Tyler Hilinski's Family Finds Pain, Purpose in Return to Washington State

An emotional weekend back in Pullman for Washington State's home opener served as a microcosm of the past eight months for the people hit hardest by Tyler Hilinski's suicide.
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PULLMAN, Wash. – On Friday morning, less than 36 hours before they would raise the massive crimson Cougar flag in front of more than 26,000 fans at Martin Stadium, Mark and Kym Hilinski all but floated out of a sports management class at Washington State University. They had just convened with dozens of students for roughly three hours, and they felt uplifted, inspired.

They had told the class about their son, Tyler; and his life, as a quarterback at WSU, as the sweetest and quietest and funniest of their three boys; and his death, by suicide last January; and their foundation, Hilinski’s Hope. They had shared numerous stories they’d heard over the past eight months, tales from families much like theirs who had lost loved ones, or asked why, or tried to understand what never will make sense. They had noted the strangers who had sent letters or messages on social media, who told them they had considered suicide, or planned to kill themselves, only to hear their story, Tyler’s story, and reconsider and ask for help. They had work to do, they told the students, awareness to raise, deaths to prevent. “What we’ve learned,” Mark said, “is that it’s going to take a generation to fix this.”

The exchange that morning had strengthened their resolve, crystallizing the importance of their new life’s mission. And that was great, of course, until they left the classroom and climbed in their rental car and considered those 36 hours, where they would raise money and hike and cry and tailgate and cry some more and attend the first WSU football game since their son’s death. They sat in that car and looked at each other and thought the same thing:

I don’t know how we’re going to do this.

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The weekend back served as a microcosm for the lives the Hilinskis have lived these past eight months. They could pour themselves into research on mental health and suicide prevention, raise tens of thousands of dollars, return to work, walk the dog, get the oil changed and watch their youngest son play football. They could do anything, they could do nothing, or they could do everything and no matter what they did or how they did it they always ended back in the same place: missing Tyler.

“That kid,” said his grandfather, Jim Hilinski, “was my life.”

On this weekend, that dichotomy was amplified. They held a dinner and auction on Friday for their closest friends, their family and their biggest donors at Banyans on the Ridge. They filled centerpieces with some of Tyler’s favorite things—McDonald’s gift certificates, because he loved the fries there; boxes of Red Vines, because he loved the movies; along with Hilinski’s Hope wristbands and towels and T-shirts.

Champagne was poured. Jumbo shrimp, eaten. Stories, told. Tyler’s older brother, Kelly, chatted with former Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf. Kelly had flown here from Ogden, Utah, where he’s a medical student at Weber State. He wants to become a neurosurgeon, in part to study brains that were damaged like Tyler’s brain was damaged. Doctors diagnosed him with Stage 1 CTE after his death.

Kelly’s working night shifts at the hospital, then sometimes heading straight to school. His classes are all held in the same part of campus where he first learned his best friend had gone missing, where he sprinted to his car and considered driving the nine hours straight to Pullman, to find Tyler and find out what was wrong. He showed me a text message on his cell phone from a close friend who wrote that he had considered suicide and that Tyler’s story saved him. How could he reconcile the meaning in that message and the great void in his life?

As the guests ate salad and beef tenderloin, I was approached by several strangers. They had read the Sports Illustrated piece—and watched the documentary we produced—on the Hilinskis back in June, and they wanted to share their own stories, their own grief. Their dad had committed suicide. Or their uncle. Or their friend. One man told me that sometimes, randomly, he could smell his father and a mixture of pain and the memories they shared together would flood back. He wished he could tell the family it would get easier. But that’s not true. It may get easier. It may not. Grief is a bitch like that; for everyone it’s different.

The dinner started to wind down. Kym addressed the crowd, and she started to cry when she started to speak. “There’s not a second that goes by that I don’t miss him so much,” she said.

“We love you, Kym,” someone shouted from the audience.

Then she told a story, about a 22-year-old she met. That person had told her, “I’m standing in front of you and I’m alive today because you shared Tyler’s story.”

She again promised to never stop telling it.

A WSU booster named Al Sorensen spoke next, while waiters placed slices of chocolate cake on tables. He auctioned off a barbecue dinner at his house with the Cougars’ coach, Mike Leach, and the bids climbed from $5,000 to $6,000 to $7,500 as he told the audience that he also taught a class at WSU. Tyler was in that class, Sorensen said, and on the second day, he skipped it. Sorenson told his neighbor, Leach, and he later found out that Leach made Tyler run the team’s infamous sand pit, known by the nickname “Leach Beach,” as penance for his absence.

The next class, Tyler arrived early and apologized, and from that point he and Sorensen grew close. Sorensen mentioned the Boise State game from last fall, when Tyler relieved an injured Luke Falk and brought WSU back to win in triple overtime. That was the second game of the Cougars’ season, at home—just like the game on Saturday night. Tyler had sent Sorensen a text message after the Boise State triumph. He gave all credit to his teammates. “I will never delete that text,” Sorensen said.

I watched Mark after Sorensen finished, and he sat there, at the front table, a black HH hat pulled low over his eyes. He was alone for a while, surrounded by people but lost in his own grief. I wanted to walk over there and hug him. He grabbed a napkin and wiped away his tears.

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The next morning, some 200 supporters gathered at Kamiak Butte County Park to climb the Pine Ridge Trail in Tyler’s memory. Most wore Hilinski’s Hope gear, with Tyler’s number, 3, emblazoned on hats and shirts and sweatpants. There were children and grandparents and even a few dogs.

Tyler had first hiked Pine Ridge for a class field trip a few years back, and he loved the 1.3-mile trail so much that anytime anyone in his family came to visit he’d take them up there. “What are you doing, trying to kill me?” his grandfather had lovingly grumbled on one trip. “It’s not that much farther, Papa,” Tyler responded. “Just a little walk.”

Kelly and his younger brother, Ryan, tossed a football back and forth in the parking lot. Ryan is early into his senior high school season at Orange Lutheran in Southern California. His team is 2–1, and when he threw his first touchdown this season wearing Tyler’s No. 3, he almost lost it. Mark went down to the field and wrapped his son in a bear hug while Ryan composed himself. He still plans to head to South Carolina, on football scholarship, in January. But his high school had a bye this weekend, so he had made the trip to Pullman.

At the base of the trail, wind blew over the enlarged pictures of Tyler that had been placed on easels. A former teammate, Noah Osur-Myers, led the group in a huddle before the hike. “On, three,” he said, “One-two-three Tyler.”

“One-two-three,” he repeated.

“Tyler!” the group boomed back.

The trail carved steeply upward into a forest, turning every few hundred feet. Kym led the assembled higher, boosted by the turnout, by everyone who understood their mission, if not their pain, and wanted to help out. At the top, with sweeping views of the Palouse spread below, she shed tears and took pictures and left Hilinski’s Hope wristbands on tree stumps and tied ribbons onto trees. For 10 minutes, then 20, then 30, the assembled lingered, like they didn’t want that moment to end. “Tonight is going to be tough,” Mark said. “We love you guys.”

“The plan tonight is there’s going to be 3s all over the stadium,” Kym said. “We know Tyler’s going to be there. We’d just like to show everyone else in the world.”

Mark was the last person in the party to head down. I walked alongside him. He tried to put the weekend into words. How when he’d flown into the Spokane airport it had reminded him of his first trip to Pullman, the drive in through the wheat fields, the Cougar flags everywhere, the way the team and the town seemed intertwined. The football facilities were under construction on that trip, and he’d worn a hard hat as he toured the new locker room. Part of him wished the school had taken some of that money and poured it into resources for mental health—more counselors, more programs, more conversations; the kind of work the Hilinskis are doing now.

He didn’t want to sound bitter. He wasn’t bitter. He doesn’t want your pity. He just wants his Tyler back. “We’re driving down these streets where they used to do the parades,” he said. “By the hotels we stayed in. By the places we used to eat. I still remember him waiting for me after games. He’d have this backpack slung over his shoulder, and he’d turn around to see if it was me. Just this smiling, lanky dude. He’d be like, Hey, Big, what’s happening?

“I have all those same thoughts and feelings now,” he said. “But I don’t have my guy.”

“You’ll see,” he said, noting my one-year-old son, the life lessons upcoming, the universal things all parents hope to teach their children. “I can promise you, if this had happened to someone else’s kid, I’d be here, I’d be walking, and I’d be going, I’m sorry,” he continued. “But I’d also be thinking: That’s not going to happen to my kid. I just wouldn’t believe it. It’s still hard to believe.”

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The Hilinski family gathered at their hotel that afternoon, to watch college football and eat pizza and get ready for the game. One of Tyler’s cousins, Drew Lombardi, was sporting a freshly inked No. 3 tattoo on the left side of his rib cage. “That’s such a gigantic space!” Kym said.

Several children were affixing temporary No. 3 tattoos to their arms, chests and necks. One lamented that his parents wouldn’t let him fasten a sticker on his forehead. Another approached Mark.

“Are you coming to the game tonight?” he asked.

“I might,” Mark said, smiling.

“I’m sorry about your son,” the boy said.

“I appreciate that,” Mark said.

“I lost something important to me, too,” the boy said. “My grandma’s cat.”

Mark hugged him.

That’s part of the Hilinskis’ new life, too, consoling others, making sure that everyone around them is O.K., even if they’re not. When Mark found out that Arizona linebacker Tony Fields felt guilty and shaken for the seismic hit he’d laid on Tyler in their game last season, he asked a Wildcat he knew to have Fields call him and told the linebacker, “It’s O.K. to feel how you feel. But we don’t feel that way. We don’t want you to get hurt worrying about what happened. We want you to play.”

The Hilinskis fill their days with calls like that, with looking after their two boys, with responding to those who reached out and with the more formal work for the foundation. On the morning after they raised the flag, they sponsored mental health training at WSU for select student-athletes, with a third-party evaluator on hand to collect data and measure the program’s effectiveness. They’re particularly interested in peer-to-peer training, citing a study that showed that 70% of those who commit suicide told someone beforehand. They’re still researching the most effective methods, still making plans for how to best utilize the donations.

As the 8 p.m. kickoff drew nearer, the family left together, walking away from the apartment complex where Tyler died toward Martin Stadium. I walked down with Kym. She could hear the band playing in the distance, and she knew the players were likely doing their traditional walk into the stadium. “That makes me sad,” she said. Her son was supposed to be the starting quarterback on that team. He was supposed to be marching with those players. A year ago, almost exactly, he had played the best game of his life. “I can’t go in there,” she said. “I love those players. But I’m the last thing they need to see before a game. I just can’t do it.”

She knew what she could do: push forward, celebrate Tyler’s life, raise money and awareness. That’s why she had made jerseys for the children she planned to bring with her atop the stage to raise the flag that night. “We’d love to have a perfect mental health program at every university across the country, tomorrow,” she said. “That’s not going to happen, unfortunately. That’s why tonight is symbolic for me. By the time those kids get to college, there should be programs in place.”

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After the tailgate and the Jell-O shots and the hamburgers and hotdogs and the pictures where Kym said “I can’t smile” as she took them, the family headed into the stadium. Their moment had arrived. They would raise the Cougar flag in the east end zone before the game started.

They saw the two purple and teal suicide prevention ribbons that had been painted on both 25-yard-lines, the black No. 3 decals on the Cougars’ helmets, the teammates who took a knee and held three fingers aloft. Something like half the crowd wore No. 3 T-shirts and sported No. 3 wristbands and carried No. 3 towels.

What happened next was tricky. There’s no way around that, no happy ending, no neat and tidy celebration that ends like a Disney movie. There were things the Hilinskis hoped that Washington State would do: start the game on offense with a 10-man formation, show video of Tyler on the JumboTron, encourage those who wanted to tell Tyler’s story to keep telling it, to erase the stigmas surrounding mental illness by addressing it head-on. None of that took place. They knew—everyone knew—that the ribbons and the PSA for suicide prevention and all the 3s worn throughout the stadium were because of Tyler’s death. “Because Tyler passed by suicide,” Kym said. “But WSU didn’t even say his name.”

They tried not to let it bother them. It was easier to say that. Shortly before kickoff, after fans throughout the stadium sang the fight song and the band marched on the field and fireworks exploded and the national anthem played, they climbed the steps to the stage with the children in those No. 3 jerseys. The kids pulled the flag into the sky. The crowd erupted in celebration, the kind that sends chills down spines, all these screams and whistles and shouts, and the family looked out at all their towels and all their T-shirts and they hugged and threw three fingers in the air.

Kym left right after that and went back to the hotel. Mark stayed through the first quarter, waiting for the highlight video to play on the big screens, hoping that Tyler would be featured in the clips. It did play, twice, but Tyler was not shown, and even though that hurt, even though the rest of his family had already left, Mark tried to keep his feelings in perspective. “I’m worried about the kids on the field,” he said. “I care about the Cougs.”

He paused, sighed. “Tyler would have transcended all this bulls---,” he added.

Then he too left, heading back to the hotel, where the family gathered in the lobby and watched the game on television. The Cougars beat San Jose State, 31–0. At that moment, they sat halfway between the apartment complex where he had ended his life and the stadium where he starred against Boise State almost exactly a year earlier. Their new paradigm was like that, too, divided by how Tyler lived and how he died and trying and failing to understand how one led to the other. They knew they might never close the gap there, might never find the answers they are seeking. But they also knew that gulf didn’t make their work any less important. If anything, the weekend back had showed them just how many folks they had galvanized in the last eight months and reinforced their courage to face the uncertainty to come.

They had gotten through the weekend. But now they had to push through tomorrow, then next week, next month, next year. For as long as it took, for the rest of their lives, if necessary, that would have to be enough. Even if it rarely felt that way.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Watch Losing Tyler on SI TV. Our documentary chronicles the Hilinski family’s search for answers in the aftermath of tragedy.