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 Ryan has played quarterback for South Carolina.
This week 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.”
Ryan will be front and center inside the monster on Saturday at noon when South Carolina (0-1) takes on Charleston Southern (0-1). The freshman quarterback will make his first college appearance and start for the Gamecocks with incumbent Jake Bentley sidelined with a foot injury.
It has been a whirlwind, emotional week for the Hilinskis — one filled with, in no particular order, confusion, tears, joy, excitement and nervous anticipation.
In conversations with Spurs & Feathers this week, Ryan’s parents Mark and Kym detailed how their week unfolded — from their reaction to Bentley’s injury and learning their son would start to the family’s dinner Monday night — and talked about why it has been so emotional.
MCATs, BENTLEY’S INJURY AND DINNER ON THE LAKE
The Hilinskis had been anxious for a few weeks leading up to this past Saturday not only because of South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina, but because Kelly Hilinski, Ryan’s oldest brother, was scheduled to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in Columbia the same day.
On the day of the game and test, Kym stayed in Columbia with Kelly and only raced to Charlotte, where the Gamecocks played the Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium, to watch just 20 minutes of pregame warmups before getting in her car to return to Columbia.
But Mark — who stayed 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 North Carolina 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’re happy for you and it’s great to have that opportunity,” Mark told Ryan. “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 SC 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.
On Monday 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 Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp.
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 out their hearts. You give him space, but you also make sure he knows you’re there.
“I know that’s not something that goes away, ever.”
But the Hilinskis, and Ryan, have honored Tyler, a former quarterback at Washington State. With the leadership of Kym and Mark, the family started Hilinski’s Hope.
Over the past several months, the family, along with mental health professionals, has traveled the country to speak with college sports teams, fraternities and sororities trying to help end the stigma of talking about mental health.
Ryan, entering his junior season at Orange Lutheran, switched from jersey No. 4 to Tyler’s No. 3.
Which has made this week 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. “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
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.
From the second Ryan takes the field, all will have their eyes fixed on him. All, that is, except for Kym.
“She keeps herself extremely busy during the game,” Mark said. “Whether that’s visiting with other parents or getting everybody drinks. I think that’s just a self-preservation deal. She’ll cover her eyes and look through her fingers or she’ll hold on to me and say, ‘What happened? What happened? Is he OK? Is he OK?’
“But she’ll be as supportive as she’s ever been and do the best she can.”
Kym said she may pace around the stadium and check text messages.
“We’re excited. We’re going to be all in and all football and all cheers and happiness for Ryan,” Mark said. “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.
“... I think he’s got the right mindset going into Saturday and 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.”