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‘All we want is him back.’ Pioneers of college football’s mental health movement, Mark & Kym Hilinski continue to share son’s story

Four days after Tyler Hilinski died by suicide, former Washington State wide receiver CJ Dimry approached the quarterback’s father, Mark, at a funeral service in Southern California.

Dimry, Hilinski’s former teammate and roommate, began by telling Mark he didn’t own a car during his time in Pullman. Somewhat puzzled by the remark, Mark Hilinski responded, “Yes, CJ, I know.”

The story would come full-circle eventually, but over the next few minutes Dimry explained that his mother died from cancer when he was 5 years old – something the Hilinskis already knew. The part they weren’t aware of: For nearly 15 years, Dimry had sought out counseling to help him cope with the loss.

Dimry’s visits ranged from weekly to monthly to annually, but he had regular counseling during his three-year stay in Pullman. Almost without exception, Hilinski was the one who’d drive his friend to the appointments. Hilinski would normally pass the time by finding dinner and waiting in his car. When Dimry finished, it wasn’t unusual for the WSU teammates to recap the counseling session on the way home.

More than four years removed from their son’s suicide , it’s one of the painful questions that still lingers for Mark and Kym Hilinski, who understand they may never get the answers they’re seeking.

“He’s 20 feet from a door,” Mark said. “Why didn’t he ask for help?”

With Dimry’s blessing, it’s a story the Hilinskis have shared hundreds of times speaking to football players and student-athletes around the country while representing their nonprofit foundation, Hilinski’s Hope. The foundation was launched not long after Tyler’s death with a mission of educating and advocating for mental health and wellness, while working to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.

Mark and Kym have made this their life’s work. From their standpoint, they had no choice.

For more than three years, they have delivered “Tyler Talks” to various groups. They traveled to the Inland Northwest for a visit with Whitworth’s football and women’s volleyball players Wednesday afternoon. Roughly 80 miles from where their son played college football at Washington State, the Hilinskis still express an affinity for the region, even if it does bring some complicated emotions.

“I feel like we’re home,” Mark told a crowd of roughly 200 at Whitworth’s Weyerhaeuser Hall. “We loved it here.”

Mark and Kym were in Reno, Nevada, on Tuesday speaking with Nevada’s football team – now coached by Ken Wilson, the former WSU assistant once responsible for recruiting Tyler to Pullman. They flew from Reno to Spokane the same evening, met with Whitworth athletes from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Wednesday and caught a 5 p.m. flight ahead of Thursday’s “Tyler Talk” with a group of high school athletes in Portland.

The Hilinskis plan to visit 17 states over the coming months, including a trip to Hawaii. Later this month, they’ll wedge in a flight to Ireland to watch their youngest son, Ryan, a junior quarterback at Northwestern, play against Nebraska in the “Aer Lingus College Football Classic.” Ryan, Northwestern’s presumptive starter this season, is still wearing his brother’s No. 3.

“We jump on planes, we sleep a bit and we do it all over again,” Kym Hilinski said. “… I think there’s a need and I think these coaches and these universities are realizing it. Maybe it’s Tyler’s story, too. We always say, if it can happen to Tyler …”

The Hilinskis uprooted their lives to spread Tyler’s story, raise funds for mental health awareness and bring light to issues that are often untouched, particularly when it comes to male college athletes. The family sold its Southern California home and two vehicles, and Mark stepped away from his job in retail technology so he and Kym could focus on Hilinski’s Hope.

“Retail technology is a lucrative business, telling this sad story is not,” Mark said. “It’s not meant to be, that’s not the purpose. So I did start a new company this year to help on that side. But to the bigger point, we weren’t planning for this growth and we’re sort of caught flat-footed with the amount of requests.”

Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg was connected to the Hilinskis through Ian Furness, a KJR Radio host, FOX 13 sports anchor and WSU alum whose son, Kiefer, plays on the Pirates’ offensive line. In 2019, Furness hosted a golf tournament in Maple Valley, Washington, that raised money for Hilinski’s Hope.

“I said, ‘I don’t have any money,’ ” Sandberg said. “They do this to raise money to make a difference. I said, ‘You choose the date, I’ll make the time.’

“I can talk about it all I want. They experienced it. The courage they have to stand up there and share is unbelievable. You can just tell, they had all our players’ attention and able to say go get help in a way I can’t do.”

Although many are still reluctant to engage in mental health conversations, the Hilinskis receive constant affirmation that they’re making an impact on young lives.

“Someone comes up and whispers in my ear, ‘You just saved my life,’ ” Kym said. “That is so humbling and it just floors you and honestly it happens after every ‘Tyler Talk.’ Every talk I would say, ‘You changed my life’ or ‘You saved my life.’ ”

Solo Hines, a junior running back at Whitworth, admitted he’s confronted suicidal thoughts and battled depression in the past. Wednesday’s “Tyler Talk” hit close to home for the Kent, Washington, native, serving as a reminder that resources are always available to those struggling.

“It really felt welcoming, it felt like home to me to hear that,” Hines said. “I didn’t really know this at the time, or at the time I was going through my depression and suicidal (thoughts), but it’s good to know there’s people that love me for me, that will help me and care about me as well.”

Kym Hilinski acknowledged the pressure facing student-athletes in 2022. As a projected Pac-12 starting quarterback in the midst of the social media era, Tyler encountered his share of those pressures at WSU, but Kym believes the transfer portal, as well as new name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities, have added to the strain of being a modern-day college athlete.

“So much pressure and stress that I don’t think they realize how much pressure and stress they’re under,” she said.

“Or they do and they’re athletes and they suck it up,” Mark said.

Through in-person and virtual visits with more than 150 universities, the Hilinskis have seen an evolution in the way college athletic leaders – particularly head football coaches – approach mental health issues. Some of the earliest “Tyler Talks” were athlete-only affairs, but Mark and Kym notice coaches in the audience more often. It’s not uncommon for them to hold exclusive meetings with coaching staffs that are eager to learn what they can do for their players.

“We had somebody that needed attention during the middle of a talk, head football coach on the West Coast stopped the thing, they all loved on this kid, the players got around him,” Mark said. “If you could bottle that, it would snap the stigma in college football.”

“If your coach knows and believes you have to take care of your mental health,” Kym said, “then I think the student-athletes say, ‘I do, I have to.’ ”

Whitworth defensive back and junior captain Colten Chelin agreed conversations surrounding mental health and mental wellness have become more prevalent since he joined the football team in 2018.

“They’re always going to tell you, ‘Oh be tough, you’re fine, put some dirt on it,’ and you can’t do that with mental health,” he said. “So the stigma is slowly going away, but this was a great reminder of it.”

Even with all the work they’ve done, Mark and Kym Hilinski know their job is nowhere near finished. In 2020, they earned a Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award from ESPN during ESPYs week. They’ve made multiple appearances on NBC’s “Today” show to share Tyler’s story. They recently made an list naming “The 11 biggest power brokers and advocates shaping the future of college football.” Others on the list included SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Jackson State coach Deion Jackson.

Recognizing the website probably considered them “advocates” more so than “power brokers,” Mark still couldn’t resist the joke: “Kym Hilinski and Greg Sankey, the power brokers of college football.”

Through Hilinski’s Hope, the couple launched “Game Plan,” an six-part online mental health course that can be purchased for $6. Their “Unit3d” podcast, sponsored by Hilinski’s Hope and hosted by sports psychologists and mental health professionals, just completed its 150th episode. This year alone, they’re scheduled to deliver more than 100 “Tyler Talks” – a stark increase from the 18 they gave in the first year.

“We don’t have answers. We’re not telling people, ‘Go drink this water and everything will be fine,’ ” Mark said. “It’s just, if you give them enough of a story that hurts, it tends to just resonate a little bit. … There’s no amount of work we can do where it fixes it.”

Near the end of an interview Wednesday, Mark Hilinski pulled out his phone to make sure he and his wife were still on track to catch a flight to Portland. With a photo of Tyler in place as his wallpaper, Mark couldn’t help but grin upon noticing the time: 3:33 p.m. Tyler, as noted, wore No. 3.

“All we want is him back,” Kym said. “We’d give everything to have Tyler back.”