USC Gamecocks Football

Through tragedy, the Hilinski family came to South Carolina to start something new

Mark and Kym Hilinski used to need a spreadsheet to make sense of their weekends.

As parents they had two football games to attend — one son, Ryan, in high school, the other, Tyler, in college. The games were most often within 24 hours of one another. And they played more than 1,100 miles apart.

“We used to put a little spreadsheet together of home, away, what time, if they’re on TV, if they’re not on TV, where the game was, where the Friday night game was,” Mark Hilinski said. “Because to get to Tyler’s game, if it was during the day, you only had one shot at it.”

Kym Hilinski remembers an 11:30 p.m. red-eye flight out of Los Angeles International Airport in Southern California where the family lived. They would fly to Seattle, sleep in the airport, catch a morning flight to Spokane and then drive nearly 80 miles to Washington State to see their middle son.

“It was all you could kind of do,” Mark Hilinski said, reminiscing about how tight it was for 1 p.m. kickoffs.

This year, the trip will only be a 30 or so minute drive down Interstate 26 to Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium. There is no more spreadsheet, but there should be. One son is gone, and the rest of the family couldn’t bear to be so far apart from each other.

The fallout from Tyler Hilinski’s suicide in January of 2018 has been vast. It’s impacted multiple communities, driven the Hilinskis to raise awareness for a root cause of the tragedy that upended their lives and it changed the geography of their family.

Kym and Mark Hilinski sit on the couch in their new house on Lake Murray. Pictures still sit by the baseboards, waiting to be hung. Kym has started in on the drywall for a renovation project, while Mark just came in from helping some workers put in a dock.

And in this new place, one a short drive or boat ride from their two remaining sons, they look outside on the water and end up considering what it would’ve been like for the one who isn’t there.

“You know what?” Mark Hilinski said. “The sad thing is, Tyler would’ve loved this place. That’s the crazy thing. Ryan does and Kelly, he’s super bouncing around and telling us, ‘I went to this place. I found this new place.’ But Tyler was sort of our water rat. He was the kid that would go into the ocean at 8 a.m. When you’re packing up your bags, ‘One more time. One more time. One more body surf. One more wave.’ ”

Mark and Kym Hilinski bought a house on Lake Murray so they could be close to their sons, USC freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski and Kelly Hilinski who lives in Irmo. Tracy Glantz

Crossing the country

Only a few things remain as a home base for the Hilinskis in California.

There’s a post office box for their foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, on Balboa Island, a spot in Newport Beach where the family spent a good deal of time. And there’s a bench in Claremont, California, one with a plaque for Tyler and his grandmother (nana), who died from ALS.

Claremont was where the three Hilinski boys grew up — Tyler, Kelly and Ryan — but the family had not lived there full-time in several years. Still, it was the hardest to say goodbye to.

“We loved that house,” Kym Hilinski said. “It was built in 1905. Tyler used to always say, ‘I wish Claremont, all the colleges had a D-I school because I would stay here. Because it’s a great town.’ ”

It had been too hard for her to even step foot in that home since Tyler’s death, she said.

Mark Hilinski used to drive the 40 or so minutes from Claremont to Irvine, and Tyler Hilinski played his high school ball at nearby Upland.

Ryan Hilinski started his high school career at JSerra High School 50 miles away, so the family moved to Newport to be closer. Then he transferred to Orange Lutheran two years later, and the family moved again, this time to Irvine.

When Tyler Hilinski died, he and Kelly were far from home. And after all they’d been through, the family wasn’t going to be separated again.

“We decided after Ryan committed that we wanted to be close to him,” Mark Hilinski said. “Kelly has his graduation plans from undergrad underway, so we knew the timing of that. So I think, just before the holidays at the end of the year, we said, ‘We want to get out there, and we know he’s going to go in December or early January, so we want to be out there.’ ”

Their move was neither cathartic nor particularly nuanced, by their own admission. They didn’t clean or throw things out, but loaded them into pods and had them shipped, only going through boxes once they settled on the lake.

They had found the new house quickly, looking at houses online, speaking to a local Realtor and seeing some houses on a long weekend trip built around Ryan Hilinski’s official visit to USC in October. Initially they pondered living in Charleston, but they realized closer might be better.

“We saw this house once,” Mark Hilinski said. “Kym came the next day. I think we put in an offer and closed quickly in December.”

He drove cross-country with their dog and one car, and another was shipped (a car, not a dog). The Claremont house sold quickly to a young family with kids, something Mark noted made it a little easier.

The family’s final few months out west were a whirlwind.

Before they left, they decided to rent a house on the beach for the final month. It was on Balboa Island, near enough to a church they could walk to Mass. It remains one of Ryan’s favorite places.

They were almost running away for the holidays. The Hilinskis went to Mexico City in mid-December, then Puerto Rico for Christmas to see family. They went to Texas for an All-American game Ryan was competing in, and then moved into their new home.

Seven weeks on the road plus time in the rental put the family out of its norm. By the time they arrived, Columbia became somewhere to put their suitcases down. Mark Hilinski ventured it left them “discombobulated,” but not in a bad way.

“I think that discombobulation was on purpose,” Kym Hilinski chimed in. “I think it sort of helped us.”

They have Kelly right down the lakefront and can take a boat down to go see him (his apartment has a dock). Ryan is just down the road at USC.

They’ve experimented with taking the boat for takeout, with the restaurant Liberty nearby. They’ve even run into Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp on the water (his home is a quick ride away), a moment that usually has Ryan straighten up.

It’s a new home, something different. Claremont and Southern California will always be a part of their family, but some parts of it they can’t stand to revisit, constricted by the happy moments as much as the sad ones.

“I think being in California in the city where we raised all the three boys would’ve been really tough to do without Tyler,” Kym Hilinski said. “A lot of wonderful memories, but painful too. And I think being here and being close to Ryan and now Kelly, and on the water, helps us breathe. Try to find some peace.”

Mark and Kym Hilinski bought a house on Lake Murray so they could be close to their sons, USC freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski and Kelly Hilinski who lives in Irmo. The Hilinski family is adjusting to life after the suicide of Tyler Hilinski while a quarterback at Washington State. Tyler’s jersey and photos sit prominently in the new house. Tracy Glantz

Just dropping in

As Kym and Mark Hilinski are sharing their story, the door opens. Ryan peeks his head in, looking a little sheepish as he tries not to interrupt.

A true freshman one semester into his career with the Gamecocks, he’s not allowed to do media interviews, per Will Muschamp’s rules. So he does the only thing that makes sense on a hot summer day.

He takes the dogs out.

The family’s dog had been holed up somewhere in the house, and Kelly Hilinski’s dog was there as well. Both bound outside, one barking at a kayaker and making a few people apprehensive it will jump in and head toward the boat. (It does not, stopping at the edge of the water, looking playfully at the passerby.)

This is the biggest perk, Ryan or Kelly being able to drop by when they want or need.

“It’s sort of a blur how often we see him,” Mark Hilinski said of Ryan, “but never enough and probably too much.”

When football is in full swing, Ryan has less time between school, practice, weights and everything else. During the summer, he could come by more often.

Early on, both parents would get downtown to see him, take him shopping, get food with him. Since he got a car, there’s been less need.

That said, they see him plenty. After all, this is a family who made a point of getting up to Pullman, Washington, often — beyond just the gameday weekends.

“We would talk to other parents and they went, ‘Oh, wow, you went that weekend?’ ” Mark Hilinski said. “We felt like we were almost there, not too much, but we were there a lot.”

And with Ryan, other players can come by, too.

Part of the family’s choice to be close connected to the desire to host his teammates when the opportunity arrived. They’ll welcome players, coaches, family — whoever wants to come.

“When there’s time off, small, little holidays like this, not everybody has a chance to go home,” Mark Hilinski said just before the Fourth of July. “We’ve been traveling a lot over the last few months, so we haven’t seen it as often, but he’ll get guys to come over, out on the boat or just hang out and play video games or go outside or whatever. It’s been fun.”

South Carolina Gamecocks football players Ryan Hilinski (left) and Spencer Eason-Riddle speak at a youth symposium for National Youth Violence Prevention Week. Ben Breiner

Building a community

Coming somewhere new is never easy, less so in the hectic manner by which the Hilinski family arrived in Columbia.

But they’ve found the South nothing by welcoming.

“People have been so kind and so nice to us,” Kym Hilinski said. “People we meet in the store, our name is different, our last name, so sometimes they recognize our last name. And then they hook it to Ryan. But it’s just a good welcoming feeling. I don’t feel like an outsider. I felt very welcome from the moment that we came here.”

Still, there have been a few challenges, not one stemming from the transition.

For a family that’s been through so much, outgoing and gregarious are not easy things to be. Mark Hilinski said they’re not “that much fun to be around,” but it’s a layered use of the phrase.

“People that are having parties, having a good time, that’s still new for us,” Mark Hilinski said. “We don’t use the words, ‘Oh, I can’t wait,’ ‘I’m excited.’ Not to punish ourselves. It’s just how we feel. I don’t want to get there and everybody is enjoying themselves and stuff.

“We’re slowly sort of trying to do that, right?”

He added that people have been welcoming, invited them to dinner and tried to meet them. But it’s difficult to put themselves out there all that much. People understand, and at times it can be a lot.

“We don’t take advantage of it much because we’re still trying to process being here,” Mark Hilinski said, “and why we’re here. And all that. We’re trying.”

They’re close with the USC coaches, but the parent-coach relationship is its own sort of thing and at times requires a kind of distance. They’ve found community in other parents as well.

Mark and Kym Hilinski are adapting to the different pace and lifestyle. What might be a quick chat in California is more of a conversation in Columbia. It’s at times different, but they hope to get absorbed into it.

They’ve picked up at least one Southernism, referring to team nutritionist Kristin Coggin as “Miss Kristin.” Ryan also developed a taste for Southern food, an indulgence he has limited under Coggin’s watch.

The parents admitted they’ve not explored Columbia itself too much, outside of hitting downtown spots such as California Dreaming or 1801 Grille, both restaurants near Ryan’s dorm. Kelly and Kym Hilinski did take a road trip starting in Savannah, heading through Beaufort, Hilton Head and Charleston. There was also skydiving in Myrtle Beach and a visit to the Angel Oak in Charleston.

But they haven’t seen all that much of Columbia.

“It sounds maybe odd,” Kym Hilinski said. “But we haven’t had a lot of time to explore so much. I think maybe were just trying to keep close to home.”

Or they’ve gone far afield as part of Hilinski’s Hope.

The organization sprang from the family’s tragedy, a mission to raise awareness about mental health issues for student-athletes, to eradicate the stigma associated with mental health issues and to fund programs that support mental wellness for student-athletes.

They didn’t know Tyler was suffering before his suicide, saying he seemed like the “happiest kid.”

The cause has taken them all over the country, including UCLA and to Seattle for Ryan Hilinski to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game this summer.

Both parents said they’ve heard untold numbers of stories, folks offering thanks for sharing what happened to Tyler, how they changed after learning about him and from people who almost took their own lives.

They talk about understanding and not understanding, seeing the impulsiveness that sometimes leads to suicide and the shock of what happened to them never really making sense. Tyler left them no letter, no hint as to what led to it.

They’re confident what they’ve already done, talking about him, partnering with mental health professionals and the rest, has saved lives.

It’s a daily calling for Kym Hilinski, who spends much of her time answering notes, handwritten, sometimes five pages long or more, and emails.

“It’s my whole day really,” Kym Hilinski said. “I could probably sit at my computer all day long, or at my desk, and write thank-you notes and mail out bands and T-shirts. And respond to emails.

“I appreciate that I get to do that because I get to talk about Tyler in those emails or write his name over and over again in those thank-you notes.”

She had been a litigator in California since 1990 but doesn’t plan to take the Bar in South Carolina (“once in California was enough”). Mark sold his position in a company he had and is looking toward some other ventures.

Just another part of making a new home in a new place.

Kym Hilinski shared a moment the family had, one underscoring how raw everything still is. It was the Fourth of July, and Ryan was at an SEC conference in Alabama. Kelly, Kym and Mark were in the house, but each watched the fireworks over the lake in a different spot: Mark the balcony, Kym the gazebo and Kelly the bedroom. Holidays are still hard because, as Kym put it, “it hurts that the person that should be there with us wasn’t.”

“I was telling Kelly this the other day, ‘You know, Kelly, some day you’re going to buy a Christmas tree, and you’re going to put Christmas presents underneath it,’ ” Kym said. “He said, ‘No, I never will.’ And I said, ‘You will because you’re going to get married and you’re going to have children and you’re going to want your children to experience the joy and beauty of a holiday.’ And he said, ‘I don’t ever really see that happening, Mom, but I think you’re right.’ ”

Apprehension as the season approaches

The last time a Hilinski took the field for a college game, Tyler was leading Washington State to a 2017 bowl, throwing 50 passes on a temperate night in San Diego, California.

When Ryan takes the field for warmups in Charlotte at the end of August, it’s unlikely he’ll be in line to play, but it still won’t be easy for his parents in the stands.

“Watching a No. 3 in a college stadium, it’s going to be really tough,” Kym Hilinski said. “I have a hard time watching the games anyway. I usually always tell people, people see me — I watch like this or I watch like that.”

As she spoke, she first put her hands over her eyes, then looked through cracks between her fingers.

“Because that’s my son on the field,” she said, “and all I really want is for him not to get hurt. I want the team to do well.

“It’s going to be emotional. I’ve thought about it, and I try not to go there really yet because I think I will just wait and see what happens. I imagine I will be pacing around a lot. Really, I may go on long walks inside the stadium.”

USC’s spring game was a different animal, Mark Hilinski said, and still they seemed to gravitate away from the group. They know better than any that the stakes aren’t as high as they sometimes feel.

Ryan Hilinski and his brother Kelly Hilinski wear identical lighthouse tattoos in memory of their brother, Tyler Hilinski. Tracy Glantz

They’ll just play it by ear.

The first high school game after Tyler’s passing was hard to say the least, perhaps harder than they knew for Ryan. He had that first game, the first touchdown and the first celebration to honor his brother.

They know at some point he’ll get a chance to compete, and they don’t yet know how they’ll handle all that.

They’ve already planned to be at every game. Instead of the last-second flights that happened so often during Tyler’s career, they’ve planned to take long road trips to the games, getting a chance to explore the American South and beyond while their house gets worked on.

It’s a different pace for what promises to be a different kind of season for them. In most ways, it’s different for the wrong reasons, but they hope they can put at least a few of those aside for Ryan’s sake, even as they look ahead to this known yet unknown and emotionally fraught experience.

“Despite how difficult all this is for all of us, there’s no reason those kids shouldn’t have the best life ever,” Mark Hilinski said. “It’s hard enough losing your brother. We are trying to clear the path as much as we can to let them, to tell them it’s OK to be happy — if that makes sense. And football is a big part of, a giant part of Ryan’s life. And so we’re supportive of it and we’re going to continue to be. We’re looking forward to it.”

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South Carolina head coach Will Muschmp watches the scrimmage from the field as South Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski (3) during South Carolina’s spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium Stadium Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre

Looking forward, and back

If all was as it should be, the Hilinski family would have yet another spreadsheet.

This should be Tyler’s senior season with the Cougars. He likely would have been the starter in Pullman, leading Mike Leach’s offense, putting up video game stats late on Saturday nights.

Maybe Ryan Hilinski would still be in South Carolina, maybe not. But the family would be dividing their time, figuring out how to see both sons when they could.

Instead they are here, through all of it.

As of early July, the family was still in the midst of the transition that comes with a move, and with being on the road for their foundation.

Pictures still sat by the baseboards, ready to be put up. A few things were hung, each with their own meaning.

  • A graphic worked up by a fan depicting Kelly, Ryan and Tyler in uniform. Kelly wore No. 4, as had all the brothers. They wore it because Lou Gehrig did, and the disease named for him took their Nana. Tyler took 3 when he couldn’t have 4 in college, and Ryan changed to that No. 3 last fall.

  • Tyler’s jersey, covered in signatures, sits framed above the mantle, with a plaque below that reads, “The Hilinski Family, est. 1991.”

  • On one wall hangs an image of Tyler, up on the shoulders of fans after he led WSU to a triple-overtime win against Boise. The photo, as hands reached out to touch him, was blown up by a television journalist the family grew close with and shipped for his memorial. In transit the glass broke, but it gives the image worn scuffs, almost like the texture of a well-used football helmet.

Out front, to the right of the door is a small image, a lighthouse, like the one in Hawaii where the ashes of Tyler and his grandmother were spread, and the words “Forever to Three” beneath it.

As a family that spent time on the beach and the islands, life by the water isn’t so new, but South Carolina and lake life bring their own flourishes.

“When I wake up in the morning and look out, it feels actually like we are on a houseboat,” Kym Hilinski said. “Because we’re just right on top of the water. I think my favorite time is during a storm.

“The lightning and the thunder, it’s just gorgeous. It takes our breath away because we haven’t experienced weather like this before. But the lake is calming for us, even during the storm. It’s beautiful.”

They’ve got plans for the house, changing the kitchen and working on a room just off the living room that faces the water. They’ve been in Columbia for six months, maybe actually in town for three. They’ve got projects, road trips, plans and responsibilities with the foundation, plus the familiar rhythm of a football season that have set their annual schedules for years.

And even as they adapt to a new place and change things to make this the home they want, there’s always an edge of sadness. Not just for all the tragedy and pain that transpired but because of how Tyler would have taken to it, looking out on that water, hoping to chase one more body surf and one more wave.

“He would love to be here and enjoy this,” Mark Hilinski said. “Be with his brothers on the Jet Skis and the boat, with the fireworks and the friends, Liberty. All those things.

“That part hurts because you see this beautiful lake and the stuff and we’re putting the docks in ... earlier, and I’m thinking, it’s just ironic we’re doing all this because he’s not here, and yet he would be the first guy loving it. It can’t be more disappointing than everything else, but it’s just ironic I suppose.”