Just months after Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski was tragically killed by suicide, his family is speaking out about the importance of mental health and the risks football players take every time they step on the field.
On January 16, two Washington State football players showed up to Tyler’s apartment when he didn’t arrive for a meetup or respond to attempts to reach him by phone. When they forced their way inside, they discovered 21-year-old Tyler — who was poised to become the university’s starting quarterback later that year — had died of suicide.
While Tyler left a note, the Pullman Police Department later said the message did not reveal what the rising athlete was going through.
In the weeks after his death, Sports Illustrated reporter Greg Bishop spoke with Tyler’s family while they navigated the unfathomable loss and grappled with the many unanswered questions surrounding Hilinski’s death. While many of those questions will likely remain unanswered, Tyler’s parents, Mark and Kym Hilinski, were given an important glimpse into what their son was going through when the Mayo Clinic offered to test the young athlete’s brain for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to head trauma.
RELATED: Prominent NFL Players Diagnosed with CTE, the Degenerative Brain Disease
As Mark and Kym tell Sports Illustrated in a new documentary chronicling Tyler’s death and the aftermath, the decision to hand over their son’s brain to the medical center was no easy one.
“I remember being kind of numb,” Kym, from Irvine, California, tells Sports Illustrated, “because you don’t think your son is going to die, you certainly don’t think he is going to kill himself, and you don’t think you have to give his brain to the Mayo Clinic for an autopsy.”
After their tests, Mayo Clinic concluded Tyler had CTE.
“It was shocking,” Kym recalls. “We know Tyler. Yes, he was quiet, yes, he was a little more reserved, but he was happy.”
Symptoms of CTE include irritability, aggression, motor impairment, suicidal tendencies, dementia and speech and language difficulties. But looking back, Mark and Kym say they noticed no signs their son had the disease.
“He was goofy and funny, and hilarious half the time, but we didn’t see it at all,” Mark says. “It happened on our watch, so we don’t give ourselves much of a break.”
The link between CTE and football has made headlines numerous times over the last few years, as an increasing number of NFL veterans have been diagnosed with the disease, such as Junior Seau, who died of suicide at age 43 in May 2012, and Jovan Belcher, who died of suicide in 2012. Most recently, Boston University’s CTE Center announced former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez had severe CTE that caused his brain to shrink at just 27 years old.
RELATED: Aaron Hernandez’s Brain Had Atrophied and Had Holes in It: Researchers
CTE was the focus of the 2015 movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, who, in September 2002, performed an autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Omalu’s findings on Webster’s brain would later bring CTE to national prominence.
Since Tyler’s death, Mark and Kym have started the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation, to help raise funds for mental health programs across the country. And while they now know more about what their son was going through leading up to his death, the two grieving parents still wonder about what ultimately lead to Tyler’s suicide.
“Did football kill Tyler? I don’t think so,” Kym tells Sports Illustrated. “Did he get CTE from football? Probably. Was that the only thing that contributed to his death? I don’t know.”
The exclusive SI TV documentary — including interviews with Tyler’s older brother, Kelly, and his teammates and coaches at Washington State — is available now. Watch the whole feature at si.tv
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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