Tyler Hilinksi, the former Washington State quarterback who took his own life on Jan. 16, was suffering from the lowest level of CTE. A profile by Greg Bishop in Sports Illustrated reveals the struggles Hilinski’s family has been going through since the tragic event, including the difficult choice to send Tyler’s brain to the Mayo Clinic for testing — and coping with the diagnosis.
Then the test results came back. That changed everything again. First, the Whitney County medical examiner called to say that Tyler’s toxicology report showed no trace of drugs or alcohol. (“That actually made it worse,” Mark says.) The Mayo Clinic’s findings arrived next. Kym read the first sentence—“After reviewing the tissue we can confirm that he had the pathology of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)”—and started to reconsider her entire search. The diagnosis was Stage I, the lowest level. But still, Tyler had been just 21, he hadn’t played that much in college and for most of his life he manned the most protected of positions. If he had CTE, anyone could. She read that depression was one symptom for Stage 1 and a doctor told her Tyler’s brain looked “like that of a much older, elderly man.”
She didn’t want to blame football—to be clear: she does not blame football—and yet the diagnosis also gave her family its clearest and, in some ways, only known factor in his death. “It helped us to know,” Kelly says, “that a) there was something wrong and b) that he was hurting and we couldn’t understand it. It was, O.K., we have a legitimate why. That’s enough of that.”
Hilinski saw limited action over three years at Washington State, playing in 11 games. He never missed any time with a concussion or head-related injury. He was only 21. Bishop writes beautifully and compassionately on a difficult topic, and a complicated one. Consider that Tyler’s younger brother, Ryan, intends to play quarterback at South Carolina.
The Hilinskis are now unfortunate parties to the CTE conversation, but their experience is unique and multi-layered. Both sons loved football. It may have cost one his life, in some way. Yet the other is continuing on a similar path. A macro issue is turned micro and sadly not entirely unique.