PULLMAN – Arm in arm, Washington State football players crowded around the iconic bronze Cougar statue that transformed into a makeshift memorial earlier this week and formed a huddle. Football teams huddle all the time. This is one the Cougars never expected to have.
Dozens of Tyler Hilinski’s teammates – some current and some past – reconvened in Pullman Friday night to mourn and remember the Washington State quarterback who took his own life Tuesday at the young age of 21. Some of them walked to the candlelight vigil from their nearby campus dormitories, while others flew to the Palouse from different parts of the country to pay their respects to someone who touched an entire football team with his radiant smile, charm and charisma.
But Cougar players made up only a small portion of the crowd attending the vigil on a chilly, breezy, somber night in Pullman. An event that had only been announced some 24 hours earlier by ASWSU President Jordan Frost and his team attracted more than 1,000 people – and most stayed for nearly an hour, many of them sobbing, leaning on the person beside them and embracing one another to mourn the death of WSU’s young quarterback.
“To see that reaction in such a quick time and all the departments that came together,” Frost said. “You see athletics is here. Counseling and psychological services. Everyone came together to put this on, on such short notice.”
There were powerful moments throughout the evening, but none was more moving than when a group of Washington State players guided Hilinski’s mother, Kym, father, Mark, and older brother, Kelly, through a mass of people to the statue that students and community members have turned into a shrine this week, laying down flowers, candles, signed footballs, beer cans, personalized notes and other Cougar memorabilia.
Hilinski’s parents, who arrived on Wednesday from their home in Irvine, California, circled the memorial and crouched to the ground to read the hand-written notes penned to their son. Kym placed a rubber bracelet at the foot of the statue. She wore her son’s crimson letterman jacket and Kelly, who came to Pullman from Ogden, Utah, was adorned in his brother’s grey No. 3 football sweatshirt.
“I love you, kid,” Kelly said, pointing toward the sky as he walked away from the statue.
Many of Tyler Hilinski’s teammates wore red T-shirts, custom-made with his No. 3, and special white Nike hats with the number stitched in red. The video screen outside of WSU’s Beasley Coliseum flashed a message, “RIP 3,” throughout the day. At one point during the vigil, crowd members lifted their arms in unison and raised three fingers.
“The way they described him was a very humble person,” said Frost, who didn’t know Hilinski personally. “College sports are huge and being the guy, that’s hard. But they said he never let that off. … The people who knew him closely and loved him deeply, and that just tells you a lot about him.”
Kym Hilinski and Mike Leach traded a long hug later in the evening, and the WSU coach wrapped his arms around each player who came up to him and finally shared an extended moment with the Cougars’ four-year starting QB, Luke Falk, who wept throughout the evening and often covered his eyes with the bill of his “No. 3” cap.
Leach, who had been at his residence in Key West, Florida, arrived in Pullman on Thursday night despite travel delays in Atlanta. The sixth-year coach, who recruited Hilinski out of Claremont, California, held a candle and choked up as he held Kym Hilinski.
Falk, offensive lineman Cole Madison – who’s currently training for the NFL in Florida – and cornerback Marcellus Pippins, who’s doing the same in the Seattle area, were among the WSU players who traveled to be in Pullman Friday night. Wide receiver C.J. Dimry and nickel Kirkland Parker, both former roommates of Hilinski, also attended.
River Cracraft, the former WSU receiver who now plays for the NFL’s Denver Broncos, made the trip to Pullman with brother Skyler, also an ex-Cougar, and mother Tracy. Linebacker Isaac Dotson, now living in Seattle, traveled across the mountains to attend, as did former WSU QB Peyton Bender, who’s now a junior on the University of Kansas football team.
Bender signed a large poster with Hilinski’s photo, “Klink (Hilinski’s nickname), Never forget the memories we made and times shared together! Love you brotha.”
Cracraft also wrote a personalized message: “Klink, I love you brother. You’re safe now. Rest in peace #3.”
WSU President Kirk Schulz and wife Noel left a note for the Hilinski family: “You will continue to be in our thoughts and prayers forever part of the Coug Family. Tyler will be missed. #3.”
More than a thousand candles were distributed to the crowd, although an exact attendance figure wasn’t determined. In addition to the poster, people also had an opportunity to sign personalized cards that will be donated to the Hilinski family.
“I wanted to bring them here together and have the opportunity to come feel together,” Frost said. “So I haven’t been able to process it myself, how I feel about it, but seeing everyone come tonight and having that chance to be together is what is so special for me. So my heart is satisfied to see the support that we have here.”
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