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Grip on Sports: CTE and the death of a young athlete

In this Sept. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington State Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) is mobbed by teammates after WSU defeated Boise State in triple overtime on at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
In this Sept. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington State Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) is mobbed by teammates after WSU defeated Boise State in triple overtime on at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Yesterday was another tough day for fans of Washington State football. Heck, for all of us, really. Once again we are trying to answer a question that has deep import: How the heck do we get our arms around the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? Read on.

••••••••••

• The term CTE hasn’t been around all that long. But over the past decade we have become more aware of the brain disease and how it eats away at the mental health of its sufferers.

As research has been done and we’ve come to learn more about how continual trauma affects the progression of the disease, its changed the way football is practiced and played. But it hasn’t changed the bottom line: CTE is real and it is a curse for many former – and current – athletes.

The disease struck again yesterday, in the form of a well-planned and well-intentioned media blitz orchestrated by Tyler Hilinski’s parents.

As all of you know, Tyler committed suicide in Pullman on Jan. 16. Since then, Tyler’s parents, Mark and Kym Hilinski, have devoted themselves to ensuring what happened to their child doesn’t happen to anyone else’s. They have started a foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, to raise money for programs that will, according to its website, “help destigmatize mental illness.” 

Yesterday, they were on NBC’s Today Show. They revealed there – and in a Sports Illustrated article that also was released yesterday – Tyler suffered from CTE. An autopsy performed by the Mayo Clinic revealed the disease. That's the only way, to date, we can be sure if one is suffering from CTE.

It is heartbreaking to watch the Hilinskis recount that terrible day and its aftermath. It is devastating to read about Tyler’s final hours. It is terrifying to wonder if anyone you know is suffering from a disease that is undetectable in the way we’ve come to expect from doctors and caregivers.

Heck, many of us have probably looked back at our own lives and wondered if we are susceptible. I know I have. In the past few years I’ve thought about the four concussions suffered before I turned 21 – the four that I can remember – and wonder if they make me a candidate for the disease. 

But with knowledge comes power. That’s what the Hilinskis are trying to support. They have raised awareness of mental health problems among young athletes. They are helping to move the conversation forward on CTE. They are turning a tragedy into, well, what happened with Tyler is still a tragedy, but if it doesn’t happen to one other person due to their efforts, then there is at least some good coming from it.

And they are educating. We have a story in today’s S-R from reporter Rachel Alexander that delves into the science behind CTE and young athletes. It contains some information I didn’t know, information we all should know.

It wouldn’t have been available today if not for the Hilinskis’ efforts. 

No matter the problem, it is always better to shine a light on it. Mark and Kym Hilinski are trying to do just that.

• So where do we go from here? If a player like Tyler Hilinski, who didn’t play one of the positions in football that involves consistent and repeated blows, can develop the disease, is anyone safe?

No one knows for sure. More research is needed. There may be many more reasons CTE occurs than just concussions or repeated blows or genetics. It may be sports such as football or soccer or others may have to evolve even more. It also may be they have already made the needed changes. We don’t know. 

Like any disease, scientists and researchers attack, trying to decode its essence and then figure out how to combat it. That takes support, financial and otherwise. It also takes awareness and understanding.

CTE doesn’t cause its victims to grow extra limbs or anything. It’s not that easy to spot. 

It manifests itself through changes in behavior. That’s where we all come in. Instead of shying away from identifying such changes and trying to ignore them, it’s about being a conduit for help. The changes may not be a manifestation of CTE. But they also may signal something else that can be helped. 

“We need to erase the stigma,” Kym Hilinski said on the Today Show. “What we’re trying to do for our student-athletes is fund programs for their mental health. They need it. 

“There’s not enough out there for these beautiful athletes that are so giving of themselves to colleges, but their minds aren’t taken care of.”

•••

WSU: There is a lot of coverage for the Hilinski news, which is a good thing. Not only do we have Rachel’s story to pass along, there is another from Tom Clouse. And there is a series of photographs. … There is also coverage in the Seattle Times and elsewhere. … Former Cougar wide receiver Rahmel Dockery is in the spotlight again. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, Oregon State had a few calls go against it and they helped Arkansas post a 4-1 victory in the first game of the best-of-three College World Series title series. … Utah will be special next football season when it comes specialists. … Oregon State picked up a big BYU basketball transfer.

EWU: Larry Weir is back with another Press Box pod, this one with Bogdan Bliznyuk. 

Chiefs: Just like yesterday, we have news another Spokane player will be in an NHL camp.

Indians: The Mariners’ Northwest League team, the Everett AquaSox, is in town for a three-game series. The Indians rallied late to take the first game, 7-5. Dave Nichols was at Avista and has this game story. Dan Pelle was also there and has a photo report. … Around the Northwest League, Eugene lost again.

Hoopfest: The defending 6-foot-and-under champions are back. Well, sort of. Ryan Collingwood has a story on Charlie’s Gold.

Mariners: Kyle Seager is struggling this season. But the third baseman drove in all three of the M’s runs yesterday, James Paxton made them stand up and Seattle defeated Baltimore, 3-2. … If Edwin Diaz earns 50 saves, Scott Servais is cutting his hair. … The Mariners’ success is garnering attention from all over the country. … Is there more the M’s should do to ensure a postseason berth and wins afterward?

•••        

• Four times? Let’s see. In high school I got run over at the plate twice and knocked loopy – once I was actually out cold for a while. Another time I had a ball hit me in the head and break my skull – it’s still cracked, which explains a lot. And there was the time in college I was hit by a pitch and knocked unconscious. By the way, only the broken skull knocked me out of the game. Times have changed. Until later … 


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