Knowing about the Utah ties of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski and anticipating his future role in the Cougars’ program, I made sure to watch him throw the football as his team prepared to play at Rice-Eccles Stadium last November.
So the news of Hilinski’s death last week stunned me. My mind immediately turned to a critical issue: Who would become WSU’s starting QB next season?
That’s disturbing. And I know it.
My own reaction to learning of Hilinski’s suicide made me spend several days wondering how I ever could have become so calloused, so dismissive of a person’s life that all I could think about was who would replace him on the football field.
Wow. I should have responded so differently, because I’m well aware of mental health issues that have affected college athletes in Utah, including football players Tanner Mangum, Alex Whittingham and Matt Gay. They have told their stories in The Tribune in recent months in an effort to help others. I empathized with their struggles and promised to view athletes more humanly.
So why didn’t I feel more pain when Hilinski died?
I’ll give myself some credit for recognizing that I should have been hurting much more for his parents and two brothers, including a former Weber State quarterback and a California high school QB who holds scholarship offers from Utah and other schools. That degree of self-awareness is healthy, I guess. And there’s so much to be learned from Hilinski’s life, including the way it ended.
Help is available: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 1-800-273-8255.
I loved the tale The Spokesman-Review told in September, how Kelly Hilinski was working at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden the night when his younger brother replaced Logan’s Luke Falk vs. Boise State. Tyler Hilinski led the Cougars’ rally from 21 points down in the fourth quarter of a 47-44, triple-overtime victory. Between the arrivals of the emergency room patients he admitted, Kelly would hustle into an adjacent office and watch the streaming video of Tyler’s exploits.
Two months later, Falk was the star of WSU’s 33-25 win at Utah in a home-state appearance that highlighted his senior season, as Hilinski watched. Falk missed the Cougars’ Holiday Bowl loss to Michigan State, due to injury. Hilinski played fairly well in that defeat, three weeks before he died.
The vigil held on the WSU campus Friday involved no speeches, only hugs, tears and written tributes. Falk came from southern California, where he’s preparing for an NFL career. Lehi’s Cammon Cooper already is in Pullman after graduating early from high school, beginning a process he hopes will make him the Cougar QB someday.
While I worry about the proper balance between honoring a person yet not glorifying suicide, knowing how Hilinski died is important. Suicide has become a crisis in Utah. Gov. Gary Hebert’s newly formed task force has vital work to do.
This is serious stuff. Remember what Whittingham wrote last summer, prior to his senior season as a Ute special-teams player, regarding how depression once affected him: “There were times I would have rather been dead than to continue what I was feeling. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Or what BYU basketball player Nick Emery blogged last week: “The past couple of years I have suffered from deep depression and anxiety. It even got so bad that I was suicidal and wanted to give up on life.”
Those words are even more sobering, in the current context. Who knows what may have happened to those guys, if not for their seeking counseling.
I’m also mindful of former Stanford football player Justin Reid’s advice, in the wake of Hilinski’s death: “Student-athletes and athletes in general are more than just your entertainment. We’re people who go through anxiety, depression, and difficulties just like everybody else. Please remember that ...”
This tragedy, and all of the ways I’ve processed it, will have an impact on me. Writing these words has been healthy. I’ve arrived at a point, finally, where I don’t really care who is Washington State’s quarterback Sept. 29, when Utah visits Pullman, Wash. I can only hope you got there sooner than I did.