This weekend, Cal football travels to Pullman, Washington for a showdown with one of college football’s best stories of 2018: the Washington State Cougars. After a somewhat disappointing finish in 2017, Washington State is at the top of the Pac-12 conference heading into week 10 of the college football season, eclipsing the AP top 10 after a marquee win over Stanford last Saturday.
What many may not remember, however, is that the men in crimson and grey have competed this entire year with the heaviest of hearts.
The man under center for Washington State during its December Holiday Bowl loss to Michigan State was backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who was starting in place of future NFL draft pick Luke Falk. A shining personality on and off the field, Hilinski was poised to take over Falk’s duties full-time during the 2018 season.
Hilinski seemed like a star in the making himself, accentuated by a unique flair for the dramatic. In September, he replaced Falk mid-game during a tight battle against Boise State, a triple-overtime contest in which Hilinski threw for three touchdowns and 240 yards to lead a Cougars’ 47-44 comeback win.
But just a few weeks after his Holiday Bowl start, Hilinski was found in an apartment dead of an apparent suicide, stunning a football community that could not have foreseen such a tragedy in any way, shape or form. Described as one of the most upbeat and positive student-athletes on the Washington State football program, neither Hilinski’s family nor any of his teammates could initially process what had happened.
Raised in Upland, CA, Hilinski was the middle child of Kym and Mark Hilinski — a huge part of a football family featuring his older brother, Kelly, and his younger brother, Ryan, the latter of whom is currently committed to the University of South Carolina to play quarterback.
That family is now at the center of the fight against mental illness, having kickstarted a nonprofit foundation in Tyler’s honor: “Hilinski’s Hope.” According to the foundation’s website, the organization’s primary goals are to keep Hilinki’s memory alive while generating the funding necessary to support programs such as Step UP! and Behind Happy Faces, which help to enhance and support the emotional development of young people.
On top of the $2,000,000 goal that the Hilinski family has set, wristbands and apparel have been a signature component in supporting programs that seek to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. According to Tyler’s closest friends, teammates and family members, he was the happiest person when he walked into a room, always looking to help others while rarely seeking his own help.
“It’s always better to try to help somebody that doesn’t need it than not help somebody that does,” said Mark Hilinski in an interview with CBS Sports.
Tyler’s silence throughout his struggle is one that is seen far too often in young people who take their own lives, something that motivates his family to move forward with activism and positivity, rather than retreating into feelings of regret. For a man who lived 21 years with so much exterior happiness, it’s only fitting that Tyler’s life is remembered with the goal of helping others end their struggle through the ones who he lives through today.
On Saturday, transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, who has had a terrific season for Mike Leach’s 7-1 Cougars, will be the one leading Washington State’s offense in front of its home crowd. But the memory and legacy of Tyler Hilinski live on in the hearts of his teammates and Cougar fans everywhere.
As the fight to destigmatize mental illness persists, the communities in Upland and Pullman are at the center of that fight — always reminded of what could have been and what to do moving forward.