Mark Hilinsky knew the game was coming about 25 rows behind the visitor’s line at Williams Press, South Carolina. Before the first play in the third quarter, the entire court had three fingers up in the air. They were honoring his son. They remember Tyler.
This was the inaugural mental health week for college football. Mark and his wife, Kim Hilinsky, started the project through Hope’s Hope, their passion project since they lost their son to suicide in January 2018. Tyler was the quarterback for Washington State. It looked fine. Not so. Mark and Kim faced unanswerable questions and grief head-on.
So while a PSA ran for nearly 80,000 on Sept. 14 as Alabama played the Gamecocks, with Mark and Kim’s youngest, Ryan Hilinsky, number one quarterback (just as No. 3 as Tyler), Mark was familiar with emotion. What Mark didn’t expect, however, was to find Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, raising three numbers like everyone else.
Coach Saban, by doing that, says right away, ‘You can win and you can take care of your kids. Mark said.
Hilinski’s Hope was initially partnered with 16 teams. By 2022, nearly 100 more have joined. Mark and Kim have completed more than 140 “Tyler Talks,” speaking in front of sports departments across the country telling coaches and players their son’s story.
Their work is painful and critical. About a quarter of male athletes consider themselves “mentally exhausted” almost daily, according to an NCAA survey released in May. 46 percent would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus. Kim said the tears are always still flowing, but they want to normalize the conversation because, always, there are other Tylers out there.
For a show like Alabama, you don’t just listen to the message, but the problem is also one of Mark, Kym, and Hilinski’s Hope goals. In addition to wearing stickers on their helmets against Arkansas or sharing charts in training rooms, Tide has positioned himself at the forefront of athletes’ mental health this season. Saban appeared on NBC’s TODAY Show in September. Bryce Young and Ginger Gilmore, MD, director of behavioral medicine in Alabama, spoke at a CBS Sports Network Features last week.
“We’ve always tried to have a really good mental health program. We’ve had one for 25 years that I think has been good for the players. But I think this group, Hilinski’s Hope, has created awareness that has helped more and more people do more and more things to help the players, and I think That this is a very good thing and we support it very much.” .
Mark and Kim recognized the “wonderful job” schools do in promoting wellness within their departments, noting growth specifically in the past five years. In addition to Hilinski’s Hope, professional athletes, from Simone Biles to Kevin Love and more, have worked to remove the stigma of depression. Mark and Kim argue that there can always be more.
They’ve seen the pain build up and extend before. When Ryan threw his first touchdown pass in South Carolina, Mark and Kim noticed he threw his shoulders. Later that night, he told his parents that this was the first time he had cried since Tyre’s death.
They’ve seen how important it is to players when they’re talking with phones kept in their pockets. After meeting with a few hundred student-athletes from Hawaii, a few of them came down for a more intimate conversation with Mark, Kim, and some counselors. On the West Campus, Kim said, they had to pause because one of the players broke down and his teammates gathered on him for a hug. Both are regular Tyler Talk events.
“There is hope because they see the pendulum swinging,” Kim said. “…Our student athletes are amazing, they have a lot on their plates and I think they’re much deeper than the fanbase that gives them credit for that.”
Mark and Kim communicate weekly with Gilmore in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has strengthened its Department of Behavioral Health with players who have access to privacy and professionals just as they will be treated for a physical injury. On the CBS special, Gilmore spoke about providing coping mechanisms for dealing with struggle. Young, for example, mentioned the lack of playing time as a new student and how he clashed with the mod.
Mark and Kim’s tour is a partial acclimation technique for themselves. Mark said he can’t review the slides from the 50-minute presentation. Kim can only talk for about 10 years before she breaks down. Their progress, like the entire movement, is a gradual one.
“We know it’s coming. We kind of know the stories we’re going to tell. We tell them a lot. It might be getting the child’s attention to the audience or a coach who is listening very intently, it creates more emotion. The point is not to be emotional. We want to give the right talk… We’re trying really hard, if it matters.”
Nick Alvarez is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed Or email him at NAlvarez@al.com.