The Cougars are trying to find the right balance between moving on with football and honoring their former teammate. "I don’t think Tyler would want us to squander our opportunity," said Mike Leach.

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You don’t have to look hard in Pullman to be reminded of Tyler Hilinski, who likely would have been Washington State’s starting quarterback this season but died by suicide in January.

All over town, businesses are selling Hilinski’s Hope wristbands, the symbol of the nonprofit founded by Hilinski’s family to bring attention and support to the mental-health needs of student-athletes.

Cougars players will wear a No. 3 decal (Hilinski’s number) on their helmets, a Hilinski’s Hope flag will be raised at Martin Stadium before home games and Hilinski’s locker will be left untouched this season.

It’s all part of WSU efforts to honor Hilinski and care for those left behind, while also going ahead with life, college — and football.

Coach Mike Leach is trying to achieve the right balance in a situation for which there is no chapter in any coaching manual.

He’s relying on his own feelings, his instincts and the guidance of professionals. Everybody’s keeping a close eye on the players, knowing that each person processes grief and emotion differently.

“The best thing about a team, is that everybody can be supportive of one another,” Leach said. “Then, of course, we have our medical team and the Jed Foundation that advises us. The administration sets the course regarding mental health, and we just follow the experts.”

Even before Hilinski’s death, Washington State was working with the Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit that, according to its website, “exists to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults.”

“We have been working with their experts and making sure that we follow their guidelines and their recommendations,” said Dr. Sunday Henry, WSU’s director of athletic medicine. She is assisted by Jerry Pastore, a mental-health counselor, and Dr. Kate Geiger, a psychiatrist, who are also part of WSU’s athletic department staff.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students, and the numbers are rising. According to the American College Health Association, the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s.

“We are impacted, just like every other campus across the country,” said Mary Jo Gonzales, WSU’s vice president of student affairs. “This is a national health crisis that we are facing.”

Gonzales said Hilinski’s death affected the “entire WSU community and the entire Cougar family across the nation.” But among those most directly influenced, beyond Hilinski’s family, were his teammates.

“We continue to be very aware of their mental-health needs,” Henry said of the players. “We feel like we are a high-risk place until a year or maybe even longer, so we are focusing our efforts on making sure we give the support and have the resources available — counseling, medical visits — that they need.”

While the team must move forward as a unit on the field, there are differences in how individuals have processed the tragedy.

“Some people were ready to move forward a long time ago, and some people are still having issues and  still having difficulty moving forward,” Henry said. “So we continue to talk to our student athletes and educate our staff that there will be different ways in how they handle it.

“It’s natural to heal and move forward,” Henry added. “It’s a natural process, and we let them know, too, that it’s OK to heal and move forward. But in our own way, we will always remember Tyler. Everyone is going to work through this in a different way and we just try to provide whatever support they need.”

Leach said the months before summer camp began were an important time for his players.

“I think in the offseason is where they really pulled together,” he said. “The more they did together, the more active they were in going about their business … I think it was a very good space for them to remember Tyler in their own way and also absorb themselves in their work.”

Leach, besides being the head coach, is also the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and worked closely with Hilinski. Like his players, Leach is processing the loss in his own way.

“It was hard, but then you try to cherish the memories of Tyler,” Leach said. “On one level, I was extremely lucky because I got to know him and was close to him. The other part of it is — keeping in mind that Tyler kind of bounced in and lit up a room — is that I don’t think Tyler would want us to squander our opportunity. He always loved the team, and I think he would want us to be the best we can possibly be.”

Warning signs of suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Meanwhile, work continues at Washington State to prevent more suicides. For student-athletes, a mental-health screen is part of the physical examination they must go through.

While Henry works with student-athletes, Gonzales works with all WSU students. Mental-health resources are discussed at orientation and there are mental-health workshops in classrooms and residential facilities, and “there are constant reminders of resources that are available,” Gonzales said.

“The students of this age, they will talk about a lot of things, but the words, ‘I need help’ are some of the most difficult for them to say,” Gonzales said. “So we are trying to provide opportunities and avenues in different contexts and different ways in order to help them say those words and get the assistance that they need.”

Henry said she has been seeing progress.

“I think the feeling of, ‘Hey, we need to help each other, we need to be proactive,’ is alive in athletics,” she said. “I think the student-athletes are more comfortable now more than ever, helping their peers get some help or bringing themselves in.”