ATHENS, Ga. — The Hilinski family departed their hotel on Saturday for Sanford Stadium two hours before kickoff. They banked left on Broad Street, then hung a right into the perfectly manicured, sun-kissed, tree-lined campus at the University of Georgia. They strolled past ticket scalpers and barbecue pits and stands selling boiled peanuts and tents cooling kegs at 10 a.m. They shouted greetings to fellow South Carolina fans. They did everything they could to tamper their emotions, to not stress over the day, the game or the season. To not dwell on the son they lost and how he died.
That was impossible, of course. Not only would their youngest, Ryan Hilinski, make his fifth start for the Gamecocks, but he would do so as a true freshman—and against the mighty Georgia Bulldogs, the nation’s third-ranked team and some 25-point favorites. Beyond that, Ryan’s arm strength, his verve and his jersey number, 3, would forever remind the family of their middle son, Tyler, a Washington State quarterback who died by suicide in January 2018.
As the stadium came into view, Mark Hilinski, the family patriarch, waxed excitedly about his drum set. For months after Tyler passed, he could not bring himself to play. Then the family moved with Ryan to South Carolina, buying a house on Lake Murray, starting a massive renovation. They remained together for dual and related purposes: to remember Tyler by raising money and awareness for their foundation, Hilinski’s Hope; and to support Ryan in his dream, which was also Tyler’s dream, using the same plan they had designed but never implemented to assist Tyler at WSU. One afternoon after moving, Mark grabbed his sticks and started pounding. Sometimes, he’d break down halfway through his practice set. Other times, he says, “It’s fun to just beat s--- up.”
Cathartic, too. The family’s two focuses, they hoped, would help them to heal and move forward. But it’s not that simple. It never will be. An autopsy of Tyler brain showed CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
Ryan plays the same sport, mans the same position, and most weeks he faces one of the most elite defenses in college football. This season, he replaced the Gamecocks injured starter, Jake Bentley, in Week 2 for a lopsided victory over Charleston Southern. The next week, he found himself in the crosshairs of Alabama’s D. His mom, Kym, would prefer he had redshirted this season. If she’s being honest, she wishes she could cover her baby in bubble wrap, or find him another passion. She sits in the stands when he plays but hardly watches, choosing to pray or study her shoes instead. She watches games with her ears.
As she picked up their tickets with her husband and their oldest son, Kelly, she sighed. “What I really want is for every player on that field to walk away healthy and not hurt,” she said.
As kickoff neared, after the family had settled into the first row of the stands, Mark considered the card they had handed Ryan the night before at the team hotel. The parents Hilinski raised three boys to play quarterback for college football teams, and before every game, they made those cards into a family ritual, writing motivational quotes or dashing off good luck scribbles. Before this game, Mark had written, “Anybody can beat anybody at any time,” just above his signature.
Fans filed late into the stadium, the delay owing to the early noon kickoff. The band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" over and over. Georgia diehards lined the walkway behind the stadium’s famous hedges. Everyone wore red.
Ryan Hilinski warmed up near the sideline. His mother sat maybe 50 feet away but did not watch. He wore a white towel and white cleats and that white No. 3 jersey, same as Tyler. Finally, he tossed one last warm-up pass and threw three fingers into the air, in tribute to his brother and his family and the importance of mental health.
Georgia took a 3–0 lead, but rather than fold, on the road, in the most hostile of environs, Ryan Hilinski trotted onto the field for the Gamecocks’ second possession. He handed the ball off and completed short passes and moved South Carolina right down the field against a defense stocked with future pros. He looked very much like he belonged. And then, on first-and-15 from the Gamecocks’ 46-yard-line, he dropped back, rolled left, squared his body and unleashed the most perfect throw of his young career. The ball arced in a parabola down the left sideline, eventually landing in the hands of wideout Bryan Edwards, who trudged across the goal line, staking ‘SC to an early lead. Ryan threw the same three fingers up again
In the stands, Kym crossed herself. She knows she’ll never feel comfortable watching Ryan scamper away from the large bodies that chase him across football fields, intending harm. She screamed even when South Carolina defenders hit the Georgia quarterback, Jake Fromm. She saw the pressure applied by the Georgia defense, the linebackers in full pursuit, the grass stains on Ryan’s jersey, the helmets that collided with his knees. She would turn away, look back, then turn away again. She prayed. She paced. She prayed some more. “I can’t just tell him not to play,” she said. “That would be selfish. The last thing he should be worrying about is me and my feelings. I can’t play the ‘Mom Card,’ can’t say, buddy, you’re done.”
The Gamecocks took a 17–10 lead into halftime, with Ryan playing as well as he had all year. He would finish 15 of 20 for 116 yards and that touchdown. But he compiled most of those statistics in the first half. He left the game Saturday in the third quarter, after a Georgia defender came free on an interior blitz, tripped over a South Carolina lineman and collided, helmet first, into Ryan’s left knee, the one he already had wrapped in a brace.
Kym didn’t see the play. She heard the cheers for a Georgia sack. She heard Mark yell out that Ryan was down, that he was pounding the grass with his hand, that he looked seriously hurt. For a few harrowing minutes, her worst fears had been realized. She kept looking at Ryan, kept waiting for a signal, and when he finally flashed a thumbs up and blew her a kiss, she finally exhaled.
Ryan’s backup, Dakereon Joyner, came in right away. Ryan remained on the sideline, his left leg heavily wrapped with ice, cheering on Joyner and his teammates. They stifled Fromm and the Georgia offense and held on to win, 20–17 in double overtime, registering an upset among the most seismic of this college football season.
The afternoon underscored the Hilinski’s new reality, tying a family’s love, a son’s dream and a mother’s fears, placing them all in the same cauldron of emotions. Ryan tried to limp back out onto the field. Kym wanted to tackle him herself. She didn’t mind that he watched the fourth quarter and both overtimes from the bench, waving a towel, fully engaged, South Carolina’s new No. 1 fan.
The family that wears the number 3 on its bracelets and sweatshirts and hats couldn’t help but notice that …
1. Their kicker, Parker White, had won the game on his third attempt to seal it, and …
2. The Gamecocks had registered their biggest win under fourth-year Coach Will Muschamp by exactly three points.
Thirty minutes after South Carolina’s players had celebrated in an otherwise silent stadium, the Hilinski family waited for Ryan on the sidewalk outside Gate 5. Kelly had already left for Columbia, speeding back so he could grab Ryan when the team bus arrived back in town, triumphant. Kelly sent a text message noting that he always thinks of a grandmother he lost when he sees butterflies. In the stands on Saturday, he saw exactly three of them.
While Georgia fans stumbled by, eyes glued to their phone, trying to figure out what happened, the parents of the South Carolina players danced on the sidewalk and posted their glee on social media. The win, their third of the season, might help put them in a bowl game. It marked significant progress under Muschamp, a big win for his rebuild.
Kym paced. She kept looking at her phone, glancing at a photo that someone had sent her that showed Ryan on the team bench, his head tilted toward the sky, a smile stretched impossibly wide across his face and both hands held high above his head. On each, three fingers pointed toward the sky.
Mark thought back to the card again. Anybody can beat anybody on any day. “Great game,” he said. “I’m just worried about Ryan.”
They both needed to see him, needed to know that he was OK. Finally, Ryan emerged, his crutches clacking on the sidewalk. He smiled wide again. Wrapped his father in a bear hug, his cheeks still covered in eye black. Hugged his uncle and his cousins and grabbed his mom, his hair still wet. “Hey, momma,” he said. “I’m O.K. I’m good.”
Kym needed to hear that. Team officials wanted to send Ryan for an MRI later Saturday night. His family planned to be there for the test. But in the immediate aftermath, he didn’t appear overly concerned. He laughed when his family asked him about trying to get back in. “I told them they’d have to break my knee to get me out,” he said. “Then they broke my knee.” (To be clear, he means they injured it.)
A stream of well-wishers descended on the family, same as they have, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, ever since the worst day of their lives. Players grabbed chicken sandwiches. Ryan paused for photos with his family and a fan. Eventually, he moved slowly, toward the entrance to his bus, where Kym waited, checking on him until the end. Ryan climbed onboard, telling her, “I’ll be alright” and yelling back at the larger group, “I love you all, so much.”
Mark and Kym walked back to their hotel after that. Here again was their new reality, an existence that’s glorious and stressful and complicated. Football can make them wary, the brutality inherent in the game can make them wince. But it’s afternoons like this one that Ryan lives for, that he dreamt about, and it’s their job, Kym says, as parents, to ensure that Ryan maximizes his experience, that he lives the dream that he and Tyler shared. It’s impossible to separate their joy from their fear. They long ago stopped trying. They don’t expect to heal. They can’t move forward. They must live with both.
“Do I worry every game? Yes,” Kym says. “Do I share that with Ryan? No. I can’t. I’ll worry the whole drive home. I won’t sleep tonight. But I’m also his mom, and it’s important to me he’s happy.” She sighs again, then stays silent for a while. There’s no easy answer here. Just a monumental upset, a violent sport and a family doing the best it can.