Editor's Note: This article appears in the September issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
Ryan Hilinski swayed — left arm wrapped around Traevon Kenion, right arm on the back of John Dixon — as the South Carolina alma mater boomed from the Williams-Brice Stadium speakers. Hilinski sang, lyric by lyric, in harmony with the Carolina Band.
As the song ended and Hilinski sang “Forever to thee,” he looked to the heavens and changed the ‘C’ he had formed with his right hand into three fingers pointed upward. The three soon became just the pointer, which he shook back and forth while gazing at the sky.
Hilinski clapped four times before holding up ‘OK’ signs with both hands — the pinky, index and middle fingers again symbolizing the number three.
The true freshman from Orange, Calif. — starting for the Gamecocks against Charleston Southern with incumbent Jake Bentley sidelined with a foot injury — had just completed 24 of 30 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns and run for another in his college debut.
“He was very accurate with the football, quick with his decisions and decisive where he was taking the football, and we played well around him,” Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp said. “He played well for his first start.”
But Saturday, Sept. 7 — the day Hilinski led the Gamecocks to a 72-10 victory over the Buccaneers — was about more than just one early-season victory.
It was the culmination of an emotional, exciting week for Hilinski and his family. More than that, it was an uplifting day for a family that has been through a heart-rending 19 months.
BEHIND-THE-SCENES WITH THE HILINSKIS
The Hilinskis had been anxious for weeks leading up to Aug. 31 not only because South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina, but because Kelly, Ryan’s oldest brother, was scheduled to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in Columbia that day.
On the day of the game and test, Kym Hilinski, Ryan’s mom, stayed in Columbia with Kelly and only raced to Charlotte, where the Gamecocks played the Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium, to watch 20 minutes of warmups before getting in her car to return to Columbia.
But Ryan’s dad Mark — who settled in Charlotte and spent some time with Ryan on Friday night — stayed the entire game. He enjoyed what he saw from the Gamecocks through two and a half quarters, when the team built a 20-9 lead. He cheered for Tavien Feaster and Kyle Markway and felt “awful” when the game slipped away and turned into a 24-20 UNC victory.
“It was a long ride home,” he said.
Sunday and Monday were normal for the Hilinskis until sometime Monday afternoon, when Ryan sent Kym, Mark and Kelly a text message in the family’s group chat.
“Hey, what are you guys doing Saturday?” Ryan messaged. “It looks like I’m going to be starting.”
“We know what happened in the game. We know quarterbacks get way too much credit and way too much blame, as do head coaches,” Mark said. “It’s always been said that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on the team because he hasn’t made a mistake yet.
“But it didn’t take us 30 seconds to go, ‘Wait a second, why? Not that you don’t deserve it, but what happened?’”
Ryan told his family Bentley was on crutches and it looked like he hurt his foot.
“When we heard that, it was a mixed bag,” Mark said.
“It just sucks,” Ryan, the Gamecocks’ newest starting quarterback, told his dad, clearly upset about his friend’s misfortune.
“We were happy for him and it’s great to have that opportunity,” Mark said. “But it’s the worst way possible to get it. It was that sort of realization of why that tempered the excitement a little bit.”
“I wasn’t ready for it, really,” Kym said. “First off, I was so sad for Jake. It’s terrible when someone gets injured and can’t play. It’s his senior season, and to come back and to be injured in the first game, it just breaks my heart for him and his family.”
Kym texted South Carolina quarterbacks coach Dan Werner and asked him to reach out to Bentley and Bentley’s dad Bobby, the Gamecocks’ tight ends coach, to let them know how sorry she was.
“Jake’s been nothing but great to Ryan,” Mark said. “Bobby [Bentley] and the staff have been great to us and we’ve got nothing but praise for them.
“Your heart sinks a little bit because you know how hard that kid worked. … To see your leader on offense go out that way, at least for the time being, was devastating. We’ve had, I would argue, more devastating information in the last couple of years, certainly, but we felt for Jake just the same.”
But the Hilinskis have learned over the past 19 months that time doesn’t stand still.
That night Kym, Mark and Ryan had what Kym called a relatively normal family dinner at Liberty Tap Room & Grill in Irmo.
At first, there was sadness.
“There’s a fraternity between quarterbacks, and they feel for each other and respect each other,” Kym said. “When someone gets hurt, it really pulls at them.”
But sadness soon turned to an, albeit calm, celebratory atmosphere. Kym sensed Ryan’s excitement and asked him if anything will be different.
“Nothing. I was ready last week,” Ryan told the table. “I was ready the week before. I know I haven’t played. I get it. I know it’s different. I understand it’s going to be louder and crazier.
“But it’s football. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I want to go out do what I do.”
“He doesn’t want anything to be different or to be treated any differently,” Kym said.
“There’s a difference in confidence and cocky, but Ryan feels very confident he’s ready to play and he’s ready to help his team,” Mark said. “That’s his mentality and mindset. He thinks he can help them better on the field.”
Ryan’s reaction to learning he would be a freshman starting quarterback in the SEC echoes that sentiment.
“Let’s go,” he told Muschamp.
Then came the 62-point victory.
PLAYING FOR TYLER
On Jan. 16, 2018, Ryan lost his second-oldest brother, Tyler, to suicide. It was a horrific time for the Hilinskis — one that has been detailed by Sports Illustrated, ESPN and The New York Times, among others — and has since led to countless unanswered questions.
“There’s no script for how you handle that situation,” said J.P Presley, Ryan’s head coach for two seasons at Orange Lutheran High School. “You survive and you make sure Ryan knows he’s loved and cared for. People poured their hearts out. You give him space, but you also make sure he knows you’re there. I know that’s not something that goes away, ever.
“He embraced it, and I think that turned into a lot of strength for the family.”
Ryan was a high school sophomore at the time and had just completed his first season as a starter. He was still friendly but did not really talk to anyone about what happened, according to teammates.
“The two words that come to mind are calm and confusion, with him being almost confused about what happened, maybe questioning why it happened to him,” teammate David Tax said. “It kind of calmed him.
“He couldn’t even get sad or distraught because it was so surreal. He just went with the flow.”
“He took it as motivation,” teammate Jojo Hawkins said. “He just played football and did it for his brother.”
Said teammate Jack Fierro, who sat quietly with Hilinski in the Lancer locker room days after the tragedy, “After he threw his first touchdown his junior year, he came off the field bawling.”
Ryan switched from jersey No. 4 to Tyler’s No. 3 that season and has stuck with it ever since.
Which made the week before his debut as a Gamecock even more emotional.
“When I found out he was starting, my first thought went straight to Tyler, and I started crying of course,” Kym said before the game. “It’s the first time we’ll see another ‘Hilinski 3’ on a college field. I don’t know how I’m going to do.”
“Watching him run out with number three, we’ve only seen one other guy do that,” Mark said.
“And he was pretty special to us.”
But Ryan has always stayed strong.
The first post he made on social media after it was announced he was going to start was about playing for Tyler.
“To say it’s complex is probably even understating it,” Mark said. “Not to put any more pressure or trivialize any of it, but it’s football. At the end of the day, it’s Ryan’s dream. He wanted to come here. He wants to win for himself, for his team, for his coaches, for the university and for the fans.
“But I think he’s got a big weight on his back, carrying his brother around.”
“Tyler got sick, and he’s not with us anymore, but that doesn’t change how much we love you guys and how much we want you to be successful and be happy,” Kym and Mark tell their boys.
SATURDAYS IN THE SOUTH
Mark Hilinski has driven the roads around Williams-Brice Stadium and the Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility hundreds of times in the months his son has played for South Carolina.
The week of the Charleston Southern game though, when he looked in his rearview mirror while driving down National Guard Road, Hilinski felt differently.
“You look back at the stadium and you think, ‘This thing’s a monster,’” he said. “There’s 300 people right now working on the field, in the parking lots, in the buildings, all for Saturday’s game. Their collective purpose, whether it’s planting trees or painting lines, it’s all for this team.
“And to be a part of that, in whatever way, as the backup quarterback, as the starting quarterback, all of us have to do our collective best.
“I think Ryan loves that part of it.”
But Ryan starting so early in his college career was not the plan.
Said Mark, “If you wrote the game plan, it was, understudy, let Jake teach you everything he knows. Fight with Dakereon [Joyner] and make each other better. Let’s figure out how to work together. Nothing but ultimate respect for Dakereon and how much he’s helped Ryan.
“But in 48 hours he goes from, ‘That’s my plan.’ To, ‘Hey, there’s a new gameplan.’”
Fortunately, about a dozen Hilinski family members had already planned to fly in from around the country for the Gamecocks game against the Buccaneers — family from the west coast and Boston and one cousin who attends the University of Miami.
“Ryan has deserved every bit of it. He has worked hard and earned it, in terms of the opportunity to compete and the opportunity to play with his team and to add to their collective success,” Mark said before the game. “I think he’s got the right mindset going … into the rest of the season, whatever role he plays for however long.
“We need to put some wins on the board. Everybody feels that way. He’s no different.”
A ‘GUNSLIGNER’ AND CHOIR BOY
Hilinski will be no stranger to facing top talent when he plays SEC opponents. In high school, he played in Southern California’s famed Trinity League. He faced national powerhouses, like Mater Dei (with quarterback J.T. Daniels) and St. John Bosco (with quarterbacks DJ Uiagalelei and Re-al Mitchell), on a weekly basis.
When Hilinski arrived at Lutheran, the Lancers ran a triple option.
But as a junior and senior, with Presley and offensive coordinator Matthew Hatchette, a former NFL tight end, at the helm, the team transitioned to a no-huddle attack with three or four play options every snap and threw the ball 65 percent of the time.
“Which was right up his alley,” Presley.
“He had an absolute rocket of an arm,” Fierro said. “He would make throws when we were out at practice, even going into our sophomore year, that I would say, ‘Dang, I literally cannot make that throw.’”
The Lancer offense was driven by run-pass options.
“But a lot of the times we were like, ‘We have this great gunslinger, let’s make sure he’s throwing the ball,’” Presley said.
“He has one of the prettiest spirals,” Tax said. “He’s always keeps his throwing motion. You see it now with Pat Mahomes not even looking when he throws.
“Hilinski is the opposite. This dude is always in stance and throwing in form.”
From the start, despite loads of national attention, Hilinski spent time honing his craft. He spent time learning defenses and improving his accuracy. He took receivers out to work on timing. He never bragged about the attention and still wanted to work and push his teammates.
“He always took notes and knew everything the coaches asked,” teammate Logan Gonzalez said. “You could tell the difference between his answer and somebody else’s. He was more confident.”
“He’s a serious player, but he’s a fun player to play with,” Hawkins said.
And a quality one.
“Almost all of his throws are dimes,” Fierro said. “Throws when he chucks it across the field and just puts it right where it needs to be, they’re really hard to defend.”
“The best balls he’d throw were the deep balls,” Tax said. “Whether it was the one-on-one seam throws. That’s definitely his strong suit.”
Despite being one of the best players in the state, and therefore nationally, Hilinski’s recruitment picked up when the Lancers beat Vista Murrieta in the third game of his junior season. “All we really talked about was playing at the next level,” said teammate KJ Trujillo, who now plays for Colorado.
But still, Hilinski remained humble.
“Let’s make sure we’re the best high school football quarterback in the country,” Presley told him.
“And each week he got more comfortable,” Presley said. “He developed so many tools.”
“There was one play when nobody was open and I thought, ‘What’s Ryan going to do?’ But he tucked it and ran and ran over their linebacker into the end zone,” Trujillo said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I never would have expected that.’”
Against Santa Margarita, Hilinski threw a deep pass to star receiver Kyle Ford, who’s now at Southern California. “Across the field. It was about a 70-yard bomb,” Presley said. “A strike.”
“He was a baller,” Hawkins said. “He’s a winner. He hates losing. He’s very determined and holds himself and everyone accountable.”
But Hilinski was never just a football player who sat with his teammates at lunch.
Gonzalez first met Hilinski when the former tagged along with the star quarterback during one of Orange Lutheran’s “shadow” days for prospective students. “A lot of people around school looked up to him and were saying, ‘Hi,’” Gonzalez said.
“I was surprised he was only like 16 years old, because the way he spoke, he was very comfortable and mature,” Presley said. “He’s really engaged with people. You can tell he’s a good listener.
“Everyone on campus knew Ryan, not because of the football, but because of the person he is. Whether it was in class. He was in choir. He’s very well-rounded. His awareness for people, that’s one of his qualities and strengths. He’s very genuine.”
“He was in quite a few shows,” Fierro said. “He seemed to really enjoy it and was pretty good at it. He has a pretty good voice.”
Hilinski and a classmate even sang the national anthem before a game against Romoland Heritage. “That’s him,” Presley said. “That’s the personality that he has. That’s the type of leader he was on campus.
“He cares about his community.”
Said Trujillo, “He’s really a silly dude. He’s real goofy off the field and really approachable to everyone. He gets along with everybody.”
GROWING INTO A GAMECOCK
That remains true.
South Carolina fans have embraced Hilinski and he has embraced them right back.
He often surprises fans with phone calls and direct messages on social media. After the win over Charleston Southern, he jogged the perimeter of the field with his teammates and high-fived every fan, took selfies and signed autographs.
He looked comfortable.
He looked at ease.
He looked at home.
“[When] something very tragic happened to your family, and being a very public situation, it makes you grow up very quickly,” Muschamp said after the game. “It helps you handle criticism. It helps you handle negative people in the day and age we live in now with social media. …
“His family has been through just a tragic situation and he’s lived that in public life. He’s handled it tremendously well.
“I’m very proud of him today.”