Editor's Note: This article appears in the September issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
Kelly Hilinski has the following quote pinned to the top of his Twitter account:
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
Hilinski and his family, including parents Mark and Kym and little brother Ryan, South Carolina’s quarterback, have made it a point to make the mantra true.
Tyler Hilinski, the middle of the three brothers, committed suicide on Jan. 16, 2018, but the family has made sure he does not die twice. With the leadership of Mark and Kym, the family started Hilinski’s Hope, an organization that has looked to end the stigma of talking about mental health.
“If this could happen to Tyler, who was as beautiful and successful, well loved, doted on person, it could happen to anybody,” Kym said. “We don’t want another person to go through what Tyler went through or another family to go through what we’re going through.”
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 spreading awareness.
Said Mark, “As we continue to talk and meet with so many people, what we’ve found is student-athletes who say, ‘I can tell you I tore my ACL and you’re going to feel bad for me. But the minute I say, ‘I’ve been having this same weird dream about taking my life or I’ve had these strange thoughts and I can’t get sleep or I sleep too much, whatever it is, they don’t want to say that because, what we’ve found, is they worry about their job on the team.
“They worry about negatively impacting their family. They worry about what other people are going to say about them.”
The Hilinskis and the health professionals who travel on behalf of Hilinski’s Hope have shared the message everywhere from Indianapolis, San Diego, Texas A&M, Stony Brook, Ole Miss, Montana State, Eastern Washington, Idaho and UCLA, among others.
They teach the mental health curriculum Step Up, an NCAA approved program that teaches how to look for changes in people, how to respond to those changes, who to reach out to and the right words to say.
“The number dealing with depression or anxiety, it’s pretty high,” Kym said. “It’s higher than I think most people realize.”
They also deal with athletes set to graduate who aren’t going to make it professionally.
South Carolina athletes have taken to the initiative, wearing Hilinski’s Hope bracelets throughout training camp and the regular season.
“The whole town has embraced it,” Mark said. “You can’t put a price tag on it.”
“Anything that is really important to you in life and that really drives you in life, you don’t need to keep that away from somebody,” Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp said. “Obviously, [Ryan’s] foundation, his family’s foundation, is very important to him, and to us as well. … I’m excited that he is able to promote and help the awareness of mental health, and that’s very important.
“I think he handles it extremely well. He’s mature beyond his years.”