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How loss of brother shapes future South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski's life and spirit

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 7/4/2018 By Ben Breiner, The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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When you look down at the wristband, this is what you must do.

Turn to somebody to your left.

Turn to somebody to your right.

Tell each person three things you love about them.

Why would someone do this?

"Just being that light in somebody's life," future South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski said. "That if they're struggling, you can help them out."

That number on the wristband, the No. 3 alongside the words "Hilinski's Hope," was worn by Hilinski's older brother Tyler. He was a quarterback, like both of his brothers. Last January, he took his own life.

His family, his Washington State teammates didn't know his struggles. And since, they've been left to mourn, cope, wonder why and find ways to move forward.

Ryan Hilinski, one of the top QB recruits nationally in the 2019 class, will soon become a South Carolina Gamecock, following a path his oldest brother Kelly started as they grew up in Southern California and that Tyler took to another level.

And although Ryan's brother is no longer in his life in some ways, none of the Hilinskis will ever let Tyler be truly gone.

"I always say a prayer in the morning to him," Ryan Hilinski said. "I always say a prayer at night to him. I just talk to him, make sure he's doing all right. I know a lot people might say, 'That's weird. He's talking to his dead brother.' But no, he's always with me, with everything I do and I say."

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A brother's story

It takes only a few words about Tyler before Ryan Hilinski's voice starts to break with emotion.

But he doesn't stop.

He's talking to a stranger on the phone thousands of miles away and not holding much back. He wants to tell how his brother was a light in the lives of so many around him. It doesn't seem easy, talking about someone he was so close to, suddenly gone, but he and his family keep Tyler at front of mind.

"He was probably one of the nicest, most joyful kids you'll meet, for sure," Ryan Hilinski said. "Every single person that he met, he put a smile on their face. And if they were having a bad day, he made sure they had a good day."

Ryan Hilinski mentioned his brother April 4 when he shared the news that he was committing to the Gamecocks. His family had been in Hawaii, a trip they took to spread Tyler's ashes at a lighthouse with significance to the family.

He asked his brother if South Carolina was the place, he said, and that sealed it.

Kelly was Tyler's quarterback in Pop Warner. When Kelly broke a bone in his leg, Tyler took over. A trip to a camp put on by QB guru Steve Clarkson led Kelly to getting private lessons from the coach.

His parents, Kym and Mark, asked if he wanted all the responsibilities that come with playing that position. He did.

"The position of quarterback is something we kind of all gravitated towards, being the kids that we are," Kelly said. "We always did well in school, did well in the community, but always wanted to be leaders, wanted others to follow us. That position, I think, in all of sports is the position where you're a leader. It started off with me, but Tyler and Ryan followed closely and, of course, outdid me as younger brothers should."

It was Tyler Hilinski who broke through to start a college game. Kelly was set to go to Arkansas before Bobby Petrino's departure led to him changing directions and going to Columbia (N.Y.) and then Weber State. He never started a game at a four-year school.

Tyler went to Washington State, coming in multiple times in relief across the 2017 season and throwing for nearly 1,200 yards. He was set to be the Cougars' starter going forward as Luke Falk graduated.

But that's the one-dimensional description of an athlete, points that encompass one perspective on a career, but neither a person nor an experience.

Mark and Kym Hilinski hardly spoke publicly about Tyler until the past few months. In a TV interview in late May, she spoke at length about the kind of person he was and said, "I don't think we're OK. I don't."

The family revealed last week that an autopsy showed Tyler had brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in an interview on NBC's "Today" and a story in Sports Illustrated. It was only the first stage of CTE, but a doctor told the family that Tyler's brain looked "like that of a much older, elderly man," SI reporter Greg Bishop wrote.

"It helped us to know," Kelly Hilinski told the magazine. "We have a legitimate why. That's enough of that."

Ryan Hilinski remembers a brother who was always upbeat, always pursuing what he wanted. That, in some ways, masked things, but it's not something either brother could hold against Tyler.

"Tyler's just one of those kids that would never stop working hard," Ryan Hilinski said. "And I know he worked so hard to be where he was before his life ended. I'm just super proud of him because I know our family was super proud of him and he just tried to make us happy and not be a burden on us. So mostly what Tyler was, was just a joyful kid, never had a bad day, and we love him for it."

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That day

The way the Hilinskis remember it reflects the sudden nature of trauma: There are the details before, mundane everyday life happenings, and the blur after.

"I can remember coming home from school and I actually took a nap," Ryan Hilinski said. "And I got a text from him saying, 'Hey, we won our last "Fortnite" game together.' And I said, 'Yeah, we did, let's play tonight.' And I never got a response."

Hundreds of miles away, Kelly Hilinski was in lab at Weber State in Utah. The future medical school student had talked to Tyler earlier in the day. They talked about, what else? "Fortnite," the video game.

Then came the text from Nick Begg, a teammate of Tyler and friend from Southern California.

"He was like, 'We can't find Tyler. He didn't show up to workouts,' " Kelly Hilinski said. "I packed up my stuff, threw all my crap in my bag and walked out of class, called Nick up right away and said, 'What's going on?' This is an older brother thinking Ty slept through workouts or is dealing with something or whatever. So I hopped on the phone and tried to call him and of course no answer, no text back."

The last he heard from his brother was planning that video game, a moment of pride Tyler was in class and got an " 'I love you' to close the call."

In California, Kym Hilinski woke up Ryan and sent him off.

"She was breathing really heavily and said, 'Hey, go to camp,' " Ryan Hilinski said. "So then I went to the camp and my oldest brother Kelly called and said, 'Hey, go home, go see mom.' So I went home and it was just kind of a blur from there."

The gut-wrenching duty of breaking the news to the family fell to Kelly.

"I was the one that found out first and I had to tell the rest of the family," Kelly Hilinski said. "And so I was sitting at the kitchen in my apartment. I remember getting the call and sharing it. I just steeled myself and called my dad, called my mom, called my brother and lost it. Just completely broke down."

The next three days were that same blur.

The family went to Pullman, Wash., and the outpouring of support was something to behold. More than 1,000 fans came out for a candlelight vigil. Teammates who had graduated came back from across the country for the chilly, tearful night.

Kelly remembers shaking hands, hugs, kisses, but what came through more were the stories. Strangers told the family stories, how the brother they lost was always lifting someone up, making their day better, helping in that little way.

"You could just tell from the amount of people that reached out and the amount of people that said, 'Hey, we're sorry about your loss,' " Ryan Hilinski said. "You could just tell how many people Tyler touched and how many lives he changed."

___

The trip

It wasn't as much a suggestion as something the Hilinskis knew they'd do.

There's a lighthouse they'd gone to often on vacations to Hawaii. It had a special tie to Kym Hilinski's mother, who passed away from ALS, and it only seemed right that Tyler's ashes would be spread there.

"Nana's lighthouse is what we call it," Kelly Hilinski said. "It was just after my grandma passed away. We got a lei, we got a lei from the hotel and we brought it out and we threw it in the ocean and we said goodbye to our grandma. And that was it."

The next day, the three brothers went back.

"We were sitting in the water, doing whatever brothers do, goofing around," Kelly Hilinski said. "And this is a true story, not making it up. Same lei came right up to us. We were standing probably 2 feet in. Not a petal off it. Nothing wrong with it. It just came right back up to us. So we all stood there, the three of us grabbed it and went sprinting back to my mom, who was sitting by the pool. Just sprinting and screaming, 'Mom! Mom!'

"Ever since then, it's been Nana's lighthouse. We thought, it's only right that we go back to honor Tyler the same way."

So earlier this year, the family again went to Hawaii, this time to say goodbye to Tyler.

It was the day before when he asked Tyler's guidance on where he should go to school and got the OK for South Carolina. A few days later in April, he reflected on it while still on the island.

"We've been coming here since I was about 7 or 8," Ryan Hilinski said. "(Kym Hilinski) thought that it was only right to come here and do Tyler's as well. And we all agreed, so we all came here."

That lighthouse will stay with Ryan Hilinski forever. He and Kelly got it tattooed on their wrists, along with Tyler's No. 3 on their sides.

Those gestures make it hard to use the word "closure" to describe what the trip meant. It was a step in grieving, a release, but things with Tyler were not - and won't be - closed and put aside.

"I think it's kind of a relief," Ryan Hilinski said. "Kelly said the hard part's already kind of done, just letting him go was kind of a relief because we know he's at peace. Because he loved the ocean. It was his favorite thing. We could barely get him out when he was in it. He loved it. It was his peaceful place. I think it was good to know that he was in a better place now and just a relief now to let him go."

___

Building their 'why'

There's something difficult in sharing.

With the notoriety of Tyler Hilinski's death, Ryan is often approached about it with someone else's story, some kind words. There's a certain aspect when it's brought up and a survivor has to interact with those experiences again.

Ryan tries to always give the best response he can. Maybe those people are going through something. Maybe Tyler's story helped them just a little bit.

He owes it to them to answer with utmost kindness.

"It's a good thing," Ryan said. "I know there's a lot of people out there that have been struggling that have reached out because of Tyler. And I know it's kind of hard to say, but his death saved so many lives because some people saw that it's not worth it and you could have all these people around you supporting you.

"It's good to see people that are struggling are reaching out."

Suicide is often a taboo subject, something not talked about or faced fully, even in an era where mental health awareness is rising.

The Hilinski family instead attacked it head on. They didn't know what their brother and son were going through, but they're not going to shy away from it.

They started the Hilinski's Hope Foundation aimed at eliminating the stigma around mental health and student-athletes. Kelly Hilinski was in Pullman for his brother's memorial, meeting at the school's cougar statue and paying respects with hundreds of others when the idea took root.

"I woke up the next morning to a text from my mom that said, 'Hilinski's hope,' " Kelly said. "That's it. That's all it said. So I said, 'What? What is that?' She just said, 'Our why.' Since that day ... it's grown into something that's going to change the world."

Kelly Hilinski said the foundation has worked to advocate for things as big as adding psychologists to the staffs of college teams or as small as training students to recognize signs or words or actions that might show a teammate or friend is battling something. He didn't take long to say they wanted to show athletes there's another option, not just holding it in.

They aim to get programs installed across the country. Washington State combined its spring football game with a mental health event. They have the wristbands with Tyler's No. 3 that remind wearers to turn left and right and tell each person three things they love about them.

"It shouldn't take my brother's death to galvanize a nation, but that's what it is and that's what we're doing," Kelly Hilinski said. "We're playing it day by day, but our main goal is to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and men in general. 'Be too tough and put the helmet on and your problems aren't big enough to complain about.' We're trying to eliminate that, and it's a lofty goal. I understand that and we all understand that, but it gives us our why to keep moving forward and to honor Tyler's name."

The family received thousands of letters after Tyler's death. The day after, Ryan got an email from a man who didn't follow football at all but wanted to reach out. A teenager in Ireland reached out to let the family know Tyler's death made an impact all the way over there.

Kelly said his mother replies with handwritten letters thanking those who write, who share cards, or stories or poems, messages from elementary school kids who never knew Tyler, even NFL coaches.

It helps them move forward, reminds them their personal heartbreak won't be in vain.

"I want him to live on, because his life was so short," Ryan Hilinski siad. "We just want him to live on, want him to continue ... through me mostly and through my parents and my brother about what they do, because he was so involved with my recruiting, my college career. He was so involved with Kelly getting into med school, and he was so involved with my parents having a happy marriage. And it's just, a lot of the things, we like to keep him with us because I think he wanted to be with us, but spiritually, he just couldn't."

___

The big move

At the moment of Tyler Hilinski's death, life and the realities of growing up had splintered the family's geography.

Ryan and his parents remained in Southern California. Kelly had gone to the East Coast and then northern Utah. And Tyler had been tucked away in the southeastern corner of Washington State, nearly a 10-hour drive from the closest relative.

It's unlikely that will happen again.

"I don't think we'll be far from each other in any parts of our lives moving forward," Ryan Hilinski said. "Because we just want to be together. We all know what we're going through. Our own personal problems, our own struggles, but just having each other together, is just a good thing to have."

When Ryan Hilinski finishes his high school football career and enrolls at South Carolina this January, his parents will come with him. The plan is for Kelly and his girlfriend to come out as well, with Kelly enrolling in medical school at USC.

He'd dropped out of school this spring to help his family, and is now on track to graduate next spring with a double major in microbiology and chemistry. He wanted to be a heart surgeon or emergency physician, but after Tyler's death he wondered what was really important.

"Ryan's like, slap, slap, 'What the hell's wrong with you?' " Kelly said. " 'You've been the nerd of the family for 23 years. Get yourself out of it. This is what you wanted to do. Why would you ever change? If anything, this should motivate you more.' That's probably the only advice I'll ever take from Ryan, but it was some of the best advice I've ever gotten."

Ryan spoke with actions, too, telling the coaches recruiting him he wouldn't go to a school that didn't entertain the thought of helping Kelly get into medical school.

That's how Kelly found himself talking to a dean of admissions from USC's medical school on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium when the family visited Columbia.

And the family has another reason for staying together by moving across the country.

"I don't think we can stay in the same house where Ty grew up in," Kelly Hilinski said. "The friends, the family, the memories that we made here will not be tainted. They're not tainted by any means; that has a negative connotation. But they have Tyler all around it. It's hard to move on. 'Moving on' sounds bad because we're not moving on. But we want to take the next step forward in healing, and it's tough to do that being here."

They knew that all spread out, they didn't quite feel as close as they'd been. They don't want to experience that again.

"We wanted to be in the same state," Kelly Hilinski said of the plan. "Not necessarily the same city, but the same state to an hour and a half away if Ryan wants to come home for a night or wants to bring his receivers over to my parents' house. She'd cook for them. She doesn't cook very well, but she'd order some food for them, do their laundry and that's what we wanted. Wanted to be a family again."

They'll be moving away from California, as a family, together, and they'll be together with Tyler as well.

In a sense, a part of him is left in the Palouse region and Washington State with grieving teammates. Another part is in Hawaii, with family and a place the Hilinskis cherish.

But he'll also be with them, in their hearts, their minds, their spirits and their actions.

Look down at the wristband.

Look to your left.

Look to your right.

"If they're struggling or ever a hint of somebody struggling, or even if they're not struggling, just make sure you tell them you love them," Ryan Hilinski said. "Tell them something you love about them and just make sure they're having the best day they could possibly be having."

Visit The State (Columbia, S.C.) at www.thestate.com

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