Commentary: WSU player’s death raises new brain trauma concern

That Tyler Hilinski suffered from CTE should change some assumptions about concussion injuries.

By the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Editorial Board

Tyler Hilinski was seen as the future of Washington State University’s football program. In September, the sophomore quarterback had come off the bench to replace the team’s injured star, senior Luke Falk, to lead the Cougars, who were down by 21 in the fourth quarter, to a three-overtime win over Boise State.

Great things were expected for Hilinski. And then he died.

Hilinski was found dead in his apartment in Pullman on Jan. 16, with a gunshot wound to the head and a suicide note next to him.

How could this happen? His teammates, his friends and his parents asked that question over and over. It made no sense.

On Tuesday, Tyler’s parents, Mark and Kym Hilinski, revealed on NBC’s “Today” show that chronic traumatic encephalopathy was found in 21-year-old Tyler’s brain after an autopsy done at the Mayo Clinic.

“It was a shock to get those results and find out he had it and to realize that the sport he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis,” Kym Hilinski said.

“The (medical examiner) said he had the brain of a 65-year-old,” Mark Hilinski added. “Which was really hard to take. He was the sweetest, most outgoing, giving kid. That was difficult to hear.”’

This is stunning, and cause to rethink our perspective on football’s relationship to brain trauma.

To this point, long-term damage from brain trauma — CTE — is thought to only occur after a career in the NFL. It was certainly not seen as something that could happen to a young man, a quarterback, who had played relatively few games at the college level.

Yet, the suicide of Hilinski shows that brain trauma can occur quickly and its damage can be catastrophic.

Sports Illustrated, in an article released Tuesday, pieced together what happened in the hours leading up to Tyler’s death. Nobody saw signs of depression that might have led to Hilinski’s suicide.

That’s because those who knew him were not looking. They attributed changes in behavior to being down about his performance in a particular game or that he was busy with classes.

In the wake of the CTE diagnosis, they see things differently.

That’s a lesson for us all. Head trauma, at any age, can be serious. And not just football. It can happen in any sport or activity.

No one thing can be done to prevent a tragedy like this, but understanding that it can happen to a very young man with a bright future ahead of him can help detect the signs that someone needs help.

The above editorial appeared Wednesday in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

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