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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
IRVINE, Calif. — Ryan Hilinski got the talk in March, two months after his older brother died.
"You can walk away," his parents, Mark and Kym, and eldest brother, Kelly, told him. Deep down, part of them would be relieved if he did. If he were younger, they would have forbidden him to play football.
But Ryan was almost 18 years old and one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country. ESPN would name him the top pro-style quarterback in the class of 2019. More than 30 colleges would offer him full scholarships, including blue bloods such as Georgia, Ohio State and Louisiana State, and his childhood dream school, Stanford. He had worked too long and accomplished too much for them to take this away from him now.
Only he could decide whether to keep pursuing the sport that may have led to his brother Tyler's suicide, a death that stunned nearly everyone who knew him. One day Tyler was the likely starting quarterback for a team on the rise. The next, he was dead.
Tyler Hilinski shot himself in a closet inside his Pullman, Wash., apartment on Jan. 16. He was 21. Four months earlier, he had been carried off the field after leading the Washington State Cougars to a triple-overtime victory over Boise State. His parents last saw him alive a few weeks before his death, on a family vacation in Mexico.
He seemed happy and healthy, which only haunts them further. Where were the warning signs that their middle son wanted to take his own life?
"We have no clue what happened," Mark said. "We will sit here for the next 20 years and not know what the heck happened to Tyler."
The biggest window into Tyler's mind arrived posthumously, via a brain autopsy conducted by the Mayo Clinic. It revealed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease brought on by repeated head trauma.
After researchers at Boston University studied the brains of 202 former football players — many families had donated them because of concerns the athletes had CTE — they announced in 2017 that 87 percent of them had tested positive for the disease.
Tyler's death places him at the intersection of two troubling demographics: football players with severe brain damage and suicides among young people. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34. Together, they constitute thousands of lives lost each year, leaving untold thousands more behind to cobble together a life while grieving.
For Mark and Kym, dealing with the loss meant starting a foundation, Hilinski's Hope, which works to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Kelly, who studies medicine, changed his specialty from cardiovascular medicine to neurology.
And for Ryan, it meant playing football. Everything he does, he said, will now be for him and his brother. He switched his jersey number to No. 3, which Tyler wore.
Before his death, Tyler was Ryan's first call every time he received a scholarship offer. After, Ryan immediately tweeted the news, always referring to Tyler in the announcement.
"It's basically like me telling him first," he said.
He also needed to find a way to play that would allow his family to experience the sport in peace. Maybe it would have to be 2,500 miles away in a place where the Hilinskis could get a fresh start.
At Orange Lutheran High School, a tall red banner of Ryan hangs on a fence outside the main entrance, part of a series showcasing football players. He sings bass in the honors choir and booms Motown songs in the hallways. Prospective students shadow him on campus, and he once sat in on a school board meeting.
Ryan is the star quarterback, the school figurehead and, now, the most visible representative of an increasingly public-facing family. He believes he no longer has the luxury of acting his age.
"After Tyler passed, it's kind of been like, 'OK, now I'm an adult,'" Ryan said. "I've got to grow up kind of in a hurry."
The Hilinski boys were always together, always in lock step. Wherever Kelly, 24, went, Tyler, 18 months his junior, would follow. And whenever his older brothers competed in something, Ryan tried to outdo them both. Their parents took to calling them "The Brothers," not as a statement of fact but as a proper name for an indivisible unit. Before long, they referred to themselves that way, too.
So when Kelly quit baseball before his freshman year of high school to play quarterback full time, his brothers inevitably followed suit. Ryan was so young that he cannot recall the first time he put on a helmet, only that it was to help his brothers practice running over a defender.
For years, he toiled in their shadows, watching as Kelly left home to play football at Columbia — he would eventually transfer to Weber State — and later when Tyler set off for the Pac-12. Ryan vowed to climb higher and did so by trying to grow into an amalgamation of his brothers' best qualities. On the field, he has Kelly's cannon arm and Tyler's moxie. Away from it, when he is at his best, he blends Kelly's charisma with what everyone once saw as Tyler's even keel.
"The perfect mix of all of us," Kelly said.
Playing on, but somewhere else
Everything about football now is distressing for the Hilinski family and most likely always will be. They worry that Ryan could lose sight of where Tyler's football dreams end and his own begin.
"It can't just be for Tyler," Kym said.
She spent the spring fretting about Ryan's college decision, wondering whether she would be able to set foot in the same stadiums Tyler played in if Ryan stayed on the West Coast.
When Ryan finally decided on a college, he made an unusual choice: He would play for the South Carolina Gamecocks, a middling SEC team that had not signed a player out of California since 2015.
He said "a big factor" in his decision was to give everyone the hope of a new beginning a coast away from heartbreak. Kelly is relocating from Utah and intends to enroll in South Carolina's medical school. Mark and Kym bought a home in Lake Murray, about 30 minutes from campus. They will settle in sometime this spring.
"It would be hard not to be together knowing that we weren't in Pullman," Mark said.
"And maybe that could have made some kind of difference," Kym added.
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