By the time you finish reading this story, statistics show, another American will have chosen to end his or her own life.
Ben Wiegel knows the pain of losing a friend to suicide. The 18-year-old St. Johns resident is determined to ensure others do not.
Through the sport he loves, and in the memory of his dear friend, Koby James Stevens, Wiegel has used lacrosse clinics to encourage others to speak up if they need help. The culmination of his advocacy will occur next week when Wiegel hosts a lacrosse camp for the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
“Koby’s Cause” will spend July 17-19 introducing the sport, providing equipment as well as an athletic diversion in a region of the country that is one of the poorest and plagued with a high teen suicide rate.
The cause is Wiegel’s attempt to honor and celebrate the life of his childhood friend.
Unbeknownst to his family and friends, Stevens was deeply depressed in the fortnight after his 16th birthday. On April 9, 2015 the wildly popular sophomore at Chaparral High School in Parker, Colorado took his own life.
“The way they cherish the game is at another level,” Wiegel said of Native Americans. “It’s not something they do for fun. It is fun, but it’s something they say ‘This is what we do.’ I want to show them that I appreciate their game that they gave me and this sport, which is something I love to do.”
In an essay that is published on uslacrosse.com, Thomas Vennum, Jr. writes lacrosse was one of many stickball sports played by Native Americans when Europeans arrived. There were many variations, but the stick that most associate with the modern-day sport was used by trips in present day New England. The term “lacrosse” is from the generic French term for any sport played with a curved stick and a ball.
That is the history that has made next week’s camp the ideal way to honor Stevens and ensure that his death will inspire others to live.
Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people 15-24 years old in 2015, the most recent year statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control. In all, 44,193 people died from suicide caused by depression — an average of one person every 12 minutes.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation the rate of suicide is considerably higher than the national average.
“It’s something that fits a need,” Wiegel said. “They need to know suicide is never an option. The biggest thing I am going to tell them is Koby’s story, a couple facts on suicide and the same thing we told guys in the Ninth Ward, but it’s even more important because it’s the Native American community. ‘You guys don’t know much about the world outside of here, and the options you have.’’’
Jeri Baker is the founder and executive director of One Spirit, a nonprofit that works with the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
One Spirit works with the Lakotas to provide supplies and resources, but then lets the tribe make its own decision on how those are to be allocated. She said introducing lacrosse is another way to provide an outlet for young people on the reservation, which is in southwestern South Dakota. It’s through the connection with Baker and One Spirit that Wiegel will hold the clinic.
“Ben was wonderful,” Baker said on the telephone from France, where she is vacationing. “(Along with) Anthony Lanzillo, he started working with us to bring lacrosse to the reservation. He wanted to bring something to Pine Ridge and we wanted to get it going. He knew this young man, who thought he could get his hands on some equipment.
“From the moment (Wiegel) heard about this, he went right to work and very soon all this lacrosse equipment started arriving on the reservation. It was really fantastic. He was super energetic and fantastic. I can’t believe that he just got up and did this. It’s like he has been doing this for 20 years. It’s highly unusual for a high-school kid.”
Lanzillo is a St. Johns resident who connected Koby’s Cause to One Spirit.
As fate would have it, one of Tona Wiegel’s friend’s, Mari Fedora, ran into Lanzillo at a garage sale earlier this spring. Fedora spotted a lacrosse stick and got to chatting. Lanzillo, who had previously visited Pine Ridge contacted Baker.
As unusual as the connections have been for Wiegel as well his parents, Tona and Tom, all of them would trade the cause they have championed for Stevens to be on the Earth. Since that cannot happen, Koby’s Cause is Wiegel’s way of turning a mess of a situation into a message.
Stevens and Wiegel were homeschooled in a suburb south of Denver. Tona Wiegel and Karie Stevens got to know each other, and their sons, who were born five months apart, became fast friends.
“They did a lot of things together — hikes, going on field trips and then athletics,” said Koby Stevens’ father, Tim. “They were on football and lacrosse teams together. They grew up together right here in Colorado.”
The Wiegels moved to Florida four years ago. Ben and Koby remained very close.
“We’d even talked a month before (his) suicide about our letterman jackets and the pins we would get our senior year,” Wiegel recalled.
The strapping young man who possessed a broad smile, bigger laugh, blue eyes and a welcoming personality was popular enough to be crowned Mr. Wolverine at Chaparral as a sophomore. He was a two-sport athlete who relished the physicality of being a defenseman on the lacrosse team as well as a defensive end and tight end for the football team.
He was also depressed.
“I believe with suicide there are a lot of people who lie to themselves ‘No one loves them.’ No one cares. ‘I’m a waste. I’m a mistake.’ None of that stuff is true,” said Tim Stevens. “It starts a downward spiral.”
Stevens said depression does not discriminate based on gender, race, age or athletic accomplishment. To this day, he tells people: Don’t be like Koby. Be like Job. Tell someone.
Job is someone who lost his family, his possessions and more in the Old Testament. Stevens mentions the reason we know of his plight millennia after it happened is because he told someone and the story was preserved as a source of spiritual and secular inspiration.
Koby’s death not only devastated Tim, Karie and Kaleb Stevens. It hurt Wiegel and so many others. The family anticipated 1,000 people would show up for Koby’s service and 1,500 arrived.
“After he died I went into this funk where I was very confused,” Wiegel said. “I didn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense to me. I had my favorite lacrosse stick. I had it for two years. At the end of summer, it broke. It set me off into this spiral. That was my best stick. I loved it. I was progressing with my skills and getting better. It wasn’t really the stick. I related the stick to Koby and when I lost that I said ‘Whoa. What do I do?’”
It was during this period that Wiegel spoke up and received help. He was diagnosed with grief onset OCD.
To numb the pain he would stay up at all hours stringing lacrosse heads. Prior to April 2015, Wiegel had played lacrosse for six years and never strung a head.
Through encouragement from his mother and his supporters within the lacrosse community, Koby’s Cause was born. Initially, the aim was to share the lacrosse heads he strung with others who needed them. But, the mission grew. The same grief that gripped Wiegel had been channeled.
Armed with an Instagram account to spread his message and a commitment to honor Stevens, Wiegel tracked down a handful of executives inside the lacrosse industry through their LinkedIn accounts. Such tenacity allowed Koby’s Cause to receive donations from all levels of lacrosse in order to introduce the sport to areas where it was not easily accessible or financially viable.
At first the clinics were held in greater Jacksonville. In March, Koby’s Cause held a camp in New Orleans because the father of a friend from Colorado had a connection with Crescent Leadership Academy, an alternative school that serves students of varying backgrounds and backstories.
Sticks, balls and pennies were donated to introduce an athletic outlet to the school that serves students who live in the Lower Ninth Ward — a section of the Crescent City that has yet to completely recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Those efforts were in preparation for next week’s camp at Pine Ridge.
“That’s totally amazing that he would do something that benefited a whole host of kids in honor of (Koby),” Baker said. “You can go to a wealthy city, but that’s not going to have the same impact.”
It has been Baker’s experience that the Lakotas are selfless and not materially inclined. While there may not be much, what is available is shared. It ties in with the seven values of Lakota life. Among them: wowijke, which means honesty and truth with oneself, a higher power and others; wawokiye, which encourages generosity and caring without expecting anything in return and wah’wala, which is humility.
It’s the latter that may best describe the spirit in which Koby’s Cause has operated. The donations, the clinics and the advocacy for suicide awareness has all been in memory of Stevens, not as an avenue for self-aggrandizement.
“This is the ultimate culmination to remember Koby,” Tona Wiegel said. “This is the icing on the cake. We’re actually giving back to the people who gave us lacrosse. We’re repaying people. Because they do have a high rate of suicide, we want to give them hope and maybe change the path of their lives.”
This week, Tona Wiegel and her only son will make the cross-country trip to Pine Ridge. Though it will be a conclusion to Koby’s Cause, the inspiration for it will never leave their memories.
Wiegel, a three-time second team All-County midfielder, scored 64 goals in his varsity career. More importantly, his work in honoring his friend has left a legacy. Earlier this spring, he received the Bob Scott Award from the North Florida chapter of U.S. Lacrosse for his contributions to the sport and his community.
“Ben is a great young man,” said Creekside boys lacrosse coach Jason Alford. “He is also an Eagle Scout. In terms of players, their value in who they are is more important than what they do on the field, and Ben fits that mold.”
Ben, who graduated from Creekside with honors, will head to Florida State to study entrepreneurship and play for the Seminoles’ formidable club lacrosse program. To him, the brotherhood that he learned from playing lacrosse since the fifth grade does not end at death.
“If we can prevent one more family from going through this type of pain and get help for just one person who is struggling, it’s worth it,” Tim Stevens said. “Hopefully, we’ll have an opportunity to impact many more people than that.”