PULLMAN – It’s easy to sense the fatigue and grief in Dr. Sunday Henry’s voice as Washington State’s director of athletic medicine talks about Tyler Hilinski near a chain link fence on the north side of Rogers Field, while nearby Cougar football players labor through drills on a sun-beaten afternoon in mid-August.
On Aug. 14, the Cougars are approximately two weeks through preseason camp in Pullman. The emotional toll of this football season will surely outweigh the physical one and if day No. 10 is even slightly easier than day No. 9 for this particular group of student-athletes, Henry can feel proud of what she’s accomplished – while realizing all the work that still needs to be done.
“I think the football team is doing really well, but that’s natural,” Henry said. “It’s definitely I think natural to be healing, moving forward. But there will always be fond memories of Tyler.”
It’s been more than 200 days since Hilinski, once the presumed starting quarterback for the 2018 Cougars, died by suicide in an off-campus incident. Seven months later, Henry assures, “I take care of things pertaining to Tyler every day.”
She’d want people to know there’s nothing black and white, or straightforward, about dealing with the suicide of a high-profile student-athlete. A handbook for this type of tragedy just doesn’t exist – and never will.
As Henry and others continue to promote a message of “help and hope” – and communicate the difference between “remembering” and “memorializing” – she can make this guarantee: “We’re really trying to walk that fine line and it’s not always easy, but we’re doing our very best.”
WSU’s next game, against San Jose State, would’ve been a significant one for Hilinski because it would’ve been his first start inside Martin Stadium. While the quarterback won’t be in uniform this weekend, Hilinski’s spirit will take center stage when the Cougars host the Spartans, and his memory will be strewn throughout the 35,000-seat venue in Pullman Saturday evening.
“One of our brothers isn’t here playing with us. We’re always going to remember Ty,” defensive back Hunter Dale said after last week’s season opener at Wyoming. “The season is dedicated to him.”
One won’t need to look too far Saturday night to realize how many lives he impacted.
Dale wore a red warm-up shirt with Hilinski’s No. 3 when the Cougars played in Laramie last weekend. This offseason, the senior added to the ink canvas on his right arm, tattooing the outline of Hilinski’s jersey number, along with the QB’s nickname, “Klink,” and a ribbon.
Black decals with the No. 3 will appear on WSU’s helmets throughout the year. Beneath the white tape on their wrists, most players are wearing blue and red rubber wristbands engraved with “Hilinski’s Hope” – the name of the nonprofit foundation the Hilinski family launched to raise funds for suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Those bracelets are being sold for $1 at various restaurants, bars and grocery stores throughout Pullman.
Some WSU players have Sharpied Hilinski’s number onto white sweat towels. Former Cougars receiver Kaleb Fossum, now playing at Nevada, caught six passes for 139 yards last weekend while debuting the No. 3 jersey he traded for this offseason. Hilinski’s locker at WSU has been preserved by the team and a blue flag with the “Hilinski’s Hope” logo will sprout from the west end zone of Martin Stadium this season.
Hilinski’s parents, Kym and Mark, will hoist the Cougar flag in the east end zone prior to Saturday’s game – a moment that’s sure to move the crowd of 30,000 more than any touchdown pass, interception or tackle.
Inevitably, Hilinski’s legacy won’t drift away soon. But for every mention of his name, WSU hopes there’s an equally concerted effort to raise awareness for the thing that took his life.
“We have worked tirelessly and hours upon hours trying to make sure we are creating an environment here that’s healthy from a mental health standpoint, that promotes that strength is coming forward, getting help and erasing any stigma if that’s there, promoting a message of hope and help, which is what the experts recommend,” Henry said. “We are moving forward, not moving on. And that’s natural to heal.”
A statistic highlighted in the wake of Hilinski’s tragedy was that suicide is the second-leading cause death for those between the ages of 18 and 25. Henry said it’s the second-leading cause of death for those between 10 and 25, citing a study from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
CDC numbers suggest suicide is the 10th-most prevalent cause of death in the United States. The most recent data collected indicates a 1.2 percent spike in suicides between 2016 and ’17. A total of 44,965 people died by suicide in 2016.
In the aftermath of Hilinski’s death, Henry and a wide-ranging team of athletic trainers, mental health counselors, primary care physicians and psychologists have taken care to address the contagion aspect of suicide.
Understanding it could rub some the wrong way, WSU has avoided “memorializing” Hilinski in fear that even one other student-athlete – or nonathlete – could view suicide as a suitable choice because of the attention he or she might receive.
“We don’t want to create a memorial because that could create an environment where a student-athlete might think that it’s a viable option for them,” Henry said. “And then if you talk about suicide too much in the media, or there’s a cluster of deaths, then a thing called social norming occurs where then that seems like a viable option.”
WSU’s strategy is supported by the JED Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in New York that focuses primarily on teen and young adult prevention and mental health. The JED Campus Program is a subsidiary of the JED Foundation that collaborates with individual colleges to put a lens on what type of mental health services are offered at schools. The program also looks at postvention and how schools are equipped to handle the trauma and aftereffects of a tragedy.
Prior to Hilinski’s death, WSU was one of approximately 240 schools nationwide partnering with the foundation’s campus initiative. Henry and other WSU officials reached out to the organization seeking specific guidance on how to handle their own tragedy.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer for the JED Foundation, worked closely with the NFL when famed linebacker Junior Seau and a string of other pro football players took their lives. He’s also teamed with the NBA as it begins to push its initiatives related to mental health. Schwartz and his team have also caught the attention of the federal government, which has unofficially endorsed the JED Foundation’s approach as it relates to the handling of college suicides.
Schwartz worked individually with WSU after Hilinski’s death, covering the elements of postvention while ensuring the school was taking proper measures to provide clinical support for student-athletes and staff members.
And memorializing in a safe manner …
“It may be one of the most challenging balancing acts,” he said.
“We are committed to making something positive, to creating a positive out of something very sad,” Henry said. “And I think those positive things are that a good mental health culture where a person feels very comfortable taking care of their mental health just like their physical health.”
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