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How the Hilinskis honored their son at Washington State

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Hilinski's Hope: Football family and writer bound by grief (7:00)

Seven months after the death of Washington State QB Tyler Hilinski, his parents cope with their grief and memories. (7:00)

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Kym Hilinski used to worry about getting a speeding ticket on the trip from Spokane to Pullman. If she was making the drive, it meant she was on the way to see her son, Tyler, and that anticipation made it tempting to cover the 75 miles faster than the hour and 20 minutes it usually takes.

"I just couldn't wait to get here to see Tyler," she said, before her smile quickly fades. "And then to get here now and not see him -- it's pretty tough."

In the nearly eight months that have passed since Tyler Hilinski died by suicide, these types of moments are common. Kym and her husband, Mark, will recall a fond memory of their middle child only be forced back into the present where the harsh reality is there won't be any more of them. No new pictures, no more hikes, no more football games.

The Hilinski family -- Mark, Kym and their sons, Kelly and Ryan -- returned to Pullman this week, maybe for the last time, as Washington State played its first home game of the season. It's impossible for them not to think about what the game was supposed to be: Tyler's first game as the Cougars' starting quarterback at Martin Stadium.

Moments before Washington State's game against San Jose State kicked off late Saturday evening, the Hilinski family and friends were invited to raise the WSU flag -- a tradition that precedes every home game. When they were shown on the video screen an emotion round of applause rang through the stadium. The monitor panned to the mental health awareness ribbons painted on the field and to the Hilinski's Hope flag flying on the opposite side of the stadium.

Throughout the season, the team will wear No. 3 decals on their helmets and Tyler's locker will be maintained with a Hilinski's Hope sweatshirt inside.

"It's hard. I feel like most of us got all of our emotions out over the first couple months," WSU offensive lineman Liam Ryan said. "We think about him every day. It's hard every day, but we do it for him every day. He's always with us.

"We're always going to be there. We're always going to be thinking for him."

For the Hilinskis and those close to them, the weekend was about keeping Tyler's memory alive.

About 20 minutes outside of Pullman, there is a hiking trail Tyler used to frequent. It's not particularly challenging, but the payoff at the end provides a view of the wheat fields of the Palouse that belongs on a postcard. He learned about it in class and would return several times with his mom, friends or by himself.

When Kym suggested they get a group together to retrace those steps Saturday morning, she figured maybe there would be 25 people willing to come along. She certainly didn't expect the more than 100 who showed up, nor how powerful a moment it would be when the group gathered at the top and looked out as Tyler's No. 3 flag waved in the wind.

"Those are good people, and when we say, 'Coug Nation helps us put one foot in front of the other and move forward,' that's exactly what I'm talking about," Kym said. "When you see that level of support and love and I've got this crazy family, right? That's wonderful. And it helps."

Karen Wytko was one of the many people who joined the hike who didn't know the Hilinskis at this time a year ago. Wytko's daughter, Erin, a WSU graduate, died by suicide six years ago, and when it came time to pick a charity to donate money raised in Erin's honor, she chose the one created in Tyler's honor. The Hilinski's Hope Foundation will support programs that aim to destigmatize mental illness.

"Unfortunately, (Kym and I) became good friends through tragedy and we're determined to get rid of the stigma around suicide, promote suicide awareness and mental health awareness and do what we need to do to hopefully stop it," Wytko said. "It's an uncomfortable subject for people who don't understand.

"You have to keep talking. You don't want them be known only for (how they died). You want people to know the person."

It's an approach to both grief and understanding the Hilinskis also believe in.

Both Mark and Kym are uniquely able to share intimate details of the deeply personal experience of losing their son with those they hardly know. They would prefer not to, but they are firmly committed to doing what they can to use their unfortunate tragedy to help prevent others from experiencing something similar.

"Even though we're here and we're trying really hard to do this, upstairs [in the hotel] we're talking about, 'Oh my God, this is miserable.'" Kym said. "It's so hard to do this and we're telling each other that. But then we go, 'We got this, we can do it together. We got this.'"

For Tyler's younger brother, Ryan, ESPN's top-ranked pocket-style quarterback in the Class of 2019 who is committed to play at South Carolina, that still involves football. Like for both of his older brothers, football has always been -- and remains -- a passion, but now it's also a refuge. Kelly, the oldest, plans to head to medical school and is contemplating studying neurology. An autopsy of Tyler's brain found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that has been linked to football in studies of brains donated by former players for research.

There is very little that Tyler's family does, it seems, that doesn't either honor or remind them of him.

"There's no getting around the sadness of missing him and especially being on campus and stuff. It's just impossible to avoid," Mark said. "But being back [in Pullman] is also a reminder about how much fun this place is and was when he was here and how much we liked it and what great times we had here. And there are so many great people that we met directly as a result of Tyler going to school here and playing football here.

"But it's a mixed blessing because you get those stories, but it reinforces that you're getting told those stories because he's gone."

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255