Trotters find inspiration on and off the field from brother’s death

The Trotters, in one of the last pictures of siblings (from left) Aleksas, Marcus, Alana and Michael.

Courtesy: Alana Trotter

MADISON, Wis. — They remember the laughter and joy he brought to any room. That’s where most stories begin, with an outgoing and exuberant older brother who would do anything to make his siblings feel loved.

Aleksas Trotter would walk through the hallways at school to surprise them, part caring authority figure and part class clown, but always the life of the party. He would sing "Happy Birthday" on his parents’ birthdays well past everyone else had finished, breaking into an over-the-top Queen Latifah impression. He would lead his twin brothers and sister in a made up song called "Shake and Bake," harmonizing on different pitches in the back seat on long car trips. He would provide warmth by composing his own melody or hearing a song once and playing it perfectly on a piano without sheet music.

They remember the hard work and discipline. The way Aleksas would make the 30-mile drive north from Racine to Milwaukee for night practices with the Swiss Turners Gymnastics Academy. He wouldn’t arrive home until 9 or 10 at night but managed to complete homework assignments and excel at an academically challenging private school.

They remember the athleticism and grace. The way Aleksas could masterfully command the vault and floor exercises to earn state champion honors and qualify for nationals two consecutive years. How, at 5-foot-9, one coach told him he was too tall to be a top gymnast and how he overcame anyway, gaining fans from out of state who drove just to watch him perform. How he went off to Penn State with dreams of competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Marcus and Michael Trotter choose to remember these moments wherever they go. But they also cannot forget the moment that changed their lives, one of heartache, pain and struggle.

For the Trotters, senior linebackers on the University of Wisconsin football team, grief has molded them as men and brought them closer together. And 6 1/2 years since Aleksas committed suicide, one simple message continues to fuel them.

Never forget where you came from and whom you’re living for.

Marcus (left) and Michael Trotter carry out the flags before a game against South Florida in September.

"I always knew that if I would make it," Marcus says, "somehow, some way that I would always dedicate it to him."

The call came Saturday, April 19, 2008. John Trotter’s voice over the phone was calm but firm.

Marcus and Michael were away at a charity event, 16 years old with plans to attend a high school prom later that night, when their world came crashing down. Their father’s words, even now, are seared into Marcus’ mind.

I’ve got to pick you up as soon as possible. There’s been a family emergency.

As the minutes dragged on and the Trotters waited outside, both recognized there could only be one conclusion. Once inside the car, John cut through the silence and told his sons the news. Aleksas Trotter, at age 21, was dead.

"At that point it was more surreal," Marcus says. "I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t believe it. I thought I was going to go home and see him. I think everything really hit when I was at the funeral and I saw him. That’s kind of when everything went down the drain."

This was a moment the entire Trotter family had feared since Aleksas returned home from Penn State. Gymnastics, Michael says, lit his older brother’s internal flame in a way nothing else could. Without the ability to compete and pursue his Olympic dreams because of a career-ending injury, his effervescent personality had begun to fade.

"For Marcus and I as student-athletes here, being at the stadium for six hours seems long," Michael says. "He chose to be in the gymnasium for gymnastics all day. That’s all he wanted to do. That was his passion. That was his life."

In the years after his competitive career ended, Aleksas searched for something tangible to hold onto in the sport. He buried himself in his computer and became a pioneering producer of gymnastics YouTube video montages. He created videos of Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu, of Keri Strug highlights to the Nelly Furtado song "Showtime" and garnered a massive following, drawing thousands upon thousands of page views from gymnastics aficionados all over the world.

But Aleksas also had become severely depressed. Marcus acknowledges once finding him collapsed on his bedroom floor after overdosing on pills, which led to a trip to the emergency room. And Alana Trotter, who is four years older than her twin brothers, described the situation as a day-to-day family struggle.

Aleksas Trotter was a gymnastics state champion who twice qualified for nationals.

"I think the saddest thing for me as a sister was my brother was physically reachable, but I couldn’t help him," says Alana, who played basketball at Wisconsin from 2007-10. "I think that’s what was hard for all of us was you can try to be there for someone, but it’s like almost an untreatable cancer.

"You try to prepare yourself. Nothing can prepare you. It’s kind of like I told my teammates, imagine if you get a phone call right now and your sister died. They get about two seconds of fear. Then it goes away because they remember it’s not true. Those feelings are what my brothers and I feel on a daily basis."

How does one begin to pick up the pieces? Where can strength be found when all that makes sense in the world seems lost?

First, it began with a rallying cry. Fly High. As in, Fly High, Lex.

Alana came up with the slogan because birds symbolized freedom and tranquility to her, and she believed Lex was now free in the heavens. The phrase was etched into the back of Aleksas’ tombstone, and Alana had dozens of baby blue bracelets printed with "Fly High" on one side and "Forever Dreaming" on the other. The Trotter siblings wear that bracelet every day and never take it off. Michael’s has torn apart repeatedly during his football career, and he asks Alana to send him a new one each time.

Physical mementos create a daily reminder to the Trotters to continue honoring their brother. Their mother, Dana Trotter, presented Marcus, Michael and Alana with a heart-shaped pendant necklace at the cemetery on Aug. 27, four months after his death, on the occasion of what would have been Aleksas’ 22nd birthday. The front reads "LEX" and the back contains his date of birth and death. And every year, either on April 19 or Aug. 27, the family returns to the cemetery to release balloons, a way of touching Aleksas.

"People say that time heals pain," Alana says. "Personally, I don’t believe that to be true. What time does is it teaches you how to deal with the pain, how to cope, how to get through each day. Everyone in my family, my mom, dad, the twins and I, we all handle it differently."

Each of the Trotters continues to find ways to feel connected. Dana visits the cemetery every day to check up on Aleksas. John sits in Aleksas’ old bedroom and talks to him. Marcus and Alana decided to tattoo their bodies, while Michael prefers to honor Aleksas through an occasional prayer.

Three black stars are tattooed on Marcus’ left shoulder, and each is outlined with one of the brothers’ favorite colors: red for Marcus, blue for Michael, green for Aleksas. All three brothers sustained serious shoulder injuries during their athletic careers, and Marcus believes Aleksas sacrificed his career so he and Michael could continue theirs.

Marcus also spent 27 hours over five sessions receiving a tattoo of angel wings that covers his entire back, and he proudly reveals the intricate artwork. In cursive script at the top reads "Fly High," with birds flapping in the sky. The largest and most prominent bird above the calligraphy represents Aleksas, who isn’t with him physically but remains on him permanently.

Marcus Trotter has a tattoo on his back honoring Aleksas.

"I have a lot of tattoos for him," Marcus says. "I dedicate everything I’ve done for him, and I like people knowing that."

Death has a way of demonstrating the insignificance of petty differences. And if there is a positive to be gleaned from such a tragic circumstance, Marcus and Michael like to think it is this: After years and years of bickering and feuding, they have become close friends and confidants.

Marcus was born one minute before Michael, and it seemed as though they spent the next 16 years in constant competition. They shared many obvious physical similarities as twins — the dark eyebrows, curly hair and almond complexion from a part-Lithuanian, part-African-American family — but they did not enjoy continually being lumped together and compared by others. John says they argued incessantly over which brother had more friends, more girlfriends, who was stronger and who was faster.

"You name it, they argued about it," John says. "In fact, I used to call them Grumpy Old Men. We would get in the car and travel to go to Chicago on vacation, and they’re in the backseat arguing. Verbally just going at it. I learned the word idiot from listening to them. ‘You idiot.’ Things like that. That’s the way it was."

Both brothers agree they were never friends growing up, even after they began playing football together in fifth grade. Their personalities differed. Michael was more serious and introspective, more apt to conceal his feelings. Marcus was more outgoing and emotional. Michael was the one who showed up at school the Monday after Aleksas’ death, while Marcus stayed home.

Innocuous conversations quickly escalated into disagreements. And no matter the situation, the brothers viewed their exchanges only through the lens of finding a winner and a loser.

"We did not get along in high school at all," Michael says. "We were around each other a lot, but it wasn’t the same as it is now. You’ve just got to make good out of a terrible situation."

When Alekas died, the family turned inward to seek comfort. John believes the tragedy forced the twins to reassess their priorities. Already, they had lost one brother. What was the point in acting as though the other brother didn’t exist?

"They looked up to him even though at times I’m pretty sure Lex never really knew it," John says. "Like anyone who loses a brother and has a brother to confide in, they didn’t have it anymore. So they just had each other. And they really used each other."

Marcus and Michael soon became nearly inseparable, repairing broken bonds and showing a willingness to trust the other. During their freshman year of college, Michael lived in scholarship housing at Wisconsin, while Marcus, a walk-on football player, did not. When given the opportunity to reunite as sophomores, they did not hesitate.

People say that time heals pain. Personally, I don’t believe that to be true. What time does is it teaches you how to deal with the pain, how to cope, how to get through each day.

Alana Trotter

They have been roommates ever since.

Inspiration from tragedy comes in many different forms. For the Trotter twins, they draw strength each time they step on the football field from the triumphs of Aleksas, whom they consider to be the best athlete in the family.

On the vault or floor exercises, he showed no fear. He displayed a poise, confidence and rhythm about him that made others stop simply to watch and marvel. He trained alongside Paul and Morgan Hamm, who helped the United States win a men’s gymnastics team silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. He was the best in the state, with realistic visions of becoming among the best in the world.

"He was a beast," Michael says. "We always went to his meets. He was always very good. He got first or second. We have all his medals."

Michael says he and Marcus would wear one of Aleksas’ gymnastics medals under their uniform in high school to keep him close to their heart. And Wisconsin teammates who spend enough time around the Trotters have seen the ways in which Aleksas has influenced them.

Before games at Wisconsin, Michael holds a necklace bearing a cross and asks Aleksas to keep him safe and guide him on the field. Linebacker Derek Landisch, meanwhile, writes Aleksas’ name on Marcus’ right arm with a sharpie marker — a tradition the two have shared since they were both sophomores on the team.

"Marcus comes up to me and I already know what happens, we’ve been doing it for so long," Landisch says. "It’s kind of an honor. I feel like one of their brothers when I write his brother’s name on. They went through a personal tragedy, and I feel for them, but they definitely keep their brother in their heart every time they step out on the field."

Safety Michael Caputo, who lived with the twins last school year, describes them as caring friends who simply love to be around people, laugh and tell jokes. They are inclusive and invite as many teammates as they can to events. Even though Caputo doesn’t live with the Trotters anymore, he says he still receives texts or phone calls regularly to spend time with them on weekends.

Other Badgers players use the words reliable, hardworking, tough and leaders to describe the Trotters as football players. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen calls their passion and love for the sport "contagious" and says they represent the perfect example of young men who remain patient and take advantage of opportunities when called upon.

But what truly sets them apart on the field, teammates say, is the special drive and determination they share to play for someone beyond themselves.

Aleksas Trotter died at the age of 21.

"I see that and it inspires me," Caputo says. "It’s just like a show of their character, how much they love their brother and they still do. It’s motivating. It hits you deep."

Maintaining a positive perspective on the football field at Wisconsin has not always come easily for the Trotters. Over the course of five-year careers, they have endured their share of injuries and disappointments. Yet the overriding message they’ve learned is to seek value in the process, to understand that work ethic should never diminish, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Michael arrived at Wisconsin in 2010 as the No. 1-ranked player in the state but was sidelined with mononucleosis and took a redshirt season. In spring practice, he suffered a hamstring injury that limited him during the fall. He played mostly on special teams and was the team’s fourth safety that next season.

One year later, he put together his most productive season, playing in 13 games with three starts. But in 2013, a new coaching staff arrived, and he wasn’t viewed as quick enough to maintain a spot on the two-deep roster. This season, coaches moved the 6-foot, 220-pounder to inside linebacker, where he is now a backup — and where Marcus starts. A promising career has not lived up to the expectations many had for Michael. But his response, much like Marcus’, demonstrates his faith and resolve.

"It’s always funny when you’re the man in high school, one of the top-rated players coming out," Michael says. "The coaches are telling you they want you to play right away. It doesn’t really happen and the years go on and on. It’s really frustrating. I always told myself I would have the last laugh and just prepare like Lex would and I’d be fine. And I still think I will be. I just kind of wish I went to linebacker sooner."

Marcus, meanwhile, could not manage the same level of college interest. He was a first-team all-state selection like his brother. But Marcus’ only scholarship offer came from Wofford of the Football Championship Subdivision. He followed Michael to Wisconsin anyway with the promise that, eventually, he would earn a scholarship of his own.

Marcus, 6-foot, 226 pounds, worked for years to simply gain an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. He also took a redshirt season in 2010 and appeared in only 14 of 41 possible games over the next three years. He was in the unfortunate position of being a backup to Chris Borland, one of the best linebackers in college football. This year, for the first time in his college career, he is a starter for the Badgers. And hope, he says, helped keep him going.

"I always believed that sooner or later, something was going to happen," Marcus says. "I finally got that chance, and I took advantage of it. I think just solely that moment right there really shows that I did it for my brother. I think my brother would definitely be proud of that. Because I never gave up. I know he didn’t give up, too."

And then, Marcus pauses. There is another story he wants to share that has to do with honoring a cause much bigger than himself, one of both motivation and inspiration. He could have accepted his lone scholarship offer and thrived in Spartanburg, S.C., at Wofford. He could have accepted a walk-on offer at Minnesota and carved a new path. He could have quit altogether when he wondered why more schools weren’t interested.

But Madison, it turns out, is where Aleksas spent his final hours, where he drew his last breath. And so, Marcus did the only thing he felt was right. He picked Wisconsin.

I’ve realized that life’s too short. Even though football is an amazing sport and I gave so much up for it, there’s more to life than just that.

Marcus Trotter

"My brother died here in this city," Marcus says. "My parents never told me where or what apartment. But I always felt like maybe if I could be successful here, I could kind of dedicate it to him just because he died in the city I’m playing in now."

Only four regular-season games remain, then perhaps a conference championship game and a bowl appearance. After that, football — the one endeavor that has helped the brothers to cope more than anything else — will be gone.

The Trotter twins recognize the end is in sight and that another chapter of their life is about to close. But if their circumstances have taught them anything, it’s that one must embrace the opportunity when a new chapter arises.

"I’ve realized that life’s too short," Marcus says. "Even though football is an amazing sport and I gave so much up for it, there’s more to life than just that. I think after Lex died, it was actually kind of a blessing in disguise because that’s when I figured it out."

Marcus and Michael have shown great ambition during their college years, excelling academically in ways few players do. Each brother has earned academic all-conference honors for the past three years. Michael earned a distinguished scholar award last year, which goes to a student-athlete letter winner with at least a 3.7 grade-point average, and was a semifinalist this year for the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame National Scholar-Athlete Award.

Michael is earning a master’s degree in accounting. He already has a job lined up next year with the firm KPMG in Minneapolis. Marcus is working toward a degree in psychology and is in pre-medical studies. Like his sister, Alana, he intends to become a third-generation doctor in the family and would like to attend medical school in Colorado.

Next year, then, will represent the first time Marcus and Michael have ever truly been separated. The longest they’ve spent apart was two weeks last summer, when Marcus participated in an organic chemistry course in Appleton. John says the distance will be a challenge, but he knows his sons will find ways to remain connected. They have been through too much to let the relationship fade.

"It’s life, though," Michael says. "Marcus and I joke with all of our friends that when we come back together, the city is going to get burned down. It’s going to be crazy. All of our friends, we’re all real close. It’s sad this is our last year, but I’m kind of ready to do something new."

Wherever their journeys take them, the Trotters say they will continue to attack each day with a purpose. To not take life for granted. To inspire others as they’ve been inspired.

To fly high. For themselves. For Lex.

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