PULLMAN – Like many of the other decisions they’ve made since their son took his life 22 months ago, Mark and Kym Hilinski wrestled with this one.
Kym wrestled some, Mark even more.
A few weeks ago, Washington State Football Chief of Staff Dave Emerick reached out via text message, informing Mark and Kym that the team was planning to include Tyler Hilinski during its Senior Day celebrations, along with 13 other members of the Cougars’ senior class – many of whom the late quarterback came to Pullman with, and grew close to, before he committed suicide in an off-campus apartment in January 2018.
The other part of the text message? An invitation. Would Mark and Kym care to attend?
The couple had conversation after conversation, weighing the heartache and emotion of a return to Pullman against the chance to celebrate their son at Martin Stadium – an opportunity they knew they probably wouldn’t have again.
“Kym wanted to go, too, but I wasn’t sure,” Mark said.
Originally, Kym planned to attend but only with her sister Christine, who has helped run Hilinski’s Hope, the nonprofit foundation launched by the family to raise awareness for sucide prevention and eradicate the stigma attached to mental health.
“I have to go, I have to be there,” Kym said. “That’s my baby. If they’re going to say Tyler’s name, I have to be there. And (Mark) said, ‘All right, you can take your sister with you. If someone is going to say my son’s name and honor my son, I have to be there for that.’
“I love that boy just as much now as much as I loved him when he was walking right here next to me, and seeing me in this hotel and watching him on the field.”
Nearly a week later, Mark changed course.
For all the events the Hilinskis put on, all the energy they invest into a nonprofit organization that has done impressive work, “We don’t get a lot of things to do for Tyler,” Mark said.
“We do things on behalf of (Tyler), so Hilinski’s Hope, and we go out and we talk to as many schools as we can and do all that, and we think that’s helping,” he added. “But there’s not a lot of Tyler stuff left. His birthday, which is hard, but it’s his. … So this was a specific Tyler thing, it wasn’t just another game, it wasn’t another homecoming or whatever. It was his class, and I think that was sort of the tipping point. But it’s hard because it’s the last of something, too, and we’ve been through a lot of lasts already.”
The Hilinskis, who often split trips to Pullman so one parent could stay home to watch Ryan’s high school games in Southern California, flew into Spokane on Saturday afternoon and made an ever-familiar drive down U.S. Highway 195.
“The thing that sucks is that drive was actually the most fun thing,” Mark said. “I think on those first couple trips, it burns in your brain, the Coug signs and the “Go Cougs” on the farms on the way out here, and over the Palouse and stuff. To see those again, it’s cool of course, it’s great, you’re excited for the kids. But it’s bittersweet, because it’s hard to love so much.”
Hours before they joined the families of 13 other seniors on the field at Martin Stadium, Mark and Kym sat in the lobby of a Marriott Courtyard in Pullman and tried to envision how things would unfold when their son’s name was announced.
“I think the toughest thing is he’s not going to be running out on the field of course, so it’s hard to replace that with anything,” Mark said. “Cheers or video or whatever they end up doing is great, but without him it’s sort of different.”
“It’s going to be extremely emotional,” Kym said. “I hope it goes fast, and I hope it goes slow. I want to savor it, and I just want to talk off the field and go back to my other two sons.”
The moment was heavy, but it was over quickly.
Hilinski’s name was the first announced during pregame processions. While cameras crowded the quarterback’s parents, Mark and Kym were presented with a bouquet of flowers and their son’s framed No. 3 jersey.
Fans scattered throughout Martin Stadium held three fingers in the air – something that has become a custom in the SEC whenever Ryan Hilinski and South Carolina play on the road – and WSU head coach Mike Leach embraced Mark and Kym as Glenn Johnson announced their son’s name over the PA system to the 20,000-plus in attendance.
Former WSU linebacker Peyton Pelluer also joined the Hilinskis on the field.
“The promise is to never let Tyler die twice,” Kym said. “… They say you decide twice, once when you take your last breath, and then once when someone says your name for the last time, and (older brother) Kelly promises he’ll never let his brother die twice.
“We decided we will continue to honor Tyler any way we can.”
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