Carolina QB, family put focus on athletes, mental health

Ryan Hilinski, quarterback for Gamecocks. Photo courtesy of University of South Carolna.

“January 16, 2018”

It’s a date that Ryan Hilinski, quarterback for the South Carolina Gamecocks, seamlessly adds to his conversation with the youth of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Greenwood, S.C., Sunday night.

That date, now etched into the memory and journey of his family, is the day that Ryan found out that his brother, Tyler Hilinski, had died from a self-inflicted wound.  That tragic news was delivered to Ryan by his older brother, Kelly.

“When I first heard the news,” Ryan says, “I just sat there and stared at my phone.”

It seemed to come out of nowhere.  Tyler’s life and college football career seemed to be on an upward trajectory heading into 2018.

Tyler spent the 2017 season as the backup quarterback for the Washington State Cougars.  He’d had opportunities to play and had helped to lead the Cougars to comeback victory over Boise State.  Tyler had even started the Holiday Bowl game on Dec. 28, 2017 and had an outstanding performance.  Now, with the 2017 season behind him, Tyler was poised to enter the 2018 season as the starting quarterback for the Cougars.

And, then, just a few weeks after the bowl game, Tyler took his own life.

The loss left the family with many questions unanswered.  In the time since they found out about the tragedy, family members launched Hilinski’s Hope (H3H) as way of remembering Tyler and using this tragedy as a way to help others know they can ask for help.

That’s why the family was in Greenwood Sunday night.  It was a chance for Ryan and his parents, Mark and Kym, to tell others about Tyler and to share the work of H3H.

Kym Hilinski shared a video tribute about Tyler and pointed to the stigma that can be present when it comes to seeking help for mental illness.

Ryan Hilinski holds up three fingers in memory of his brother, Tyler. Photo courtesy of University of South Carolina Athletic Department

“Tyler was unable to find what he was struggling with and reach out for help,” she said. 

Tyler and his brothers went to a Catholic school, attended mass and knew God, she said.  She has no doubt of Tyler’s relationship with God. From the outside looking in, Tyler would’ve seemed to be on top of the world.  On the inside, however, it was a different story.

“We had no idea he was struggling,” she said. 

Mark Hilinski, father of Ryan and Tyler, echoed that thought, saying,  “You couldn’t tell he (Tyler) was sick, but he was.”

Mark contrasted mental health issues with the injury that Ryan suffered during the 2019 season with the Gamecocks.

“When Ryan was hurt, he walked with a limp,” he said. “You could see it.”

When a player such as Ryan gets hurt at the college level, doctors are able fix most of those injuries, Mark said.  In the case of Tyler, the illness and injury could not be seen from the outside.

“We want to see mental illness elevated to that level,” Mark said.  

H3H is now working to remove some of the stigma of mental illness in sports and on college campuses.  To date, H3H has raised more than $500,000 to fund these programs.  

H3H is teaming up with the NCAA for a program called “Step Up,”  Mark said.  This program brings educational videos and mental health curriculum to help those who are suffering from depression and anxiety on college campuses.

The Hilinski family started Hilinski’s Hope as a way to remember Tyler and remove the stigma of mental illness in sports.

The “three” in H3H’s logo serves as a tribute to the number that Tyler wore when he played for Washington State.  Today, Ryan wears that number for the Gamecocks as a tribute to his brother.

This past season, the third quarter of South Carolina games begin with fans holding up three fingers in remembrance of Tyler Hilinski.  When Ryan runs on to the field before games, he hold up his three fingers for his brother.

Mark says that what is special about fans remembering Tyler in the third quarter is that it came from a group of fans who wanted to do it.

“It’s most satisfying because it’s not us,”  Mark said. “When you do it (hold up the three), you are supporting each other.” 

What the family is doing through the foundation and what Ryan is able to do in football have provided some light in the pain and grief the family is experiencing since Tyler’s death.

As Ryan ended the program with the students Sunday night, he pointed to his injury from last football season.  Ryan told the students that his knee has healed but “my mind and my heart are not.”

He described for the students what happened on the day after Tyler’s death.  He got up the next morning and went to be a part of his lifting group at the high school.  His coach asked why he was there and Ryan told him that he had brothers and sisters in the sports program at the school and he didn’t want to let them down.

Ryan admitted that it might sound “cliche” but he sees his family is much bigger now because he has found many more brothers and sisters in Christ.  His group of friends has expanded in his journey since the death of Tyler.  

One of his, now closest, friends, Jay Urich, another quarterback for South Carolina, shared a saying with him.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

It is with that sense of cooperation and working with others that H3H continues to share its message. The family hopes that the message that can come from their tragedy is that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be diminished and that those needing help will know it’s available and seek it.

“We want you to know that you are not alone,” Kym Hilinski said. 

For more information on Hilinski’s Hope and how to get involved, visit the foundation’s website at https://hilinskishope.org/

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