A Will to Live: How one Northwestern family is healing in the face of tragedy

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A Will to Live: How one Northwestern family is healing in the face of tragedy

Michael, Holyn and Tommy Trautwein at Will to Live Park in Johns Creek, Georgia. The field was renamed in 2017 for their father John’s foundation.

Michael, Holyn and Tommy Trautwein at Will to Live Park in Johns Creek, Georgia. The field was renamed in 2017 for their father John’s foundation.

Source: John Trautwein

Michael, Holyn and Tommy Trautwein at Will to Live Park in Johns Creek, Georgia. The field was renamed in 2017 for their father John’s foundation.

Source: John Trautwein

Source: John Trautwein

Michael, Holyn and Tommy Trautwein at Will to Live Park in Johns Creek, Georgia. The field was renamed in 2017 for their father John’s foundation.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Reporter

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Baseball


It was March 24, 2017. The Northview Titans were set to take on the Chattahoochee Cougars. But first, a community gathered to sing the national anthem, hear speeches and revel in the unveiling of a new scoreboard.

Will to Live Park in John’s Creek, Georgia serves as a poignant reminder of loss and love and a community coming together to make sense of tragedy.

Michael Trautwein, now a sophomore on the Northwestern baseball team, stood on the third base line, surrounded by his teammates. His older brother, Tommy, was at home plate, effortlessly strumming the chords of The Star-Spangled Banner. His parents and sister watched close by.

The field was being renamed in honor of the Trautweins’ oldest son, Will. Since Will’s death by suicide on October 2010, his parents Susie and John have worked tirelessly to prevent their own nightmare from becoming more commonplace. Their Will to Live Foundation has raised over $1 million to aid suicide prevention efforts and reach at-risk teens.

“Your junior year going out there and playing on a field dedicated to your brother, and then your other brother play the national anthem, it’s just a really cool experience and something that I’m really grateful for,” Michael said. “I remember thinking, ‘Damn, this is really happening. It’s a real thing now.’”

His whole family feels it. That scoreboard, big and green, is a reminder of the great sorrow and beauty they’ve seen in the past 9 years. Grief and healing.

“I think we have the contract for it to be called Will to Live Park for another five or 10 years,” Susie said. “They’ll have the option to rename it after that but I have a feeling it’s gonna stick and stay because it’s been such a positive thing for the community. It’s just really special.”

Michael is following in the footsteps of his father, who played for the Wildcats from 1981 to 1984, and his cousins, graduated senior Jack Dunn and junior David Dunn. They’ve taken Will To Live to Evanston, never forgetting about the oldest son, the original “Life Teammate.”

“Now I see God’s point”

John Trautwein began toying with the idea of creating a foundation after Will’s funeral, inspired by his lifelong friends and former baseball teammates who came down to John’s Creek in support of the family.

“They’d come from all over the country two days after Will had died to be there for me,” John said. “I realized that these Northwestern teammates and my high school and middle school teammates were the best friends in my life. I realized that I was a teenager when I met them. And at that moment the Will to Live Foundation was born.”

Since then, it’s grown considerably, sponsoring annual suicide awareness events throughout the John’s Creek and Northview communities. Proceeds from each event fund scholarships, and are also donated to organizations which focus on suicide prevention and education.

Susie Trautwein said the family’s foundation has helped her and her family heal from Will’s tragedy. It’s therapy.

“To be able to do something that helps other people and saves other kids’ lives and changes other families for the better in Will’s honor is irreplaceable,” Susie said. “If we didn’t have that or something like it, it would just be ‘Will was gone’ and there was nothing to show for it and no rationalization or reason for the turn of events. Now that we know, it almost makes it feel like now I see God’s point.”

During the foundation’s infancy, Michael and Tommy would give speeches on the mound after Little League baseball games, enlightening their teammates and opponents about life’s deeper issues and handing out rubber bands and bracelets.

To Susie, those talks helped the kids adjust just as the foundation helped her. And it taught her about their conviction and maturity. Especially early after Will’s death, she had a hard time speaking about her oldest son and the way he lived. For the boys, it wasn’t a problem.

“We could see them feel good about themselves when they did it,” Susie said. “The reaction that the other kids would give them was kind of satisfying. I was always impressed that they could do something like that at such a young age, and still can. And I think it does the same thing for them as it does for us. It helps them heal.”

“Hell of a spot”

The Trautweins and Dunns have helped take the Foundation to Northwestern, where players wear purple armbands in support of the family’s foundation, educated in what it means to serve as a “Life Teammate.” Someone who is always there for their teammates, who always seaks to be dependable and open outside of the field. For the last five seasons, a senior has been recognized with the Life Teammate Award, exemplifying those qualities.

NU has become Michael’s home. He played in 48 games last year, batting .243 and recording 37 hits as the team’s starting catcher. But coming to the school for which much of his family has played wasn’t always a foregone conclusion.

“I wanted to kind of branch out,” Michael said. “I wanted to be my own player. I didn’t want people to think that I’m coming here because my dad went here or because my cousins went here. That was a real fear.”

Those feelings all faded as Michael visited campus for the first time as a high school student, as he saw how much the coaching staff wanted him on the team, as he talked to his dad and cousins. Once he finally stepped up to the plate in his first college game against BYU, with the bases loaded and two outs, Trautwein said he felt a strange sense of destiny.

“I remember thinking, ‘Ah damn, hell of a spot for a freshman in his first at-bat,” Michael said. “And I think I grounded out or something like that. But the whole time I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, are you gonna hit a grand slam right here, start your career off, is this how it’s gonna be?’ I just quickly learned that college baseball is no joke.”

Michael didn’t hit a grand slam this year, notching his lone home run of the season against Chicago State roughly two months later. But his rise from Little League to the college level, much like the rise of his family’s foundation, has been like a moon shot.

That’s how life is played in the Trautwein family. Advocacy, sport, healing, human spirit — always with the help of a ballpark.

Email: gregorysvirnovskiy2022@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @Gregoniceball

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