Tyler Hilinski's grieving parents reflect on their son's life on the field in wake of CTE diagnosis

By Emily Davies
June 27, 2018 05:22 PM
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Even at eight years old, Tyler Hilinski was sweetly attuned to the emotions of others.

His mother poignantly recalls one morning when they were carpooling to football practice, and her son was focused on her stress level: He put his hand on top of his mom’s, tracing circles on her skin.

Fast forward a decade, the little boy had grown into a star quarterback. But he still asked his mom to drive him to school, and he proudly accepted the packed lunches she provided.

Two years later, he’s the quarterback for Washington State, carrying his team to a triple-overtime comeback against Boise State. This “comeback kid” called his parents almost every morning as he grabs McDonald’s after practice.

Less than a year later, he took his own life.

This nightmare is the new reality for Kym and Mark Hilinski, who lost their 21-year-old son to suicide on January 16. Not only are the parents grieving, but they are now coming to terms with a harrowing diagnosis: A Mayo Clinic test found that Tyler Hilinski had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can develop from brain trauma. Depression is a Stage 1 side effect of CTE.

“At first it was shock,” Kym tells PEOPLE of opening the diagnosing letter from the Mayo Clinic. “I got it in the mail and I remember opening it and reading it and finding out that he did have CTE. And at first it was shock, because honestly you think, “we let our child play football. We let him play football.”

A small moment of peace also came with the diagnosis: The family had an answer as to why Tyler, with no outward signs of depression, had taken his life. Kym and Mark, however, do not fault football for the death of their beloved son.

“Did football kill Tyler?” Kym tells Sports Illustrated in a new documentary. “I don’t think so. Did he get CTE from football? Probably. Was that the only thing that attributed to his death? I don’t know.”

Kym and Mark have racked their brains for signs they missed, but there was barely any indication of their son’s suffering.

“He had college stress,” Mark says. “Those are life learning moments, they are not ‘oh my goodness we’ve got to get him psychiatric help immediately.’ ”

Even with the CTE diagnosis, the Hilinski family is determined not to live in fear. Ryan, Tyler’s younger brother, is suiting up to play football for South Carolina State as their quarterback — and he will be wearing his brother’s number three.

“I love this sport,” Ryan tells Sports Illustrated. “This is not what hurt him. I’m going to do everything that Tyler wanted to do with football.”

Mark and Kym, however, were less enthused about their son’s decision to keep playing. But ultimately, they support Ryan and his love for the sport.

“People ask us if you knew this when your children were younger, would have they played football?” Kym says. “Mark says he would have probably pushed them toward baseball. But that’s not what our life is.”

Now, the Hilinski’s are channeling their sadness into action with the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation, which helps raise funds for mental health programs across the country.

While the family hands out Hilinski’s Hope wristbands, celebrates #TylerTuesdays and looks to fund peer-to-peer mental health programs, the family continues to look fondly on the sport Tyler adored.
Kelly, Tyler’s older brother and best friend, tells Sports Illustrated that he will, without a doubt, let his future children play football. And if he has a son, Kelly has a name all picked out: Tyler.

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.