Five months after Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide, his family revealed that an autopsy of the 21-year old’s brain found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease associated with football.
“Did football kill Tyler? I don’t think so,” Hilinski’s mother, Kym, said in the SI documentary. “Did he get CTE from football? Probably. Was that the only thing that attributed to his death? I don’t know.”
Hilinski was a promising quarterback for the Cougars and was barely two weeks removed from his junior season when police say he shot himself in the head Jan. 16. In search of answers, the family agreed to send his brain to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“We were in complete shock,” the quarterback’s father, Mark, said on “Today.” “We wanted to know everything we could and find out anything we could, of course.”
The diagnosis was Stage 1 CTE, the lowest level. The disease can only be diagnosed postmortem, so it’s relatively rare for researchers to identify it in someone so young. Evidence of CTE had previously been found in football players ages 17, 18, 20 and 21. The Hilinksi family said they were told that their son’s brain resembled that of a 65-year-old person.
“It was a shock to get those results and to find out that he had it and to realize that the sport he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis,” Kym said.
The SI story and documentary offer intimate portraits of a family’s search for answers as it processes unfathomable grief. The Hilinskis made clear that they don’t blame football, and in fact, Hilinski’s younger brother still plays the game. Ryan Hilinski will be a high school senior next season and has committed to play quarterback for South Carolina in 2019.
“I love this sport,” Ryan told SI. “This is not what hurt him. I’m going to do everything that Tyler wanted to do with football.”
The family knows it will have a complicated relationship with the sport. On one hand, they intend to be supportive of Ryan. On the other, they know the physical game likely contributed to their eldest son’s suicide.
“How in the world am I going to get through next year and then four more years and not worry every single time my son gets hit or taken down?” Kym said. “Ryan doesn’t need to see me cry or worry or be sick to my stomach. So I have to do what most moms do and just hide what I feel.”
According to Sports Illustrated and NBC, the family chose to go public to help raise awareness for mental health and wellness. They’ve created a nonprofit called the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation.
“What we’re trying to do for student-athletes is we’re trying to fund programs that support them and their mental health,” Kym told NBC. “They need it. There’s not enough out there for these beautiful athletes that give of themselves to their colleges, but their minds aren’t taken care of.”