Ryan Hilinski finds light in the darkness
ATLANTA - Even in death, even after experiencing unspeakable tragedy, Ryan Hilinski has found hope and determination.
Hilinski’s brother, Tyler, a quarterback at Washington State, committed suicide on Jan. 16 in Pullman. According to Hilinski’s parents, Mark and Kym, on a Today Show appearance in recent days, an autopsy performed at the Mayo Clinic showed the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in Hilinski’s brain.
On Wednesday in Atlanta at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge presented by adidas media day, Hilinski opened up about why he still loves playing football, why he relishes talking about a hardship of unimaginable proportions and why his brother’s suicide has emboldened him to be his best, to live his life to the fullest.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Don’t you get tired of talking about it sometimes?’ " Hilinski said. “I’ll never get tired of talking about Tyler and all the good media that’s come of it. The article for Sports Illustrated the other day and my parents were on the Today Show and then they flew out here and met me at the airport.
“I’ll never get tired of it because it gives Tyler a good name, it gives our family a good name and it just means his name is living on like he’s still here and a lot of people are not forgetting about mental illness and a lot of people are more aware of it so it’s pretty amazing.”
The Hilinski’s Hope foundation was created after the suicide in part to educate, advocate and destigmatize mental illness, according to its web site. It’s also a way for Ryan Hilinski to remember his brother, and for the family to find a glimmer of positivity in something so Earth-shattering.
“I find it hardest when I’m alone and I do simple things like play Fortnite by myself or make a McDonald’s run because I would usually do that with Tyler when he’s home during the summer,” Hilinski said. “When I think about it, I don’t really talk about it in public but when I do talk about it that helps a lot. It helps me emotionally stay stable, mentally stay stable, and I have so many support systems.
“I’ve had numerous times where I’ve cried. I’ve gone through that hard, initial period where it’s, ‘OK, he’s gone. I can’t do anything about it.’ But now I can do something about it on the football field and off the football field with Hilinski’s Hope.
“It definitely hit me and it still hits me to this day. There are times when I’ll sit down and I’m like, ‘Oh, crap.’ It’s probably going to hit me for years to come. I’ll have a lot of those moments but those are growth moments. Those shaped me into who I am today because I know after Tyler passed, there are a lot of great things that have come out of it. I’ve progressed as a football player a lot and he’s helped me on the field. He just gives me that extra motivation to be that top guy. When I say I can’t do something, I think of him and I go do it. He did everything he could and I can do it, too.”
After Hilinski’s passing and especially after the autopsy report cited CTE, the family discussed whether the four-star quarterback from Orange (Calif.) Lutheran, who’s committed to South Carolina, should keep playing football.
Was the risk of potential brain injury, or any serious injury for that matter, worth it to Hilinski especially considering the circumstances? The family talked and Hilinski’s answer was a resounding yes.
He would not give up the game he loved.
“I have a support system and I know if something feels off I can go to people and say here’s what’s wrong,” Hilinski said. “It was a defining factor. It doesn’t scare me at all.
“I have that extra motivation. If I quit now I’m quitting on Tyler. I don’t want to quit at all. If I did quit, or if my parents said, ‘You have to quit,’ I’d be quitting on Tyler and I don’t want to do that. I’m focused on being myself, doing what I love, doing what Tyler loved and just carrying on both of our dreams.
“My parents sat me down and my older brother Kelly sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re going to be great, you’re going to do all these great things but you have to listen to this. Is this something you actually want to do?’ I thought for two days about it and people asked me about it. It scared me a little bit at first and I said, ‘I don’t want to get that (CTE) at all.’
"But then I thought Tyler wouldn’t want me to quit, he’d want me to be careful, he would want me to tell people if I was going through something. But if I quit, I’m quitting on him and it’s something I don’t want to do.”
Nearly half a year has passed since his brother’s suicide but Hilinski remembers those dreadful days with great clarity.
The four-star quarterback tells of the day his life changed forever:
“I was sleeping. My mom came into my room and she was breathing really hard and I asked if she was sick. I had a workout and she said, ‘No, just go to your workout.’ So I went to my workout. She didn’t know (about the suicide) yet but Tyler wasn’t answering his phone, my brother Kelly was calling her and said he didn’t know what was wrong but something was wrong, we knew that.
“I went to my workout and I got a call from Kelly. I missed the call, and then I got a text from him that said, ‘Go home to mom. You need to go and be with her.’ I asked what was wrong and I got a text from Kelly that said he was dead.
“I’m looking at my phone and it was terrible how he did it but I love him for it because I wouldn’t want to talk to him about it because we wouldn’t know what to say which is probably better.”
Hilinski was with his mother, who had a panic attack and was taken to the hospital, and with his father. Washington State linebackers coach Ken Wilson was recruiting players in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and he came over. Former Washington State and current Denver Broncos receiver River Cracraft’s mom arrived.
As the day spiraled into night, Hilinski found himself home alone, trying to get some rest. There was no chance.
“It was a blank that whole night,” Hilinski said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. I didn’t sleep at all for the next couple days. I missed school for about two weeks but I went to school that week and I got a Utah offer the next day and I said, 'I don’t know what to do. Do I post it? What do I do?'
"I was like, I just don’t think Tyler would want me to stray from what I was doing. He would be one of those guys who would be like, ‘Look, this was my choice, this was the thing I decided to do, you keep doing your thing because you’re doing great.’
“I went to school that whole week and then I took a step back and said, I really need to think about this, I need to relax a little bit. It was a long, long week. My parents were kind of distant during that time for good reason of course, so I relied on coaches, players, other parents to take care of me and help me out.”
As expected, Hilinski had moments of unbearable grief. He took a short time away with family but by the early spring, the four-star quarterback returned to the hectic offseason camp and 7-on-7 circuit in Southern California.
Starting last season but especially in recent months, Hilinski has transformed himself into one of the best quarterbacks nationally. He was the position MVP at the Rivals 3 Stripe Camp in Los Angeles and earned an invitation to the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge presented by adidas, where he performed well.
Something so unfathomably awful happened in Hilinski’s young life, the loss of a brother so unexpectedly, so tragically, yet the Orange Lutheran standout still finds positivity in that darkest corner.
Now smiling, shaking hands with other reporters in the hotel hallway and wearing a South Carolina baseball hat, Hilinski is again himself – upbeat, positive and looking forward to a bright future, unburdened by tragedy.
“Tyler taking his own life has saved so many other lives where people have reached out to other people or called the suicide hotline and Hilinski’s Hope is doing amazing things,” Hilinski said.
“With a tragedy comes a blessing in disguise.”