In a new Sports Illustrated story on former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide in January, it is revealed that the 21-year-old had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The Greg Bishop story provides a glimpse at how Hilinski's family has been adjusting to life since his death, and how one of the factors behind moving on for the family was finding out what potentially caused Hilinski to take his own life.
After getting his brain tested, the family learned Tyler was suffering from the lowest level of CTE.
Greg Bishop writes:
They cleaned out his locker, hoping to find Tyler’s phone. They never did and that tormented them, the care he took to dispose of the one thing that might give them some answers. They visited the funeral home, asking a priest to pray over Tyler’s body, while Kym touched his hand and kissed him one last time. Divine intervention yielded the same thing—no answers. They decided to send his brain to the Mayo Clinic to be examined. It was packed in ice and mailed away. ...
Then the test results came back. That changed everything again. First, the Whitney County medical examiner called to say that Tyler’s toxicology report showed no trace of drugs or alcohol. (“That actually made it worse,” Mark says.) The Mayo Clinic’s findings arrived next. Kym read the first sentence—“After reviewing the tissue we can confirm that he had the pathology of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)”—and started to reconsider her entire search. The diagnosis was Stage I, the lowest level. But still, Tyler had been just 21, he hadn’t played that much in college and for most of his life he manned the most protected of positions. If he had CTE, anyone could. She read that depression was one symptom for Stage 1 and a doctor told her Tyler’s brain looked “like that of a much older, elderly man.”
She didn’t want to blame football—to be clear: she does not blame football—and yet the diagnosis also gave her family its clearest and, in some ways, only known factor in his death. “It helped us to know,” Kelly says, “that a) there was something wrong and b) that he was hurting and we couldn’t understand it. It was, O.K., we have a legitimate why. That’s enough of that.”
Even then, Mark and Kym’s guilt remained strong, maybe even stronger. Tyler had played linebacker before high school, had played quarterback with abandon, had perhaps suffered that concussion as a college freshman and told Kelly he had endured a hit against Arizona that had “rocked him.” He must have been suffering in ways they could never comprehend. Being able to label what happened didn’t change what happened. It didn’t change the fact their son loved football. And that didn’t change how the sport he adored seemed to at least contribute to his death. And, on top of all of that, their youngest son, Ryan was about to accept a scholarship to play quarterback for an FBS program, starting in 2019. If his life mimicked Tyler’s—same genes, same sport, same position—would he suffer the same fate? Would the Mark and Kym stop him? Could they?
When it comes to how Hilinski contracted CTE though, the story isn't as clear.
The quarterback never missed time because of a confirmed concussion, but he did have a couple of instances where he might have suffered a head injury during his three years as a Cougar.
Other than what Tyler deemed a possible concussion sustained during practice his freshman season, nothing to that point appeared amiss. ...
Last October, Tyler relieved Falk late in the second quarter at Arizona, down 20–7. In just over a half, he completed 45 passes for 509 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw four interceptions and Washington State lost. Sensing some distress in his younger brother—who also mentioned sustaining a hit that had “rocked” him—Kelly sent the rest of the family text messages saying Tyler was having trouble putting the defeat behind him.
Hilinski was redshirted when he first arrived at Washington State, and then played in 11 games combined during his redshirt-freshman and reshirt-sophomore seasons.
You can read Bishop's entire piece on Hilinski and his family here.