SAN DIEGO – In the Orange County home of the Hilinski family, there is a room packed with the tangible remains of a son no longer here.
There are dozens of mementos from Tyler Hilinski’s football career and digital frames that rotate pictures of him throughout the 21 years of his life.
Included in all the keepsakes is the last Washington State jersey Tyler Hilinski wore in a game. It’s bright white with a crimson “3.” On the upper left chest is a large, blue Holiday Bowl logo.
In a phone conversation, Tyler’s dad, Mark Hilinski, is asked if the jersey is framed. There is a long pause as Mark collects himself. When he speaks, his voice is choked with emotion.
“It’s not, actually,” the father said. “We like to touch it.”
On Dec. 28 of last year, Tyler Hilinski pulled that jersey over his shoulder pads and started at quarterback for the Cougars in what would be a 42-17 thrashing at the hands of Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium.
In the big picture of WSU football, the result was meaningless. Hilinski, a junior who had been the backup most of the season to senior Luke Falk, was projected to be the starter when 2018 spring camp commenced.
Nineteen days later – to the utter shock of the college football world and everyone else – Hilinski was no longer alive.
On Jan. 16, Tyler was back at school in Pullman, Wash., after a break that included a family trip to Mexico. He sent a reminder message to his receivers that they had a workout later that day. He drove a new roommate to class. He texted his high school sweetheart with an apology: “I’m sorry for everything.”
Tyler then returned to his apartment, ditched his phone so that no one could find it, stepped into his bedroom closet and shot himself through the left eye with an AR-15 rifle. He’d only learned to use the gun a few days earlier after cajoling teammates to teach him.
“We had the most amazing, gifted, loving kid on the planet, and one day he was gone,” Mark Hilinski said in an interview last week. “There are way too many parents who have lost kids to suicide. It’s a crushing, crushing blow.”
Tyler left a suicide note, the contents of which the Hilinskis have kept private.
In the immediate days and weeks, what the note didn’t answer was his family’s most anguished question: Why?
Nearly a year later, the Hilinskis have a few threads for clues to Tyler’s decision. They say he was an anxious child at times and may have suffered some depression he didn’t talk about. After all, one coach dubbed him “Superman.” There’s not much room to show weakness there.
In the middle of the 2017 football campaign, the family said Tyler was uncharacteristically sullen. He’d relieved Falk against Arizona, throwing for four touchdowns and more than 500 yards, only to also have four interceptions in the loss.
Understand, that defeat came less than two months after Hilinski was carried off the field in a wild celebration after he’d led an epic, three-overtime victory over Boise State.
That moodiness would last through the Holiday Bowl, in which Hilinski threw 50 times, with 39 completions for 272 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The Cougars, though, were overwhelmed by the Spartans, who scored 21 points in the second quarter and rolled to 440 yards in total offense.
The defeat put a damper on an otherwise joyful return for the Hilinskis to San Diego, where Tyler’s mom Kym lived for several years while earning her law degree at California Western.
“San Diego is super. We love the people; we love the area. It was a really sweet thing to be down there,” Mark said.
At least one piece in the puzzle of Tyler’s death was revealed in late June, when his parents said in interviews with Sports Illustrated and NBC’s “Today” show that a Mayo Clinic study of Tyler’s brain showed he suffered from Stage I chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The degenerative disease has been closely associated with football players and other high-contact athletes whose brains have been examined after their deaths.
The Hilinskis said they were told the condition of Tyler’s brain resembled that of a 65-year-old person.
For some families, a CTE diagnosis provides a measure of relief, some much-needed confirmation of long-held suspicions that something extraordinary was troubling their loved one.
It was more complicated for the Hilinskis.
Though they steered their three boys toward other sports, all of them fell in love with football and each played quarterback. Kelly, now 24 and a medical student, came first, followed by Tyler, who starred at Upland High School, and then Ryan, 18, who graduated this month from Orange Lutheran High and has accepted a scholarship to play football at South Carolina.
With Ryan insisting that he’s weighed the risks that football poses, while also wanting to honor Tyler’s memory by playing, the Hilinski parents have straddled an unenviable chasm.
Upon the news of Tyler’s CTE diagnosis, they winced at this USA Today headline: “A hard truth: Football killed Tyler Hilinski.”
“We, unfortunately, have as clear a view of this as any lay people,” Mark Hilinski said. “The real answer is that we don’t know. The data is unclear. We definitely know that CTE is bad to have. It comes with multiple hits and concussive knocks to the head, which you get with football, soccer and hockey, to varying degrees.
“But since Tyler has passed, the math has just never penciled out for us. What’s unclear is why some people get it and some don’t. And it’s not something that can be tested on the living at this point. You and I could smoke four packs of cigarettes (a day) for 40 years and I get lung cancer and you don’t. Is that because of genetic makeup? Because of luck? Because of who knows what?
“You could bow out of the sport, but the damage has to be weighed. You’re taking someone’s dream away, something they love to do. How much damage are you doing with that?
“If it becomes conclusive that everyone gets it, then, obviously, we’d be in a different position. We don’t go lightly or trivially into this. As football parents, you want to be as informed as you can be. We’re also at the mercy of the research going on.”
Unable to reconcile their CTE questions, the Hilinskis waded through their grief to find a path forward. They started the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation to fund and promote mental health education for student-athletes.
The Hilinskis have regularly ventured out to youth sports camps and college campuses to talk about Tyler’s death and why it’s important for those in emotional distress to seek help. The family has worked with several colleges in the Northwest to expand the mental health services afforded athletes.
They also have teamed up with Ross Szabo, the author of “Behind Happy Faces,” who developed a mental health curriculum for younger people, and Step Up!, a program that teaches positive social behavior and bystander intervention.
“You can’t boil the ocean, but we want to do something really positive that we wish would have happened five years before this,” Mark Hilinski said. “So instead of Tyler loading a gun, he picks up the phone and says, ‘I’m having these thoughts, can I talk to you?’
“If I have an ACL tear, I can get it fixed tomorrow. This problem runs much deeper. It’s exponentially harder, and it’s going to take more time.”
At their speaking engagements, Mark Hilinski said young athletes regularly come up to greet them afterward and share personal stories of depression or suicidal thoughts.
Mark keeps in touch with former WSU and New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose son, John, was a Cougars teammate and close friend of Tyler’s. He said Bledsoe recently offered encouragement after hearing the story of a young man who chose not to commit suicide when he learned more about Tyler’s death. “You saved another one,” Bledsoe texted him.
“We’re blessed to hear those things, of course,” Mark said. “But God almighty, every time you do, it’s “Tyler, couldn’t you have asked? You couldn’t have said, before I do this, I’m going to talk to my dad, who loves me to death?
“It was impossible for him to do. His brain betrayed him.”
There are ways beyond grasping Tyler’s Holiday Bowl jersey that the Hilinskis stay close to their son.
Mark, the founder of a software company, regularly wears Tyler’s shoes because they fit him perfectly. He carries with him the play sheet that Tyler wore on his arm during games. He picked that up when the family cleaned out Tyler’s WSU locker after his death. Mark often watches his favorite video highlights of Tyler, set to WSU’s stirring football theme, “Back Home.”
“I see his face in the close-ups and the slow-mos, and I know in that moment he wasn’t suffering,” Mark said. “He might have been worried about getting his (behind) handed to him by a giant defensive end, but he wasn’t worried about whatever demons were chasing him.”
Kym cherishes photos of Tyler. She posts them regularly on social media and is forever asking her husband and boys for more to share.
Mark, swallowing more emotion, said, “It hit me like a ton of bricks one day. You run out of them. There just aren’t any new ones.”
The Hilinskis don’t have to do this. They don’t have to bare such painful, raw emotions to the world. And there are days, Mark said, when it’s hour-by-hour on whether they think this is the best way to move forward.
But he also recalls the quote that his son, Kelly, once posted that is credited to the graffiti artist Banksy: “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing, and a second time when somebody says your name for the last time.”
They intend Tyler Hilinski’s name to represent hope for a very long time.
“You might think that at some point we’re going to get on with our lives,” Mark Hilinski said. “No, this is us. This is 100 percent our lives.”
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