‘Love Ya Man’: How the Trautweins turned tragedy into mental health awareness

By Brea Lassek

Trigger Warning: This article contains content about depression and suicide.

John Trautwein stood at a pulpit before a crowd of family and friends, racking his brain for the speech he had prepared. The bags under his eyes bore the restlessness of the past week.

He couldn’t believe he was giving his son’s eulogy. Four days before, his oldest son, Will, had died by suicide.

Scanning the crowd, his eyes stopped when he found a section of his former college baseball teammates from Northwestern. Many had flown in from all over the country. Further down, Will’s teammates sat together wearing their lacrosse jerseys. 

That’s when John had a moment of clarity.

“I realized my best friends in life were all there today, and everyone of them I met when I was around Will’s age,” John said. “I figured if I can create a foundation that can help these kids realize the wonderful relationships they already have, they can improve those relationships and their will to live.”

The Trautwein family created the Will to Live Foundation within a few weeks after Will’s funeral to increase awareness of teenage depression and suicide rates, creating a culture at high schools and colleges nationwide where it is “okay to not be okay.” The family has raised over $1.3 million for suicide prevention 13 years later.

At Northwestern, the organization has worked to increase mental health awareness within the Wildcats’ baseball locker room through the Paul Stevens Life Teammate award, an honor given to a senior who is recognized by his teammates as a leader on and off the field. This year the team voted pitcher Jack Dyke as the 2023 Life Teammate award recipient.

“You never know what people are going through, and being there for each other is the most important thing,” Dyke said. 

‘We Didn’t Know He Was Struggling’

Everyone in Johns Creek, Georgia, knew the Trautwein family– and they seemed perfect. Susie played collegiate lacrosse while John pitched for the Red Sox. Their four kids were also exceptionally talented. Michael played baseball at Northwestern like his father and is currently in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Likewise, Holyn followed in her mother’s footsteps, playing lacrosse at Rollins College. Tommy and Will went the music route; Tommy owns his own record company, and Will could play any instrument you put in front of him since he was in elementary school.

The Trautwein family (from left to right): Tommy, Susie, Will, Holyn, John and Michael (Photo Credit: John Trautwein)

“Mom and I were the only ones who couldn’t play 17 different instruments,” Michael joked. 

Will had enough personality for all of them. “The kind of guy who would talk to strangers for no reason, just because he’s sitting there,” Michael said.

John recalled driving Will home from his lacrosse game. The whole ride back they discussed Will’s future, from getting his driving permit in a couple days to potentially attending Northwestern University like his father. 

“I just remember he was really talking to me, and I was doing more listening than I was talking, which was a really special day for me,” John said. 

A couple days later, John fistbumped him as they said goodnight. Without a thought, John added, “Love ya man,” as Will headed upstairs to bed.

Those were the last words he ever told his son.

On October 15, 2010, Will died by suicide in his bedroom at 15 years old.

“What was just so stunning about it was that he really was perfect, handsome and strong, good student, good athlete, had it all, and so the fact that he was struggling in any way mentally was just a complete shock to anyone who knew him,” John said. “We saw a perfectly healthy and happy kid, but at the time, we were unaware of teen suicide and depression.”

“I didn’t realize how maskable it was,” Susie added.

The Trautweins figured if they were uneducated of how common depression was in teenagers, others must be too. They created the Will to Live Foundation to spread awareness about depression and suicide rates among teenagers.

The foundation started off small, as Will’s friends helped the Trautwein’s fundraise in their community. John began speaking at high schools nationwide in the spring of 2011 and published his book, “My Living Will,” three years later. 

Many of the foundation’s initiatives are run by teenagers. Will’s friends joined the Trautweins in creating “WillStock,” an annual music festival fundraiser with high school performers. Additionally, “The Where There’s A Will There’s A Way” 5k run raises over $220,000 every year.

The support of their community and Will’s friends pushed the Trautweins’ mission forward.

“Some of the nicest things happened to us in the worst of times,” Susie said. “Despite the tragedy, beautiful things were happening all around us, as far as lifting ourselves up out of the trench.”

Will and Susie Trautwein pose in 2010. (Photo Credit: John Trautwein)

‘Why Don’t I Feel Incredible Right Now?’

John decided his next step was to extend Will to Live’s outreach to his former team, aiming to increase mental health awareness within the Wildcats’ baseball locker room.

When John pitched for the Red Sox in the 1980s, an athlete’s mental health, aside from mental game preparation, was rarely discussed. 

“It was definitely taboo,” John said. “No one ever talked about it, and as a result, I never talked about it. I never talked about it with my kids or Will ever. It was a different world back then.”

John (#21) poses with his Northwestern baseball teammates in 1984. (Photo Credit: John Trautwein)

Decades later, Will’s brother Michael also experienced the stress of being a student athlete at Northwestern. Michael’s daily routine began with morning lift and ended with hours of homework, with classes and practice in between.

During baseball season, he had three or four games a week, many of which involved flying across the country and being gone Wednesday through late Sunday night. Then it started all over again– a cycle Michael called “mentally exhausting.” 

“It’s hard, especially for younger guys who are coming into the program as first-years,” Michael said. “No one is used to this grind.”

In Division 1 men’s sports, 76 percent of athletes cited feeling mentally exhausted in the last month, according to a well-being study published by the NCAA in 2021. Additionally, 26 percent felt “so depressed it was difficult to function.” 

For athletes who are often told to “push through” or “toughen up” during times of adversity, it’s even harder to admit they’re struggling, Michael said.

“At Northwestern, you have some of the smartest and the best athletes in the world. You’re among some of the most incredible people, and there’s a pressure that ‘well if I’m here then I should be incredible, why don’t I feel incredible right now?’” Michael said.

The Life Teammate Award

Before each school day, Will gathered seven of his friends into a huddle. Breaking for classes, they threw their hands up, chanting “love ya man” in unison. 

“He always just got enjoyment from being on a team,” Susie said. “He didn’t care if he was the worst or the best. He was the kind of kid that told the guy who hit a home run off of him ‘nice hit.’”

Inspired by Will’s love for being a good teammate, Will to Live established the Paul Stevens Life Teammate Award in 2015, named after former Northwestern head coach Paul Stevens who John considers one of his own life teammates from his time at NU.

John with his former Northwestern teammate Paul Stevens, who the Life Teammate Award is named after. (Photo Credit: John Trautwein)

The award is voted on by the team and given to a graduating senior who embodies strong character on and off the field.

“He [Will] was the guy who was always there picking guys up, so we thought those are the guys you want to play with,” Michael said. “Someone who above all really cares for their teammates and is really there for the people around them.” 

Dyke received the award after the team’s Friday contest against Indiana. The senior’s career at Northwestern was anything short of conventional– from injuries to three head coaches to the shortened season due to Covid-19 during his first year– but Dyke’s unwavering energy and positivity remained constant. 

“He makes others around him better, and he cares for them,” Head coach Jim Foster said. “He was one of those guys that when Mr. Trautwein came to me and asked who had won, I just described him as a perfect choice.”

Dyke suffered a grade two UCL strain that took away most of his junior season. He made his first appearance in over a year against Notre Dame on April 4 and posted a 4.91 ERA through 10 appearances– the best out of the Wildcats’ bullpen. 

Dyke credited upperclassmen like former Wildcats Hank Christie and Anthony Calarco for helping him during his first years with the program. 

“The older guys did a good job of being there for us,” Dyke said. “When you’re really locked in on baseball, it’s nice to have something that gives you a little escape– just having fun with them on and off the field.”

Jack Dyke received the 2023 Life Teammate Award from John Trautwein. (Photo Credit: @NUCatsBaseball)

‘Love Ya Man’

Will to Live’s partnership with Northwestern baseball is about more than an annual award. Around every player’s wrist is a purple bracelet with the foundation’s slogan, “Love Ya Man”– a constant reminder to the players that it’s okay to seek help.

“I love you is difficult for people, and it made it a little bit more casual,” John said. “If I can get kids to say I love you in whatever form– love ya man before they go to bed at night, love ya man before they leave each other– then maybe I can get kids to say, ‘Hey I’m struggling, and I can use a chat.”

During the 2022-2023 season, the team handed out wristbands to opposing teams, contributing to the total of 60,000 ‘Love Ya Man’ bracelets that have been circulated nationwide, according to the foundation’s website. Former interim head coach Josh Reynolds also grabbed onto the message, promoting the foundation on the team’s social media accounts.

“In our locker room, it’s our job as coaches to help them understand that baseball is something you do,” Reynolds said. “It doesn’t define you. Yes, we want to win, but at the end of the day, it’s about the brotherhood you create and taking care of each other.”

By fostering honest conversations, Will to Live aims to destigmatize athletes’ struggles with mental health.

“Treat it like an illness. Don’t just treat it like a bad day or a character flaw,” John said. “If Will died of cancer, would we talk about it? Of course. Okay, well he died of an illness, so let’s talk about it.”

‘That Emblem is Who Will Was’

Hope:  “The foundation is driven on hope: hope there will be better days, hope this world isn’t that bad of a place and hope we can get better,” Michael said. 

Remember 13: Will wore the number 13 while playing sports growing up, taking on more meaning in the foundation’s 13th year. The Trautweins never wanted to shy away from talking about Will after his death, Susie said.

“We didn’t want people to think they couldn’t bring his name up because we think about him all the time,” Susie said. “Keep him present in your everyday life because he was a big piece and always will be.”

Lacrosse Sticks:  Lacrosse was Will’s sport of choice. On the field, his nicknames were Traut or Trauty. 

Guitar: When John gave Will his first guitar, it also came with a challenge– if Will learned “Imagine” by John Lennon, he would get his first IPhone. Will learned it that night. “I thought it would take him months,” John said. 

Some of Will’s favorites included “Swing Life Away” by Rise Against and “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

For more information on the Will To Live Foundation, visit https://will-to-live.org/