‘Let’s go after this’: Hilinski Family Persists as Force for Mental Health Advocacy in Sports – Sports Illustrated

At the end of Mental Health Month, near a difficult anniversary, Mark Hilinski is talking about progress. He can sense the momentum building, for his foundation, Hilinski’s Hope; for the wellbeing of college athletes; for stigmas ended, conversations started and attention gained.

He’s ready to announce a second Mental Health Awareness Week that will take place this October, building off an event the foundation created and held last year. He wants athletic programs to view mental health the same as physical health and push the same kinds of resources toward depression and anxiety that are funneled into training and recovery each year.

He would prefer not to be doing any of this, of course, and that’s the reason why he does, why he and his wife, Kym, have devoted their lives to a cause they never expected joining. They did, they have, because their middle child, Tyler, died by suicide in Jan. 2018, while playing quarterback for Washington State. The more they looked into his death, the more they wondered what could have been done to prevent it. But rather than find a “why” their work became that—a why, their reason to move forward.

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Last October, the idea of devoting a week during the college football season to raising awareness seemed audacious and overwhelming. But one university signed on, then two, then 10. The list included major powers like Alabama and Clemson, and football was the driver, rather than the focus, a way to shift the spotlight from the most popular sport onto all of them.

The 16 programs that participated agreed to showcase lime green ribbons on their players’ helmets, with Tyler’s number, 3, part of the design. Or they held three fingers up high at the start of the third quarter, following a mental health PSA that played during halftime on massive video boards in palatial stadiums, impossible to miss. (When Nick Saban took part in the gesture, Mark almost passed out.) The more ambitious schools underwent internal assessments in terms of programming and learned best practices to use for athletes and staff. This marked change, all the way around.

This year, after the vaccination rollout and with relaxing pandemic guidelines, there will be more fans in the stands when the week begins on Oct. 2. Already 13 universities have committed, ranging from Alabama and Texas A&M to San Diego and Sacramento State. In the coming weeks, Mark and Kym plan to meet with officials from the Power Five conferences, to better understand their needs and how the foundation might address them. They have already partnered with the NCAA for the same reason and traveled to conferences for mental health in college sports.

This emphasis builds simultaneously as the Hilinskis continue on with their lives. The youngest son, Ryan, transferred from South Carolina to Northwestern this off-season. Like his older brothers, Kelly and Tyler, he will continue to play quarterback, his efforts supported by Kelly and their parents. That means a move, flights back and forth, a new offense to learn, a new campus to navigate. Mark allocates time to learning more about brain health and concussions in football, because Tyler was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. That means meetings with experts, deep dives into emerging technologies and more progress.

It’s a lot, but with family and foundation as the backbone, the Hilinskis move forward the only way they can. Full speed. For Tyler. They’re even looking for sponsors in order to build on what they have already established, to grow and create more change, then repeat the cycle for as long as they can.

Their motivation comes from the same places: from Tyler; from his teammates; from the hundreds who write letters to share their stories, who tell the Hilinskis that their work changed so many lives; from Ryan and Kelly; and from the groundswell they’re a part of, the one that is changing how the world in general and sports in particular now views mental health. Mark hopes that eventually there’s some sort of programming in every athletic department in the country, centralized and easy to access, a blueprint like the one they are creating. “Let’s go after this,” Mark says. “So they don’t feel ashamed. So they’re not carrying the same amount of baggage. It’s not like anybody’s fixed anything, but we’re moving in the right direction. I find joy in that.”

He pauses, then adds, “Sadness, too.”

He’s referring to Tyler when he says that, and how his death changed a family forever. Their foundation can impact the world – in many respects, it already has – but it won’t bring Tyler back. Mark laughs when asked his middle child might make of all this, and he laughs because Tyler never wanted to be the center of attention, because he might find the focus on him a little much. “He’d be side by side with us,” Mark says.

He pauses again, voice catching.

“I always hope.”

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