Indiana Daily Student

Hilinski’s Hope: Parents of late college quarterback turn darkest day into force for good

<p>Mark Hilinski speaks Sept. 7, 2022, in Henke Hall at Memorial Stadium, sharing the story of losing his son Tyler to suicide. Mark and his wife Kym founded the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation in March 2018.</p>

Mark Hilinski speaks Sept. 7, 2022, in Henke Hall at Memorial Stadium, sharing the story of losing his son Tyler to suicide. Mark and his wife Kym founded the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation in March 2018.

Editor’s Note: This story includes mention of suicide. If you are struggling with suicide or your mental health, you are not alone. Resources are available here.

Every morning before she opens her eyes, Kym Hilinski reminds herself that her son is gone. 

It’s been nearly five years since her second child, Tyler, died by suicide Jan. 16, 2018. For Kym and her husband Mark, it feels like yesterday.  

Standing before a group of over 100 student-athletes in the Henke Hall of Champions in IU Memorial Stadium on Sept. 7, Mark and Kym prepare to relive their darkest day. They’ve given dozens of “Tyler Talks” on college campuses across America, sharing Tyler’s story and encouraging student-athletes to prioritize their mental health.  

When Kym looks out at the rows of young people in attendance, she sees her son. There could be any number of Tylers in that crowd.  

She doesn’t want to lose another one. 

________________________ 

In September 2017, Tyler was a redshirt sophomore quarterback at Washington State University. He had appeared in five games during his career in Pullman, Washington, typically after the Cougars had an insurmountable lead.  

But when Tyler took the field the night of Sept. 9, his team was facing a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter against Boise State University. Then-Washington State senior quarterback Luke Falk had exited the game with an injury, leaving Tyler with just under 11 minutes to orchestrate a 21-point comeback. 

Three overtimes, 204 passing yards and three touchdowns later, Tyler was sitting on a teammate’s shoulders, beaming at a stampede of crimson and gray.  

In a press conference following the 47-44 victory, Tyler deflected praise to his teammates.  

Seated on the shoulders of his teammate, Tyler Hilinski beams at the crowd around him while celebrating a win. “He just had a habit of taking that light and reflecting it back on his friends,” his father, Mark Hilinski, said. Courtesy Photo

“I mean, shoot, I was just playing football out there surrounded by a great group of guys,” he said. “They told me they had faith in me, and I was just ready to do my job.” 

That was Tyler. 

“He just had a habit of taking that light and reflecting it back on his friends,” Mark said.  

Mark and Kym never suspected the young man who brought so much light to others’ lives felt so little in his own. Four months after Tyler’s classmates swarmed the field with cell phones held aloft to celebrate his victory, they returned to Martin Stadium, clutching candles to mourn his loss.  

The vigil came three weeks after Tyler played his final game in a No. 3 jersey, making his second career start in the Holiday Bowl.   

Even after Washington State lost 42-17 to Michigan State, the Hilinskis’ spirits were high. After three years as a backup, Tyler was the Cougars’ presumed starter entering the offseason. Mark called that stretch in early January one of his family’s happiest.  

It took 19 days and a 10-second phone call to throw that happiness into chaos.  

At 3 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2018, Mark received a call from Washington State’s then-assistant athletic director of football operations Antonio Huffman. Less than a second into the conversation, Mark feared Tyler was injured — that he’d blown out his knee or something.   

Five seconds in — Huffman said Tyler missed practice. Mark’s anxiety jumped up. Ten seconds in— a missing person report was filed an hour ago.  

Kym and her oldest son, Kelly, started calling everyone they knew. Mark raced to the airport to fly from Irvine, California, to Pullman, but he didn’t get on a plane. He couldn’t leave before he knew for certain whether Tyler was OK.  

His phone lit up with a text from Kelly. It contained one word: “Dad.” Mark knew in that moment.  

Police found Tyler in his apartment with a rifle, a few ammunition shells and a note that didn’t make his actions any clearer to his parents.  

The coroner’s report said Tyler took his life in a way that wouldn’t hurt anyone else. Mark always hated that comment. The bullet may not have struck anyone else, but it destroyed the Hilinskis’ lives all the same.  

Mark thought about how Tyler would drive Washington State teammate CJ Dimry to counseling sessions during his time in Pullman. Dimry lost his mother to cancer when he was five. 

Each of those visits brought Tyler within 50 feet of professional help. Mark wondered why Tyler never knocked on the door. 

The way Kym saw it, she and Mark had three options.  

They could take Kelly and their youngest son, Ryan, someplace far away and try to learn how to live again. Or, they could bury their heads in the sand and ignore everything — the media, the what ifs, the agony.  

Instead, they chose a third option: try, however painful it may be, to channel their grief into a force for good.  

The Hilinski’s Hope Foundation began in March 2018 with two mourning parents who believed something, anything good might come of their tragedy. They met with the NCAA and incorporated Hilinski’s Hope as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in April 2018. 

Over the last four years, Kym and Mark have spoken with students at more than a hundred universities across nearly 20 states. From Southern California to Bloomington, the message remains largely the same.  

“You don’t need a tragedy to ask for help,” Mark said.  

________________________ 

Dr. Troy Moles is the director of counseling and sport psychology for IU athletics. He called his office a one-stop shop for student-athlete mental health needs — everything from everyday stressors to serious depression.  

He said while anyone can struggle with their mental health, athletes may face specific challenges few others do. They learn to ignore pain and push through adversity. Part of Moles' challenge is encouraging student-athletes to come to his office with their vulnerabilities at a university whose fight song claims they are never daunted, they cannot falter.  

Moles is encouraged by Indiana’s student-athletes’ willingness to discuss their mental health not just with him but with one another. When people learn it’s OK to not be OK, they help shed the stigma around mental illness. 

“Things do not have to be on fire for you to talk to someone and get support,” Moles said. “There’s no issue too small.” 

Mark and Kym wish Tyler felt his problems were worthy of seeking help. They suspect when he sat in his car outside Dimry’s counseling sessions, he thought his pain was insignificant compared to Dimry’s loss.  

Tyler wouldn’t get help, but he couldn’t find a way out without it. His depression wouldn’t let him. 

That’s why Mark and Kym never say Tyler killed himself or committed suicide. You don’t commit cancer, Mark said. How could he blame his son for his death? 

“Ultimately, his brain betrayed him,” Mark said. 

________________________ 

In August 2022, ESPN listed the Hilinskis among the 11 biggest advocates shaping the future of college football. Despite being at the forefront of student-athlete mental health, Kym and Mark are still just parents who miss their child. 

They treasure any item with connections to Tyler — extra game footage, a football signed in his less-than-stellar penmanship. Mark joked he would take a side shot of Tyler picking his nose mid-game if someone had it. Anything new.  

He and Kym don’t rehearse their presentations. They can’t. It hurts too much. Mark said the talks are “a bit of a shit show” — full of unplanned pauses, sharp sniffles and shaky breaths — but it’s worth it if a student-athlete in pain hears what they need to.  

Sometimes, it’s almost too much to bear. Mark will see a young woman in the crowd who reminds him of Tyler’s second-grade girlfriend, and the grief will wash over him. He figures he could just say, “F— it,” excuse himself from the stage and never look back.  

But then a young man in the audience will break down in tears. He won’t be able to stop, so his teammates will surround and embrace him, telling him it’s going to be OK. Then Mark will remember why he and Kym put themselves through this again and again.  

________________________ 

Before the Tyler Talk begins, Kym takes a picture of Indiana’s football field from the south-facing window of Henke Hall. She texts the photo to her sons Kelly and Ryan with the words “For Ty.” Then she sends three hearts in honor of his jersey number.  

She misses Tyler every second of every day. She feels his presence among the hundreds of student-athletes who could be fighting the same battle he fought. She knows he would want her to tell them they are not alone.  

Maybe then, a mother she has never met will never have to know her pain.  

“For 21 years, Tyler was a gift to me,” Kym said. “I still think he’s giving his gift."

A list of resources is available here if you or someone you know is struggling with suicide or mental health.

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