’ helps ensure that joy and passion is there for every teen involved. It makes total sense. The kids really know what’s going on. They see everyone at school and what other kids are doing. They’re going to know kids who have problems. They may be walking down a dark path, and that’s when it’s really almost like a clubhouse. The clubhouse that is run best is the one where the players keep each other accountable. That’s the best clubhouse, where they’ll get in trouble if they don’t do what their teammates want. Kids keep each other accountable, and that means a lot more.”
Added Trautwein: “One of my regrets, I was always telling Will, ‘Look at how great this is, this field, this travel lacrosse program.’ I was always positive. Not one time in his life did I ever say, ‘Wow, this is really hard!’ I didn’t have to get A’s in AP classes to go to Northwestern or a state school. I didn’t have to play travel baseball. When my girlfriend broke up with me, I didn’t have the whole world reading about it on Facebook. All these things add so much pressure to their lives. I never had to deal with that, other kids’ parents never had to deal with that.
“As a parent it’s important to know: Your kids have it harder than you did. I wasn’t aware of that, and now I am with my other three kids. We show them that we know it’s hard. I never did that with Will. I was always so powerful with how great things were that I made it even harder for him to say, ‘Wow, this is hard and it’s ok to be sad.'”
Now the Trautweins embrace Will in his absence. They celebrate his birthday together each year, always pay memory to him around holidays and celebrate landmark events like graduations and accomplishments with his friends and their respective families — “We welcome and embrace all things Will today, the good and the positive, but also the sad and upset.”
Most importantly, the Trautweins aim to celebrate their son’s memory by helping as many families as possible avoid the fate that they encountered in October 2010, hopefully helping teens learn how to help themselves and each other in the process.
“One of the most important messages I try to give is that depression and suicide is very, very real, and it’s something that does need to be talked about,” Trautwein said. “And often parents like I would have been seven years ago are afraid to bring the subject up because they don’t want to put it in kids’ minds. That’s a myth. They see it. It’s all around them. That’s even more reason to talk about it.
“You need to tell them that life can be hard, and it’s OK to not be OK. We try as parents to make it always OK for our kids, and sometimes they just need to hear us say that life is hard. I was always all-knowing Dad and always had the answers, and I’ve become much more effective now in understanding that I have to say, ‘I don’t know,’ sometimes. It sends the message that we know this is really hard and we still have to do it, but we can understand that it’s really hard and it’s not easy.”
“I think the importance of relationships is everything,” Girardi said. “I really believe in this world that our calling in life is to give other people hope. I think John and Susie do an amazing job of that, and I think what they’ve done is amazing. To me, they’re trying to save others the heartache they went through, and that’s about helping others in the absolute truest way.”