BY Art Thiel 03:33PM 06/26/2018

Thiel: CTE diagnosis for Hilinski will change little

The parents of suicide victim Tyler Hilinski were shocked to learn their son’s brain condition was that of a 65-year-old, because of CTE. But their youngest son will continue to play.

Tyler Hilinski said a blow in the loss to Arizona left him rocked. / Washington State athletics

The brain condition of a 65-year-old. In the body of a 21-year-old college athlete.

The medical discovery from the Mayo Clinic was shared on NBC’s Today show Tuesday for the first time by the parents of Tyler Hilinski, the Washington State quarterback who committed suicide by gunshot in his Pullman apartment Jan. 16.

The presence of the degenerative condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) shocked Mark and Kim Hilinski.

“The medical examiner said he had the brain of a 65-year-old, which is really hard to take,” Mark told Today. “He was the sweetest, most outgoing, giving kid. That was difficult to hear.”

CTE has been found post-mortem in the brains of numerous football players. The disease was at the center of a $765 million settlement the NFL entered into in 2013 with more than 4,500 retired players who filed a class-action lawsuit. As of March, according to the Washington Post, six players who claimed neurocognitive impairment had been paid, for less than $5 million total.

The NFL has disputed a direct link between CTE and the violent collisions in football, citing hundreds of current and former players who offer no symptoms, as well as medical research on cause and effect that is less than definitive. But the trend has been sufficient to cause the NFL to continually amend its rules, starting in 2010 and up to this off-season, including controversial new limits placed on tacklers to avert head trauma.

Attempts at improving player safety are worthwhile, but they can’t fix the damage that has been done. In a Sports Illustrated documentary film/story published Tuesday with the cooperation of the Hilinski family, even his mother isn’t ready to conclude that football’s blows were a direct cause of the brain damage that seemed to lead to a death no one in either his family or his football circle saw coming.

“Did football kill Tyler?” Kym said in the documentary. “I don’t think so. Did he get CTE from football? Probably. Was that the only thing that attributed to his death? I don’t know.”

Far from condemning football, the Hilinskis’ youngest of three sons, Ryan, is continuing his football career after the diagnosis was revealed. He’s a senior, four-star quarterback at Anaheim’s Orange Lutheran High who has committed to play for the University of South Carolina.

“We got the results and didn’t just hand (Ryan) the results and say, ‘Read this,’” Kym said. “We did a lot of research. Can (CTE) be tested in the living? It can’t. Is there a genetic or hereditary link? They’re not sure. So we had to find out as much information as we could and talk to experts and then let Ryan know.”

In the SI documentary, Ryan Hilinski said he was scared and worried that he may have a similar fate, but isn’t quitting football.

“I think Tyler would want me to do the same thing,” Ryan said. “I don’t think he’d want me to stop.”

It is that sort of belief system that keeps at bay the demise of football, as well as other contact sports that are prone to head trauma, such as soccer and hockey. If the CTE-induced suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters had minimal impact, if the 2015 Will Smith movie, Concussion, didn’t move the needle, it’s doubtful the discovery of Hilinski’s brain condition will change things.

As a nation of risk-takers, men and women relentlessly seek out jobs in high-risk endeavors in the military, aerospace, police, fire and first-responder crews, to name just a few. The adrenal gland is a powerful thing.

The biggest differences with those enterprises and sports is that the activity is not related to preserving or enhancing community welfare, and the severity of the brain-trauma risk is often unexplained, covered up or undetected — sometimes all three.

The latter description appears to fit the disclosure by the family to SI that Hilinski told his brother he was “rocked” by a hit in 15th-ranked WSU’s 58-37 loss at Arizona in October. With the Cougars down 20-7, he came on in relief of an ineffective Luke Falk in the second quarter and threw two touchdown passes for a 27-23 lead. But he also threw four interceptions in the second half. Until Tuesday, brain damage had never been mentioned.

The family said he was upset after the loss, and was less responsive for the rest of the season, which they presumed was due football and school duties.

“The reality is that we missed it, and we let him down,” Mark Hilinski told SI, manfully taking blame where there is none.

In a text to the Seattle Times, Cougars coach Mike Leach said he didn’t recall a hard hit on Hilinski in the game, and that it’s “pretty difficult to determine with certainty” whether CTE was the cause of death, adding, “I would like to know.”

Leach was already on the defensive, texting, “Our QBs don’t get hit in practice. They get hit less than any other position.”

No coach allows QBs to be hit in practice. Besides, all it takes is one blow to lead to tragedy. It needn’t be memorable.

Maybe a kick at the bottom of the pile. Perhaps a backward fall to the ground.  Or an accumulation of small hits, including innocent helmet slaps from celebrating teammates, that add up over 10 years of tackle football.

That’s the thing with CTE. It is insidious, leaving no trails of blood or broken bone that medical science can detect or help fix. For a competitive young man desperate to please coach, teammates, family and a full stadium, a concussion is merely a temporary shadow on the mind that can be solved with more play, not less.

Much as with PTSD, the victim is the last to know, with everyone else tied for next-to-last. Mothers, tell your children.


  • tor5

    Wow. That’s a really sad story, and thoughtfully reported, Art. I sure love the game as a spectator, but I hate the idea of players sacrificing their brains for my entertainment. I’d like to embrace Leach’s “we don’t know,” but logic doesn’t let me get away with that for long. While football hits and CTE are not perfectly correlated, it only stands to reason that there’s something going on. And I can’t find any honor among those administering the NFL. Every utterance from them sounds like it was written by a team of lawyers and that they’re always trying to stay one step ahead of culpability. They are trying to make the game safer, but they’re still persisting with the position that it’s not unsafe. And, really, they might want to consider dealing with former players like caring humans instead of bullying litigants. In the long run, I bet the former would be a better strategy.

    I guess I can’t write this without thinking about my own role as a fan. What should fans do? Can we still love the game and can it continue in a safer way? How can we as fans accelerate that? Any ideas?

    • art thiel

      That’s a hard question. Some purists have walked away from the game, as happened in boxing, horse racing and rodeo.

      Most discerning fans have to wrestle with a guilty pleasure. The game is a collision sport that can be made safer only incrementally. You sound like a man with a conscience. So I recommend following it.

      • Bruce McDermott

        Interesting issue. At some point, the dangers are sufficiently well known to those who participate that the question of voluntary assumption of risk among adults is raised. It’s one thing if the issue is in its infancy. But at some point it matures beyond infancy. Although the issue is still somewhat muddled by the NFL’s self-serving “balancing act” on CTE, it is clear enough now that nobody is playing pro football these days wondering whether it can lead to CTE much more commonly than that syndrome appears in the general population. If so informed a football player nevertheless wants to take the risk in exchange for a chance at relatively huge financial gain and security for himself and his non-football-playing family, I’m not sure that for a fan “conscience” leads to only one conclusion.

  • jafabian

    IMO, Tyler’s age and the fact he was the backup QB who didn’t play an extended amount of minutes would support that the WSU football program wasn’t careless in this. I could be wrong on this though. I was looking forward to seeing how Tyler would do as the starting QB in the Air Raid offense.

    • art thiel

      No evidence has been disclosed that any blows to the head were mishandled. Given what little is known about CTE’s origins, Hilinski’s brain condition remains a mystery.

      • Bruce McDermott

        Maybe that’s the point. No “mishandling” necessary to incur decades of brain deterioration within a few years of high school and college football–at least for some. And no way to determine from the beginning whether a given athlete will be among the “some.”

  • Centiorari

    More awareness and research in this area can only be a good thing, but ultimately football is a dangerous endeavor that each parent and player has to make a decision on whether to take the risk of suffering the possible life-changing injury that has always surrounded the sport. Sadly, what is sometimes missed is all the benefits that the players get from the sport that makes their decision to take the risk appear reasoned rather than careless. What is important is that we use the knowledge we gain from these tragedies to lower the chance that they occur in the future, even if we cannot prevent them, and develop methods to treat them earlier to prevent escalation of the problem. I think the sport is heading in that direction even if the lawyers sometimes get in the way.

  • Alan Harrison

    As a lowest-common-denominator led society, we’re so obsessed with placing blame that we’re missing your well-detailed point. Yes, he had CTE. Yes, CTE was present in 110 of the 111 football player brains tested post-mortem in a recent study ( Yes, football, like gladiator/lion matches (which was also a bettor’s paradise), is violent and causes permanent injury. Occam’s Razor tells us that it’s likeliest that football-playing causes CTE which causes brain atrophy, severe depression, and ultimately, death. That’s all we have to know to make an informed decision (although I suppose no one asked the gladiators or lions if they wanted to participate). Any other conclusion is wishful thinking.

  • Tian Biao

    this is a tough nut to crack. on the one hand, yes, when a player gets hit hard, it makes me wince, and I feel sorry for that player, and I have to remind myself that football is voluntary, that those players are doing it by choice. Look no further than Hilinksi’s brother.

    but on the other hand, when a player on my team, say Chancellor or Thomas, or Wagner, really crunches an opposing player, say Jared Goff or Tom Brady or whoever it might be, I get a definite thrill. Nor am I alone: in a bar, in the stands, with friends, a lot of spectators love that moment. and the players love it too: i’ve seen Chancellor interviewed, and he loves to deliver that hard hit. A lot of them do. It’s the nature of the game.

    But then again . . . I’ve seen the concussion movie, and now the Hilinski revelation, and, one of the ex Cowboy players (was it Emmitt Smith? I don’t remember) in an interview said, he sometimes can’t remember where his daughter goes to school. He’s driving her to school, and he forgets where he is going.

    So where does that leave us? From the players’ perspective, education and awareness. letting them know what can go wrong. From the league perspective, anything they can do to make the game safer: better helmets, safer practices, safer kickoffs, protecting defenseless receivers, all those measures. But as Art points out, those are incremental. the game is violent. CTE is unpredictable.

    one more thought: the pressure to win is a factor in all this. in the WSU UCLA game in 2015, Luke Falk got completely concussed. he was on his hands and knees, staggered, couldn’t get up for ten seconds or so. woozy on the sidelines, but . . . sure enough . . . Leach sent him back in a couple of drives later. Just win, baby. nor did Leach give Falk much cover when Falk sat out the Apple Cup that year. So awareness should extend to the coaches as well.

  • Steed

    A man’s wife was killed by their own pit bulls, and the man afterward said he doesn’t blame the dogs, and intends to continue his advocacy work trying to educate people about how pitbulls are not as bad as as as their reputation.

    A family in Kentucky lost their daughter when their son shot and killed her with a rifle that was left unattended where the child could get to it. The family concluded that it was just a freak accident, and the weapon was not to blame.

    Tyler Hilinsky took his own life. He had CTE; that can cause depression. There was nothing in his life other than football that could have caused it. And his family has concluded that it’s ok for their other son to keep playing. They don’t blame football.

    Evidence doesn’t often change our minds when we really do not want to accept that what we believed in the past might be totally wrong. That’s human nature. It explains a lot of what is happening today.

    • tor5

      It’s classic Cognitive Dissonance Theory. In fact, one of the tenets of that theory is that, in the face of contrary evidence, one’s commitment to the prior belief becomes _stronger_, not weaker.

    • Bruce McDermott

      I don’t think the issue here is so much a failure to recognize causation–at least for many of us, and certainly the players. It’s more an issue of assumption of risk.

  • coug73

    Playing football from grade school to college I rarely heard of concussions. Seeing stars, bell rung, where words used. It was within the rules to head slap and strike with the fore arm to the head which are illegal now. Tackling and blocking with the head up, face mask driven into the opponent was taught at higher levels of play. How many older players have died or are sick with CTE? So much unknown.