PULLMAN, Wash. – Mark and Kym Hilinski keenly remember the swirl of activity.
Rushing to Pullman after learning their son, Tyler, had taken his life. Planning memorial services both on the Washington State campus and back home in Southern California. Dealing with authorities as they tried to determine why 21-year-old Tyler was gone.
The Hilinskis could have been overwhelmed by the grief and sadness. Then the letters and boxes began arriving at their home, sent by Cougars players, fans and others, saying how much they had been touched by Tyler’s story.
“No one let us fall in this hole and disappear,” Mark Hilinski said. “It’s not possible to overstate how great the Cougar family was at that time and continues to be.”
Tyler Hilinski was expected to be the Cougars’ starting quarterback this year, and his Jan. 16 death will hang over the program throughout the upcoming season. No matter the wins or losses, the questions of “what if” and “why” will follow the team.
The Hilinskis are trying to move the conversation forward. They want it to be less about what happened – for which they are still seeking answers – and more about how such tragedies can be prevented in the future. They have become advocates for greater awareness of mental health issues among student-athletes and are channeling their energy into Hilinski’s Hope, a foundation created to bring resources to bear on the issues. Since the foundation was announced, donations have poured in from around the country and overseas, Kym Hilinski said.
“We wanted to focus on how we keep Tyler’s name and memory alive and how to do good things in his name,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “We’re going to raise awareness and erase the stigma with mental health and illness and suicide.”
That doesn’t mean the season won’t be hard for the couple. This was the year their son was going to take over as the leader at Washington State. Tyler would have been a junior this season and was the expected successor to Luke Falk, now with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
He had shown flashes of brilliance in backing up Falk, leading the Cougars to a come-from-behind victory over Boise State last year. The image of Hilinski being carried off the field after the overtime victory is etched in the memories of Washington State fans. The future seemed to hold more of the same.
Then came Jan. 16. The quarterback was last seen alive that morning when he dropped a teammate off on campus for class. Pullman Police said Hilinski shot himself in the head with a .223-caliber rifle that he took from a teammate without the teammate’s knowledge. Police did not release the suicide note found in Hilinski’s apartment with his body, saying state law restricts its release only to family members.
“We kept telling ourselves it was impossible,” Kym said. “Tyler was perfect: funny, happy, sweet, kind. He had a wonderful life ahead of him.”
His father said Tyler “didn’t leave bread crumbs or a trail. It’s impossible to stop something you don’t know is happening.”
An autopsy revealed Tyler Hilinski suffered from Stage 1 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the earliest stage of the disease that has been linked to the repeated head trauma common in football and other contact sports. The disease, which can only be diagnosed in an autopsy, is known to cause violent moods, depression, dementia and other cognitive difficulties.
The Hilinskis said they don’t know what part CTE might have played in Tyler’s suicide.
“We think it’s a piece,” Kym said.
Going forward, football will remain a part of the family’s life. The Hilinskis’ two other sons are also quarterbacks. Oldest son Kelly, 23, played for Weber State and has exhausted his eligibility. Younger son Ryan, 17, is a senior at Orange Lutheran High School who has committed to play at South Carolina next year.
“Our son (Ryan) wanted to continue to play,” Mark said. “You don’t rip that out on the chance he comes down with CTE.”
Mark called it a “calculated family risk,” adding that the threat of a head injury would exist if his son played other sports, like soccer, hockey or lacrosse.
Mark, Kym and their sons also plan to attend Washington State’s home opener on Sept. 8 against San Jose State. The team will wear decals with Tyler’s No. 3 on their helmets throughout the season. A Hilinski’s Hope flag will also be displayed inside the stadium.
“Smiling in that place is how I remember him,” Mark said. “We want to be there and do our best to show we support the Cougs and our son. This is a celebration.”
The Hilinskis said they will continue to share the story of Tyler’s suicide as a way to convince sports programs to commit more resources to mental health issues.
Talking helps, Kym said.
“There is a need out there,” she said. “People are drawn to our family. We share our pain.”