LOS ANGELES–One by one, the speakers climbed onto the dais and shared their memories of the departed.
The portrait of Tyler Hilinski that emerged at his funeral Saturday at Damien High in La Verne, California, was that of a caring and sensitive young man who drove his teammates on Washington State’s football team to counseling sessions and spoke to his high school-aged younger brother over the phone every day.
On the surface, it didn’t make any sense. These stories never make any sense.
Here was a 21-year-old who was about to become the starting quarterback for a major university. Good looking. Well liked. Loving family.
On the afternoon of Jan. 16, Hilinski was found dead in his apartment near the Washington State campus from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The local coroner’s office later ruled the death a suicide.
A police investigation has failed to uncover a motive.
Tyler’s aunt, Christine Hilinski, said to a gathering of approximately 1,000 mourners: “The only thing that makes sense to us is that Tyler was not well and hurting in ways we cannot fathom. If Tyler had a choice, it would have been to continue to embrace life and be with his family. He wasn’t able to make that choice. He never would have deliberately hurt us.”
So a family wonders and grieves.
Kelly and Ryan Hilinski lost a brother. Mark and Kym Hilinski lost a son.
The ceremony closed with a slide show accompanied by music. There were pictures of Tyler as a baby in his mother’s arms. Tyler as a baby sleeping on his father’s chest. Tyler as a baby next to Kelly, then a toddler. Tyler playing Little League. Tyler playing youth soccer. Tyler with his brothers on a family vacation. Tyler in high school. Tyler in college.
There was something haunting about how cheerful Tyler looked in the photographs.
“Tyler was one of those guys who would always come bouncing in the room and he’d make everybody laugh,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said on a conference call earlier in the week.
And that’s what’s scary. If this could happen to Mark and Kym Hilinski’s middle son, this could happen to anyone’s child.
As much as we care about our children, the minute details of their internal lives become mysteries to us as they age. And as much as we try to protect them, there are elements we can’t control.
“The Hilinskis, the parents, they did their best to provide the best environment for their sons to succeed,” said Father Charles Ramirez, a pastor from Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church who presided over the funeral.
Mark and Kym Hilinski were supportive parents who raised three star quarterbacks. Kelly played at Weber State. Ryan is a junior at Orange Lutheran High School and fielding scholarship offers from several major programs, including Washington State.
In Tyler, Mark and Kym also raised a model older brother, according to Ryan. As the youngest of three boys, Ryan said he always was sensitive to how his siblings perceived him.
“Tyler never failed to make me feel accepted,” Ryan said.
Whenever Ryan received a scholarship offer, Tyler was the first person he called. Whenever Ryan had problems, Tyler was the go-to guy.
Tyler would answer the phone and call Ryan by his nickname: “What’s up, Big Bo?”
“When I heard him say that, I felt like I was the most important person in the world,” Ryan said.
In Washington State, the Hilinskis found a capable caretaker for Tyler. Leach works very closely with his quarterbacks. The school’s athletic department provides extensive mental health services, including screenings for incoming freshmen.
Leach attended the service Saturday, as did the majority of his players. Quarterback Luke Falk skipped the Senior Bowl to be there.
Tyler enrolled early in college, skipping his last semester at Upland High to participate in Washington State’s spring practice. Ramirez relayed a story about a specific phone conversation Tyler had with his parents after his first week or two in Washington.
“I guess I’m homesick,” he said.
Tyler redshirted as a freshman and backed up Falk in the two years that followed. Mark and Kym nonetheless made it a point to take frequent trips to Pullman.
Kym was at Washington State on Sept. 9, when Tyler replaced Falk in the second half against Boise State. The Cougars trailed by as many as 21 in the fourth quarter, but Tyler forced the game into overtime. Washington State won in the third extra period.
If there were signs of trouble, they were subtle enough to be missed.
“He was, honestly, a very steady guy,” Leach said.
Tyler made arrangements for an afternoon throwing session on the morning of Jan. 16, according to Leach.
“I spent the last week trying to comprehend a situation that is truly incomprehensible,” Kelly said.
The Hilinskis are determined to find something positive in their tragedy, to help others who are in the same predicament as their son.
Ramirez implored the young people in the audience to ask for help if they have dark thoughts.
“Talking to Mrs. Hilinski, she said that she believes some good will come from Tyler’s death,” Ramirez said. “You hope so.”
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