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Washington State Picks Up Pieces Months After Suicide

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USA TODAY

 

PULLMAN, Wash. — The apartment where Tyler Hilinski shot himself to death in January no longer has any furniture or even a doorknob on the front door.

More than two months later, it remains cold and abandoned as his teammates try to move on with football practice about a mile away. The front door also has a hole on the side where the knob should be, allowing the spring chill to blow inside until it's finally repaired for new occupants.

Nobody knows why Hilinski came back to this place to do what he did that day.

The Washington State quarterback was in the process of moving into a new apartment with new roommates nearby. And then he never returned, leaving behind a team that is still coping with his suicide.

"Nobody was living there, so he knew nobody was going to be there," said Peyton Pelluer, a senior linebacker who was going to be Hilinski's new roommate this semester.

That's their reason for where he went. They can't find a reason for his final act. And nobody ever will — a fact that many of them have had trouble accepting as they go through a healing process that includes spring practice this month.

"Just like his family, we're all still looking, and I've kind of come to terms where I'm not going to find an answer," said Nick Begg, a defensive lineman who also was going to be Hilinski's roommate this semester. "And if all of us keep looking for an answer, we're just going to beat ourselves up. There's no easy way to put it, but you're not going to find an answer, and you've just got to come terms with that I guess. Yeah. I feel for his family for that."

The tragedy happened Jan. 16, shortly after the start of the new semester. Hilinski's roommates at his old apartment had graduated from the team and moved away. Hilinski was halfway into the move into his new home with Begg and Pelluer, getting ready to start a year that was supposed to be his best yet.

Hilinski, 21, was the runaway favorite to be the team's new starting quarterback after combining to throw 209 passes as a freshman and sophomore playing behind Luke Falk. His head coach, Mike Leach, described Hilinski as "very talented, very upbeat, one of those guys that cared about others and didn't like conflict."

It was another kind of conflict, hidden inside him, that led Hilinski to take an unnamed teammate's rifle without his knowledge. When Hilinski didn't show up for a team weightlifting session that afternoon, the police were summoned and Hilinski soon was tracked down at his old apartment where a forced entry was made to get to him.

Department officials called a team meeting as soon as news got out about his death. Police said the cause was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

"We felt like that it was very important that we bring everyone together so that they're together," said Sunday Henry, Washington State's director of athletic medicine. "In this day and age of social media, we had to act very quickly, as soon as we found out what had happened."

'You don't want to be by yourself'

The meeting erupted with sadness and shock. Meanwhile, Leach was stuck trying to get back to Pullman from his time off in Key West, Fla. Bad weather in Atlanta created scores of canceled flights, which left Leach stranded. He arrived a couple of days later and found some hope amid the grief.

"When everything happened, there were counselors around our team and everybody within minutes," Leach said. "The response time was outstanding."

Henry, clinical psychologist Kate Geiger and counselor Jerry Pastore helped reach out across the athletic department to offer access to help such as counseling and therapy. The football team also went through a new round of mental health screening, and some players were identified as especially in need of support, with common problems such as sleep loss.

Support also came from ex-players, some of whom flew in from out of town.

"We hung out at our place, just kind of all together," Begg told USA TODAY. "I don't know how to explain it, but we just talked about it together and just kind of bonded together, because none of us wanted to be alone. You know what I mean? That's not what you want to do in a situation like that. You don't want to be by yourself."

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those 15 to 24, according to the most recent data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. overall, with about 45,000 dying by suicide each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The foundation estimates the numbers are actually higher than that because the stigma associated with suicide leads to underreporting, much like mental health issues are underreported and unsupported.

Athletes in particular are "supposed to be tough and not show any weakness, and mental health tends to be seen as a weakness," Henry said. "It tends to be seen different than an ankle sprain or ACL tear, so they tend not to come forward. If they recognized it and came forward and took care of it, they would be stronger, happier people, just like with (getting help for) an ankle."

That's the challenge, Henry said. "To make it OK" to tell somebody and get help. "That's the opportunity we have here, to take this really sad thing that happened and turn it into a positive."

'Be kind to people'

This suicide stood out in particular for several reasons. Hilinski, from Claremont, Calif., was a high-profile college athlete with no apparent advance warning signs. He also was a leader of the team in a sport that glorifies toughness, shuns weakness and often has encouraged players to mask their pain. Depression and anxiety can be particularly tempting to keep secret if it might risk a loss of acceptance or status.

"You definitely have got to be tough to play football, and it's definitely a culture," Begg said. "But stuff that's going on in your head, you've definitely got to talk about those things."

The first practice without Hilinski was March 22, kicking off a spring practice season that lasts for several more weeks.

"It's been a process," Pelluer said. "I think we made it over the hump, so to speak. It's never going to be perfect. The hardest part was finding that new normal."

A suicide note was found, but Pullman police said state law restricts the note's details to family members. Hilinski's family recently took out a half-page ad in The Seattle Times thanking Cougars fans for their support and saying the family didn't learn a motive. "The reality is we simply don't know," the ad said. "He didn't quit. He didn't give up on you. For some reason, he had no choice but to leave us. Don't waste a second thinking he was weak."

Another death in the Cougars family added to the grief in February when one of the athletic department's strength coaches, David Lang, 49, died suddenly of causes that weren't immediately announced. "We saw things crop back up again," Henry said of the reaction among athletes.

"Nobody has the answers, and that's not for us to worry about," Pelluer told USA TODAY. "You never know what demons, so to speak, people are dealing with on a daily basis. That's why it's so important to live each day with a positive mind-set. Just try to be the best version of yourself and be kind to people, because you just don't know what kind of day they're having."

New players are competing in spring practice. Leach still makes the hour-long walk to campus from his home and back.

"Everybody I talked to that has some experience with (suicide), they say it never makes sense," Leach said. "This isn't any exception."

April 6, 2018
 
 
 

 

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