‘I refuse to let Tyler die twice': A man in Utah keeps his promise to his brother, who would’ve been the quarterback facing the Utes this week

Tyler Hilinski was Washington State’s presumed quarterback of 2018, before he died by suicide.

(Photo courtesy of Hilinski family). Tyler (left) and Kelly Hilinski

Ogden • Kelly Hilinski will spend Saturday night in the emergency room, admitting patients who come to McKay-Dee Hospital needing his help. That’s where he was working last September, when he kept sneaking into an office to glance at a computer screen showing Washington State’s football game.

In between patients that evening, he watched his brother Tyler come off the bench and lead WSU’s fourth-quarter comeback in an eventual triple-overtime victory against Boise State. Hilinski never will forget that moment, or the brother who made it happen.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2016 file photo, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) runs onto the field with his teammates before an NCAA college football game against Idaho in Pullman, Wash. Hilinski has died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 21-year-old Hilinski was discovered in his apartment after he didn’t show up for practice Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, File)

This story was supposed to be about Hilinski, a former Weber State quarterback and aspiring doctor, spending another similarly distracted shift Saturday. That's when Utah would play in Pullman, Wash., with his brother as the Cougars' QB. The script changed in January, when one life ended and others were permanently altered.

Tyler Hilinski died by suicide, leaving a family and a football team searching for answers and wondering what to do next. The Cougars found a graduate transfer to replace Hilinski, the presumed 2018 starter as the successor to Logan’s Luke Falk. Tyler’s family created a foundation to raise awareness of suicide and to make sure he is remembered as they move forward in a process that Kym Hilinski, Tyler’s mother, describes not as day to day, but hour to hour.

Near the end of a conversation this week on the Weber State campus, where he will graduate in May with a degree in microbiology, Kelly Hilinski asked to make one point clear. “We’re not doing this to get a pity card or get sympathy,” he said. “We don’t need that. We’ve got our family for that.”

And then he said, “We're going to change the way the world works.”

To the Hilinskis, that means talking about Tyler, not being afraid to say the word “suicide” in hopes of removing the stigma around mental illness and to make sure other victims are remembered for how they lived.

Born 18 months after his brother, Tyler became Kelly’s best friend. That phrase only begins to describe their bond. “We did everything together, literally everything,” Kelly Hilinski said.

Hilinski intends to name his first son after his brother. So it could be said that he’s looking for the mother of the next Tyler, amid his packed schedule of working graveyard shifts at the hospital and preparing for medical school. This shows how close they were: Hilinski ended his relationship with a woman after asking himself if he loved her as much as he loved Tyler.

At this point during an otherwise upbeat discussion, Hilinski paused. He shook his head and said, “It's just a shame.”

Interesting choice of words. Shame is exactly what the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation is trying to take out of the study of suicide, treating it like cancer or any other illness. “Tyler got sick,” Kym Hilinski said from Southern California. “We didn’t see it. Nobody saw it.”

Mark and Kym Hilinski pose for a picture at their home Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in Irvine, Calif. The parents of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who killed himself in Pullman, Wash., in January, have become advocates for greater awareness of mental health issues among student-athletes and are channeling their energy into Hilinski's Hope, a foundation created to bring resources to bear on the issues. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

This is a case of skipping ahead in Kelly Hilinski's story, considering everything involved in becoming a physician, but his brother's death changed his direction in medicine. His original plan was to become a cardiac surgeon, motivated by his father, Mark, having undergone open-heart surgery. Not surprisingly, he now hopes to study neurology, after the family learned that Tyler was affected by the degenerative brain condition CTE.

“No offense to my dad,” Kelly Hilinski said, smiling, “but Ty's my guy.”

Tyler's condition presumably stemmed from hits he absorbed in football, yet the family's view of the sport is not affected. Ryan Hilinski, the youngest child and a star quarterback at Orange Lutheran, plans to enroll at South Carolina in January. Kelly will join his brother in Columbia, S.C., next summer, while studying for the medical school entrance exam.

Hilinski’s own quarterbacking career ended early. After starting four games as a Columbia University freshman during an 0-10 season in 2013, he gave up an Ivy League education to pursue a better college football experience. He transferred to Riverside (Calif.) Community College and then signed with Weber State, where he redshirted in 2015 and would have competed for the Wildcats' starting job the next season. But he severely damaged his throwing shoulder in a 3-on-3, tug-of-war exercise in winter conditioning. Advised of a strong possibility of re-injury, he stopped playing football and devoted himself to academic work.

After Tyler's death, Kelly took a leave of absence from the hospital and left school for a semester, going home to California in a move his mother forever will appreciate. “He really took care of us,” she said. “We sort of took care of each other.”

Kelly Hilinski has gone to Pullman four times since his brother's death. Those visits are difficult, yet rewarding. “Every time,” he said, “I get to hear another story.”

The Cougars wear No. 3 decals on their helmets and have maintained Tyler's locker. The family was disappointed this month, however, after attending WSU's home opener vs. Eastern Washington. The school painted suicide prevention ribbons on the Martin Stadium field, but didn't show a highlight video or say Tyler's name, apparently out of concern for celebrating a suicide.

That's wrong, the Hilinskis believe. They're driven to deter suicide; they're equally determined to make sure suicide victims are not forgotten. This explains two of several rubber wristbands Kelly Hilinski wears on each arm, one for his brother and another from a mother who asked him to remember her son.

Long before his brother died, Hilinski's Twitter account featured this quote: “They say you die twice, one time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

During the funeral in January, the older brother repeated those words and concluded, “I refuse to let Tyler die a second time.”

That won’t happen, as long as Kelly Hilinski lives. Or even longer.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources: 1-800-273-8255.


Tyler Hilinski’s 2017 statistics at Washington State sophomore quarterback, playing behind Logan’s Luke Falk: 

Montana State • 7 of 9, 50 yards.

Boise State • 25 of 33, 240 yards, three TDs, one interception.

Oregon State • 5 of 9, 35 yards.

Nevada • 2 of 3, 27 yards, one interception.

California •  4 of 5, 28 yards.

Colorado • 3 of 9, 15 yards.

Arizona • 45 of 61, 509 yards, two TDs, four interceptions.

Michigan State • 39 of 50, 272 yards, two TDs, one interception.

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