IRVINE, Calif. — Ryan Hilinski got the talk in March, two months after his older brother died.
“You can walk away,” his parents, Mark and Kym, and eldest brother, Kelly, told him. Deep down, part of them would be relieved if he did. If he were younger, they would have forbidden him to play football altogether.
But Ryan was almost 18 years old and one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country. ESPN would name him the top pro-style quarterback in the class of 2019. More than 30 colleges would offer him full scholarships, including blue bloods like Georgia, Ohio State and Louisiana State, and his childhood dream school, Stanford. He had worked too long and accomplished too much for them to take this away from him now.
Only he could decide whether to keep pursuing the sport that may have led to his brother Tyler’s suicide, a death that stunned nearly everyone who knew him. One day Tyler was the likely starting quarterback for a team on the rise. The next, he was dead.
Tyler Hilinski shot himself in a closet inside his Pullman, Washington, apartment on Jan. 16. He was 21. Four months earlier he had been carried off the field after leading the Washington State Cougars to an electric triple-overtime victory over Boise State. His parents last saw him alive a few weeks before his death, on a family vacation in Mexico. He seemed happy and healthy, which only haunts them further. Where were the warning signs that their middle son wanted to take his own life?
“We have no clue what happened,” Mark said. “We will sit here for the next 20 years and not know what the heck happened to Tyler.”
The biggest window into Tyler’s mind arrived posthumously, via a brain autopsy conducted by the Mayo Clinic. It revealed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease brought on by repeated head trauma.
After researchers at Boston University studied the brains of 202 former football players — many families had donated them because of concerns the athletes had CTE — they announced in 2017 that 87 percent of them had tested positive for the disease.
Tyler’s death places him at the intersection of two troubling demographics: football players with severe brain damage and suicides among young people. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34. Together, they constitute thousands of lives lost each year, leaving untold thousands more behind to cobble together a life while grieving.
For Mark and Kym, dealing with the loss meant starting a foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, which works to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Kelly, who studies medicine, changed his specialty from cardiovascular medicine to neurology.
And for Ryan, it meant playing football. Everything he does, he said, will now be for him and his brother. He switched his jersey number to No. 3, which Tyler wore. He tattooed an outline of the lighthouse where they spread Tyler’s ashes on the inside of his right wrist so the football could touch a memory of his brother on every snap.
At Orange Lutheran High School, a tall red banner of Ryan hangs on a fence outside the main entrance, part of a series showcasing football players. He sings bass in the honors choir and booms Motown songs in the hallways. Prospective students shadow him on campus, and he once sat in on a school board meeting. He celebrates Mass every weekend. He sometimes stops by Hoag Hospital in Irvine to visit sick children.
“Everyone meets him and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s like a senator already,'” said J.P. Presley, Orange Lutheran’s football coach.
It is a carefully applied veneer, one that predated Tyler’s death but has taken on additional importance since. Ryan is discerning about whom he lets in. Behind closed doors, Kelly said, “everyone kind of knows him as this squirrelly, goofy kid,” one who lives to play Fortnite and scarf down McDonald’s and beg Kym to do his laundry. Out in the world, Ryan is the star quarterback, the school figurehead and, now, the most visible representative of an increasingly public-facing family. He believes he no longer has the luxury of acting his age.
“After Tyler passed, it’s kind of been like, ‘OK, now I’m an adult,'” Ryan said. “I’ve got to grow up kind of in a hurry.”
The Hilinski boys were always together, always in lock step. Wherever Kelly, 24, went, Tyler, 18 months his junior, would follow. And whenever his older brothers competed in something, Ryan tried to outdo them both. Their parents took to calling them “The Brothers,” not as a statement of fact but as a proper name for an indivisible unit. Before long, they referred to themselves that way, too.
So when Kelly quit baseball before his freshman year of high school to play quarterback full time, his brothers inevitably followed suit. Ryan was so young that he cannot recall the first time he put on a helmet, only that it was to help his brothers practice running over a defender.
For years, he toiled in their shadows, watching as Kelly left home to play football at Columbia — he would eventually transfer to Weber State — and later when Tyler set off for the Pac-12. Ryan vowed to climb higher and did so by trying to grow into an amalgamation of his brothers’ best qualities. On the field, he has Kelly’s cannon arm and Tyler’s moxie. Away from it, when he is at his best, he blends Kelly’s charisma with what everyone once saw as Tyler’s even keel.
“The perfect mix of all of us,” Kelly said.
Ryan was the one who tended to Kym when they got the news of Tyler’s death, staying with her as she hyperventilated and ultimately calling an ambulance to take her to a hospital. When Presley, Ryan’s coach, arrived to check on them, he found Ryan in the waiting room, “standing there like a brave warrior while everyone around is emotional.”
In the months since, he has learned to cook, taken on extra chores and begun to handle his own media requests. He grits his teeth and stays silent when people mock Tyler’s death on social media. He has dealt with worse in person, like the opposing player who insulted Tyler during a game, or the classmate who waved a flyer advertising a suicide awareness event in Ryan’s face and told him, “You should have told your brother to go to this.” Each time, Ryan walked away. Afterward, he would call Kelly to rage about their cruelty and his helplessness.
“He can’t defend his brother,” Kelly said. “I can’t stress how hard that is, how tough that is on an 18-year-old boy, to keep that all in.”
Football helps him cope, at a cost.
But he can only compartmentalize so much while playing the same position and while dedicating so much of himself to preserving his brother’s memory. Ryan admits he tried to bottle up his grief before the season because he did not want “to let it affect the team.” He and Kelly saw a therapist together in the spring but stopped going because “we didn’t like expressing it.”
Ryan instead finds solace in the early mornings, when he will wake up at 5:30 and drive to Newport Beach to run by the ocean. Afterward, he retreats to his car and sits alone in the parking lot, talking to Tyler as he watches the waves lap onto shore.
The rigors of this season sometimes overwhelmed him. He sobbed so hard after his first touchdown pass that Mark ran down from the stands to embrace him, holding Ryan tight so his son would not collapse. One month later, Orange Lutheran lost after missing what would have been a game-winning field goal. Ryan approached his parents on the sideline. “Tyler would have won that game,” he croaked, using an expletive, before breaking down again.
Play on, but somewhere else
Everything about football now is distressing for the Hilinski family and most likely always will be. They worry that Ryan could lose sight of where Tyler’s football dreams end and his own begin.
“It can’t just be for Tyler,” Kym said.
She spent the spring fretting about Ryan’s college decision, wondering whether she would be able to set foot in the same stadiums Tyler played in if Ryan stayed on the West Coast. She and Mark worried even more about whether they could bear sending him more than a short drive away.
Most of all, everyone worries whenever Ryan gets hit in a game, none more than when he was concussed in his final high school game. They wonder what those hits could mean now and what they could mean in the future.
“If anyone says they’re not, then they’re lying,” Kelly said. “Because every time I hear a smack or see him go down at all, I hold my breath just a little bit. My heart skips.”
When Ryan finally decided on a college, he made an unusual choice: He would play for the South Carolina Gamecocks, a middling Southeastern Conference team that had not signed a player out of California since 2015.
He said “a big factor” in his decision was to give everyone the hope of a new beginning an entire coast away from heartbreak. Kelly is relocating from Utah and intends to enroll in South Carolina’s medical school. Mark and Kym bought a home in Lake Murray, about 30 minutes from campus. They will settle in sometime this spring.
“It would be hard not to be together knowing that we weren’t in Pullman,” Mark said.
“And maybe that could have made some kind of difference,” Kym added, completing his sentence.
Ryan elected to graduate a semester early, so he will be in South Carolina in a matter of weeks. He adores the food — the fried chicken chain Bojangles’ is a particular favorite — and he is excited to join a new church.
He is also looking forward to going home to a new place on the weekends and doing his part to help the family build a new life. They are planning to adopt a dog and name it Sweet Tea. He has heard plenty about Southern hospitality and wonders how friendly the new neighbors will be.
“I feel like in movies in the South, they’ll come and knock on the door and give you pecan pie,” he said. “I think that’ll be cool.”
He is eager to be unpacked. He still carries so much with him.