In our lives there are occasions that endure as mental snapshots. Five seconds, maybe 10, when we look around and savor the moment, sensing perfection while knowing such perfection can never be duplicated.
On Sept. 9, 2017, amid an evening haze that blanketed Pullman, Tyler Hilinski realized a perfect moment. His Washington State teammates carried the quarterback off the field after he led them to a storybook victory over Boise State.
The Cougars were staring a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter when Hilinski, subbing for injured starter Luke Falk, completed the first touchdown pass of his WSU career. Then he threw for another touchdown, and another, as the Cougs rallied to win in three overtimes.
“Shoot,” he said afterward, “I was just playing football out there, surrounded by a great group of guys. They told me they have faith in me. I was ready to do my job.”
Hilinski was surrounded by nobody Tuesday afternoon, when he lost faith in a future that should be unlimited for a 21-year old college student with a big smile.
“Quarterback Hilinski found dead after apparent suicide,” the newspaper headline blared Wednesday. Details were sparse. He didn’t show up for a workout and Pullman police were alerted. In his apartment they found a rifle and a note, and while the note might offer some clues to the mystery, it will do nothing to ease the grief of a young adult deciding he no longer wanted to live.
“Words can’t describe what I’m feeling right now,” former Cougars linebackers coach Roy Manning tweeted. “My heart is beyond saddened. Please pray for the family and all of us affected!”
Until the news of his death, all I knew about Hilinski is that he was the quarterback who revived WSU’s stagnant offense on Sept. 9 before taking some lumps, as a first-time starter, against Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl. But as somebody blessed with three healthy children in their 20s, I know the fear of a parent’s worst nightmare.
Praying helps. Once the kids are out of the door and on their own, praying is pretty much the only thing we’ve got.
Prayers whispered in hindsight are less powerful than frustrating. Too little, too late. Tyler Hiliniski appeared to be settled in a corner of the world that former flag-football intramural players from the 1970s can only imagine: A quarterback at a major-conference school where every game is televised, a budding star who established his WSU legacy as Captain Comeback.
I do not pray for athletes whose typical stroll through a campus includes an autograph request and a photo pose. But it was a facade, and behind the facade was a mixed-up college student desperate for help.
Every accredited university is equipped with a support staff steeped in psychological counseling. For that matter, virtually every workplace provides the same benefit. A voice of reason is there, a phone call away.
The challenge is to convince alpha males – say, quarterbacks at major-conference schools – that reaching out for help is not an indication of weakness. Reaching out for help is the very definition of courage. Acknowledging you’ve arrived at an impasse in this crazy world, beset by troubles without simple solutions, takes guts.
On the football field, Hilinski’s guts never were an issue. Summoned to step in for Falk against Boise State, the backup QB got a rude awakening – a sack for a 20-yard loss – and his exasperation was intensified on his next snap, when he threw a pass, seemingly in panic, that was picked off.
A sack, an interception, down 21 points to a well-regarded opponent that doesn’t surrender 21-point leads, Hilinski stayed poised and engineered a comeback built upon a dynamic spirit that galvanized teammates.
And yet he died alone in an apartment room, a rifle by his side, a young man awaiting many more moments to be treasured in a memory-bank. Four months after Tyler Hilinski’s teammates carried him off the field in triumphant joy, he was screaming for help.
Four letters, one syllable. It’s the most profound prayer of all.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath