Brotherly love, family pain test strength of Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina's new starting QB
With No. 2 Alabama looming, the Gamecocks' freshman quarterback is playing for more than his teammates
IRMO, S.C. – Mark and Kym Hilinski would like nothing more than to blend in. They have pulled up West Coast roots and relocated 2,400 miles from Orange County, California, to watch their son play SEC football.
"Where are you from?" the lifelong Californians ask their guest over lunch at Liberty Tap Room and Grill on Lake Murray near the University of South Carolina. "What is different about the South?"
Just when the guest is formulating an answer, a friendly man in the next booth turns around and leans into their space.
"Are you the Hilinskis?" asks Scotty Mill, presenting his business card as president of Palmetto Automatic Sprinkler Co.
Before the lunch is over, Mark, Kym, Scotty and his family have taken a selfie together. The Mills family – who also run a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center – have promised their undying support to their new friends.
The Hilinskis would like to blend in. Of course, they can't.
They are celebrities in these parts for the best and worst of reasons. Their son Ryan will be starting his second career game at quarterback against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday.
But in a way, that is about the 16th most important thing on the minds of Mark and Kym.
There's renovating the lake house near the same body of water where South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has a place. There's tending to eldest son, Kelly, the 24-year-old wonder, waiting for the results of his Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). There's venturing out every now and then to sample Southern culture.
There is thinking – always thinking – about Tyler.
Their middle son, Tyler Hilinski, was the Washington State quarterback who died by suicide in January 2018. Reports said he shot himself with an AR-15 automatic rifle he had stolen from friends. Suicide continues to be the second-leading cause of death for Americans aged 10-34.
"Tyler could tell you anything and sit with you," Mark Hilinski said. "He couldn't say … 'Everybody else is dreaming about girls. I'm dreaming about killing myself and I don't want to. Maybe I need help.' He didn't do it."
Tyler, 21, left behind no clues, no reason, no hint anything was wrong. He also left behind a family that aches, not only daily but by the minute.
"Honestly, we don't know anything. We know nothing," Kym said. "We keep searching for the 'why' all the time and it just breaks my heart if that's what he was thinking right before he passed."
She is speaking of what seems to be the cryptic message left on Tyler's cell phone. It was found in a heating duct by the couple who took over his Pullman, Washington, apartment (his parents believe Tyler hid it there.) The Hilinskis went to great lengths to restore the phone, running an algorithm to find the password Tyler had changed shortly before his death.
"When you go back to the alpha-numeric piece, what do these numbers spell?" Mark said. "The only thing that made sense was 'Sorry' and the No. 9, which was his high school number.
"He changed the password very recently before he died. Either he intended to randomly change it or …"
The Hilinskis know that by moving here they probably won't find the why. But they can all be together. Ryan became the Gamecocks' 18-year old starter last week when senior Jake Bentley injured his foot.
That mobilized a cadre of relatives from all over the country to descend on the Columbia, South Carolina, area. It was all in support of one of their own taking on a team but also his brother's legacy.
Ryan -- a top-rated pro-style quarterback from Irvine, California -- had offers from 30 schools, including a late one from his dream school Stanford. He stuck with the Gamecocks.
That became official during a family trip to Kauai, Hawaii, last year to scatter some of Tyler's ashes.
"After we did that, Ryan said he had a talk with Tyler, who said, 'I think South Carolina is the place you should go,'" Kym said. " He didn't waver. He felt like Tyler was telling him South Carolina is the place to go."
When the relatives gathered here for a dinner last week, Ryan calmly rapped his knife against a water glass to get everyone's attention.
"I want to thank everybody for coming out and visit with us. It's been a tough week," he said.
That's a recollection from his mother. Muschamp doesn't allow freshmen to speak to the media.
"It was so natural," Kym recalled. "At the end, he said, 'I know Tyler is with us.'"
Before the talking ban descended down upon Ryan, he told the New York Times, "After Tyler passed, it's kind of been like, 'OK, now I'm an adult. I've got to grow up kind of in a hurry.' "
"We made a pact when we were younger," Ryan told the Los Angeles Times. "It was, 'Hey, if I don't make it to the NFL, you're going to make it to the NFL,' and vice versa. I'm just trying to carry on that dream for Tyler."
Ryan chose to wear his brother's No. 3 in college. South Carolina fans spontaneously shouted, "Let's go Ry-an," as his time came on Saturday. They knew about his potential as a quarterback but in that moment they also seemed to sympathize with his plight.
In that sense, the Hilinskis' original question about their new surroundings is beginning to be answered.
"The South is just the friendliest people," Mill said.
Mill started the Courage Center in Lexington, South Carolina, because of a son with a substance abuse problem. He doesn't want to expand much on the subject because that son is now on the dean's list at North Carolina.
"I just thought they had taken a leap of faith," Mills said of the Hilinskis. "Their son was recruited by everyone."
On the same day Ryan started his college career backing up Bentley against North Carolina (Aug. 31), Kelly took those MCATs. Kym thought nothing of driving 1 hour and 45 minutes to Charlotte to see Ryan in his jersey, have him blow her a kiss and turn right around to be with Kelly after his tests.
On Saturday, Kym found herself yelling Tyler's name as Ryan went 24 for 30 for 282 yards in his debut against Charleston Southern.
"I couldn't believe I did it," she said. "'Let's go Tyler.' Oh my God."
During lunch at Liberty Tap Room and Grill, Kym gestured to an empty seat.
"I could see him right now sitting over in that chair by the bar," she said. "I see him there. He's looking back. I know he's not there. Maybe he is.
"It's that I really won't be able to touch him again until we're all together."
Tyler Hilinski was thriving with the Cougars. He was fitting wonderfully into Mike Leach's pass-happy offense. Tyler had helped knock off Boise State in an emotional three-overtime thriller in 2017. There's a picture that captures the moment – Tyler on the shoulders of fans who have rushed the field, his back to the camera.
Mark scours his mind for the time before his son's suicide. The family took a postseason vacation to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Tyler seemed just a little less effusive than usual.
"He'd had his car towed and struggled in a class before he came down. This is 99 percent of college students," Mark said. "You don't go, 'Oh my God, call a psychiatrist. Lock him up.'
"When we heard he was gone, it took hours to figure out this was self-inflicted."
The Hilinskis have moved not only themselves here but their entire non-profit enterprise. Upon Tyler's death, they started "Hilinski's Hope" to bring awareness to mental health issues.
That takes up a big part of each day.
"I think the worry [is] he is carrying too much. It's hard enough to frickin' play here. You meet new people, meet new families, meet new teammates, meet new girls. All that is new whether your brother is gone or not." Kym Hilinski
"Now we have hundreds of three-page hand-written single-spaced stories of guys that walked to the top of [a] bridge," Mark said. "People say, 'What are you trying to do? You're trying to bring Tyler back by saving other kids.'"
And maybe that's enough for now. The Hilinskis have no plans after Ryan leaves South Carolina. Maybe they'll stay; maybe they'll go back to California. The future doesn't seem as important as just getting through every day.
"When you don't know what happened to Tyler, when you don't have the final draft, when you don't know that, you see Ryan sort of rise above it," Kym said.
"I think the worry [is] he is carrying too much. It's hard enough to frickin' play here. You meet new people, meet new families, meet new teammates, meet new girls. All that is new whether your brother is gone or not."
A South Carolina fraternity member committed suicide in late August. Ryan was asked to speak at a memorial for the student.
"Ryan hadn't met the young man," Mark said. "Now the fraternity has this terrible tragedy. They said, 'Would you mind talking a little bit?' He just jumped up, and, "I've never met Matt. I've gone through this. It's awful.'"
Football-wise, Ryan is more than prepared. He played for Orange Lutheran High School in Southern California's powerful Trinity League which his dad calls, "the SEC East of the West."
Ryan has played against St. John Bosco quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the centerpiece of Clemson's 2020 recruiting class. He has played against J.T. Daniels, USC's currently injured quarterback who starred at rival Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California.
You've probably discerned by now the Hilinskis are transparent. They don't hold back. They have revealed their loving, hurting story to anyone who will listen.
Ryan Hilinski is a teenage part of it, compartmentalizing leadership of an SEC team with the fact that Tyler will never come back. But also knowing, in his family's minds, he can never leave.
"We've talked about that," Kym said. "Some days, we can't even breathe. How can this kid who is only 18 [do this]? We just keep moving forward … together."
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