Editor’s Note: The following contains graphic content that some might find disturbing.
Watch Losing Tyler on SI TV. Our latest documentary chronicles the Hilinski family’s search for answers in the aftermath of tragedy.
Cards and collages line the entryway to the Hilinski family’s home in Irvine, Calif., everything signed with My deepest condolences and promises of prayers. There’s an oar from the University of Minnesota football team, a note from the Seahawks’ general manager and 20,000 wristbands stuffed in boxes, each stamped with a red number 3 and two words: Hilinski’s Hope.
The messages arrive daily, reminding the family of its new dichotomy. Now, there’s before Jan. 16 and after, life with Tyler and without him. It’s the difference between the photo the Hilinskis cling to and the envelope they cannot bring themselves to open.
The framed picture is blown up and rests on the floor of the entryway, against the wall. It’s what Kym Hilinski, the family matriarch, looks at when she wakes at 2 a.m., thinking things she had never thought, like, I hate my life. Her middle son, Tyler, never seemed happier than in that photo. It was taken on Sept. 9, 2017, four months before Kym carried his ashes through airport security and covered the drum set in the music room with wilting flower bouquets. Tyler is centered in the frame, wearing his crimson number 3 Washington State jersey, surrounded by fans reaching out to touch him. That’s her Sweet T, her Big Ty, her Superman. Even though he’s the backup quarterback, Cougars fans are carrying him like a deity off the field after he threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a triple-overtime 47–44 conquest of Boise State—the best game of his life.
Kym, as usual, covered her eyes with her hands at Martin Stadium that day. Tyler’s older brother, a medical student named Kelly, was halfway through his graveyard shift at an Ogden, Utah, hospital, stealing glances at his laptop between calls to the ER. His father, Mark, and his younger brother, Ryan, were at home in Irvine, causing such a ruckus that neighbors stopped by to check on them. Eventually, Kym found Tyler on the field, just after the photo had been taken. He put his arm around her. “Did that just happen?” he asked.
The photo showed Tyler as they knew him, before he entered a closet in a Pullman, Wash., apartment and fatally shot himself. Before the family needed answers and resolved to find out why. Now, the image both comforts and haunts the Hilinskis, reminding them of better times, together, as the closest of close-knit football families. But it also makes them wonder. Was Tyler’s happiness that day just a mirage?
Inside the adjacent living room, the picture is surrounded by binders stuffed with research on depression, suicide and traumatic brain injuries, as well as a letter from the Mayo Clinic that contains a potential clue—the autopsy of Tyler’s brain. The three letters that further complicated everything.
At the placemat nearest the photo, where on his final visit home Tyler might have eaten breakfast, there’s a Priority Mail envelope sealed with masking tape. It’s from the Whitman County Coroner. Roughly 10 feet separate the picture and the envelope, and yet the gap between what they represent—Tyler’s seemingly happy life and his inexplicable death—is vast. Closing the chasm between those two realities is the Hilinskis' most obvious path to closure. What they learn could soften their pain and lessen their confusion, pushing them forward, into mental health advocacy, where they can assign deeper, lasting meaning to Tyler’s life. The Hilinskis have been told the contents inside the envelope are graphic and even though they want to know, even though they have to know, they have not been able to open it. Not yet.
On the afternoon before he killed himself, Tyler Hilinski learned how to use a gun. His roommates say they had never even seen him hold a water pistol, and yet he took advantage of a rare sunny winter afternoon in Pullman to shoot at clay pigeons with several teammates. They taught him how to hold, aim and fire, then spent the last 15 minutes of their session coaching him up, cheering him on. He didn’t hit a single target.
Tyler spent the night playing Fortnite with teammates and his brothers, signing off after a six-hour session, only after they had won. When he woke early the next morning, he sent a group text to his wide receivers reminding them of a workout scheduled for 3 p.m. At 10:25 he pinged his ex-girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Sophie Engle, I’m sorry for everything. He also told his older brother he wanted to play Fortnite again later. When Kelly called later that morning, Tyler said he was in class.
“I love you,” Kelly told him.
“I love you too,” he said.
Tyler was moving into a new apartment and dropped off one of his new roommates, defensive lineman Nick Begg, at class around 11. That was the last time anybody saw or heard from him. When he didn’t show up for an afternoon workout, it was not only unusual—this was Tyler Hilinski, the most dependable of coach Mike Leach’s players—but also alarming. Enough so that Antonio Huffman, the assistant athletic director for football operations, dispatched Begg and fellow roommate Peyton Pelluer to search for him. After they failed to find Tyler at the apartment or at his girlfriend’s place and they couldn’t locate his car, Huffman called local hospitals and police departments, and urged officers to put out an APB.
Huffman phoned Tyler’s parents. Kelly sent Tyler a text, offering to leave that minute and drive the nine hours from Ogden. “I thought, maybe, by being there, I could shake him,” Kelly says. “I could look him in the eyes and go, what’s going on?”
Begg could sense the panic in Kelly’s voice, rising with each call, cresting when Kelly noticed that Tyler had stopped sharing his location on his cell phone. The players doubled back to Tyler’s old digs, the Aspen Village apartment complex, where they found his car hidden in the back lot and saw his passport had been ripped apart and left in the vehicle. They pleaded with the apartment manager to unlock the unit, and when the manager refused, Begg and Pelluer stalked through overgrown grass to Building D and kicked in the green door to apartment 201. They checked the living room, then the bedroom farthest from the balcony, then the one adjacent to it. And once inside, Pelluer, looking into the open closet, saw Tyler, with the AR-15 lying next to him, a bullet hole through his left eye.
Huffman arrived just after the police officers, who looked at him and shook their heads. One just said, “I’m sorry.” Huffman phoned Kym, who threw her cell and called him a liar before suffering a panic attack. She spent part of that night in the hospital, wondering the same things that Mark wondered after he begged his oldest son to be wrong and after the organ donation organization called to ask about Tyler’s right cornea. Why hadn’t they seen this coming? Why?
Beginning that night and over the next few weeks and months, Mark and Kym would replay countless moments in their lives—starting with when they first fell in love, got married soon after college and had three boys who would gravitate to the same sport and the same position. Tyler was born after Kym’s water broke at Nordstrom and she hurried to the hospital, clutching her husband’s hand so tightly her knuckles whitened. “I did not let the nurses take [Tyler],” Kym says. “He slept on top of me.”
The Hilinskis were not a football family then. Mark, who later founded a software company, played quarterback and defensive end at Damien High in La Verne, Ca., and rooted for the Steelers; Kym, a lawyer, was a cheerleader but ambivalent about the game. The Hilinskis wanted to expose the boys to everything, so they skateboarded, took guitar lessons, played tennis, basketball and baseball.
Tyler was the easiest of the three. He never cried, never fussed. He loved action movies and video games and singing in the car at full volume. They found him goofy, and when he laughed, his nose scrunched up, reminding Mark, 52, of a young Jon Gruden.
The Hilinski brothers looked out for one another, although Tyler was the least confrontational. In fourth grade he tried to ignore a classmate who teased him for weeks about eating his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Hawaiian bread. Eventually Ryan, then a kindergartner, punched the bully in the face. Kym scolded Ryan, told him never to strike anyone, but she later told Kelly she was proud of her youngest, reminding him to “put your brothers and family before anyone.”
Tyler idolized Kelly, following him everywhere, especially into football. Mark and Kym had never planned to raise three college quarterbacks but all their boys grew tall and strong and possessed right arms that could whistle spirals. Quarterbacks they became. If Kelly and Tyler played on the same team, Tyler sometimes lined up at receiver, and in youth leagues, he played linebacker, earning the nickname Mini Urlacher for his punishing tackles.
As Mark and Kym looked back, they winced at all the hits Tyler delivered and endured. Kym, 53, had always worried about her football-obsessed sons. She preferred watching them in seven-on-seven camps, where defenders can’t touch quarterbacks. “I usually cover my eyes,” she says. “I’m so nervous that a big, gigantic linebacker is just going to come and truck my son. If I could Bubble Wrap them, I would.”
She also knew that her boys loved football more than they loved anything except one another, so she reluctantly drove them to practices and brought snacks to their teammates. Before Tyler’s junior season, he transferred to Upland High and won the starting job. He played like a lanky Brett Favre, scrambling, improvising, throwing no-no-no-no-YES! touchdowns off his back foot or across his body. Tyler’s coach, Tim Salter, called him Superman, in part to remind the quarterback he didn’t need to be heroic on every play. “But I do,” Tyler said.
At Upland, Tyler met Sophie Engle, and they dated for most of the next three years. They spent most weekends on the Hilinskis’ couch, playing with his yellow lab, Navy Blue, watching movies, ordering zucchini fries and engaging in burping contests. All those memories squared with the Tyler his family members knew; looking back at the first 18 of his 21 years, they had found no clues.
One story from years ago that Engle shared with the Hilinskis recently took on greater meaning after his death. She said she once told Tyler about a friend who had committed suicide, detailing the excruciating pain felt by those the friend had left behind. “You never know what someone’s going through,” Tyler said. “That’s so sad.”
Over those weeks and months, as he reviewed the events in Tyler’s life, Mark reminded himself to be realistic. “I’m not trying to canonize the kid,” he says. “I’m not trying to make him better than he was.” Moving from Tyler’s high school days into his college life, he saw what appeared to be the typical issues of early adulthood and wondered if they signified something more. If he scrutinized hard enough, there were signs. But how far back? Which were real?
Tyler chose WSU over the other four schools that offered him a scholarship, graduated early and arrived on campus for the spring semester of 2015. That first week he called home to say that he felt sad, as if he wanted to cry. “You’re homesick, sweetie,” his mom told him.
But that bout was hardly alarming. Kym went skydiving with Tyler that Mother’s Day, starting an annual tradition. He redshirted the next fall and backed up Luke Falk in 2016. He loved Leach and hung the coach’s Quarterback Commandments—3. Fat QB’s can’t avoid the rush; 11. Don’t be a celebrity QB—on the kitchen fridge. Other than what Tyler deemed a possible concussion sustained during practice his freshman season, nothing to that point appeared amiss. He called home in the evenings to analyze specific practice plays with his dad. They’d talk about his teammates’ problems with girlfriends, injuries or position coaches. Tyler didn’t complain. He drove one teammate to