How Tyler Hilinski’s former teammates champion mental health services

Notes of smooth jazz float through Gabe Marks’ office in Mar Vista, an empty, unfussy room.

A few years ago, Marks’ life was more about violence. Glory. Pains. A decorated wide receiver for Washington State, he spent his days roaming green fields, unleashing the rage with every route, catch and stiff arm.

Now his only company in this room is a few paintings, a long-stemmed flower on his desk, and the clients he sees every day as a clinical psychologist. His thoughts are enclosed within four off-white walls, the only connection to the outside world being a window above his desk. He can no longer hide behind a helmet.

“This is my natural habitat,” Marks said, fingering the buttons on his flannel shirt. “I like to be in my solitude to reflect and reflect.”

In January 2018, Marks was just months away from giving up his NFL dream and had started working toward a master’s degree in clinical psychology when he broke the news: Former Washington State teammate and friend Tyler Hilinski, had died by suicide.

Suddenly, the concept of mortality didn’t seem so far off. Marks was one of many from those Cougars teams on the fringes of professional football, and the circumstances of the loss made them turn inward and finally address the fears of a career in the spotlight, which they all felt but never discussed.

Gabe Marks at his desk in the Office of Behavioral Medicine in Mission Harbor.

(Luca Evans / For the Times)

A few years later, Marks practices behavioral health at Mission Harbor, inspired by one day serving as a consultant to professional teams and players. He is one of the few on the Washington State team who took a special interest in football mental health after Hilinski’s death.

“That was just a turning point, I think, for everyone, all of the collective brothers that were involved in this program,” Marks said. “We just had to step back and reevaluate a lot of things in our lives. A lot of us went in slightly different directions after that moment.”

They couldn’t help Hilinski. It has taken many of his former teammates a long time to come to terms with it. But maybe they can help someone else.

::

Nick Begg knew he couldn’t touch Hilinski in practice because the backup quarterback was wearing a red “No Contact” jersey. The Washington state defense attorney would still taunt him anyway.

“That was a sack!” Begg would scream. “I’ll come get you again!”

“You won’t even come close,” Hilinski would reply.

Hilinski was one of the happiest guys Begg had met. Funniest too. The trash talk still stands out.

“That’s the last thing you want from a second-string quarterback in practice,” Begg said over the phone, his voice rising. “It’s something I will cherish forever.”

Begg hosted Hilinski on his recruiting journey when he first visited Washington state, with the two bonded over a shared Southern California heritage. Begg took the quarterback under his wing and they quickly became friends.

On January 16, 2018, Hilinski missed a Lyft ride to a workout earlier in the day. No one had heard of him – atypical for a fitness rat like Hilinski. A strength coach sent Begg and linebacker Peyton Pelluer, Hilinski’s roommate at the time, to track him down.

Tyler Hilinski runs onto the field before a game against Idaho in Pullman, Washington.

Tyler Hilinski runs onto the field before a game against Idaho in Pullman, Washington.

(Young Kwak/Associated Press)

They searched the city, spoke to Hilinski’s brother and heard about a text message being sent to an ex-girlfriend.

“That’s when things started to get tense,” Begg said quietly.

They went back to Hilinski’s old apartment, Begg said. Management wouldn’t give them a key. Instinctively, Begg said, he and Pelluer broke down the door. There they found the body.

Begg stared at the sight and went into shock. Athletes are used to feeling in control of their environment. He was helpless.

“I don’t even know if I had any logical thoughts at the time,” Begg said.

According to Pullman, Washington police, Hilinski shot himself in the head. He left a note and had a gun.

“I’m actually worried about Peyton and Nick,” said Kym Hilinski, Tyler’s mother, “because I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must have been to find Tyler.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Washington State made counselors and psychologists available to team members. An autopsy revealed that Hilinski had CTE Begg, and others noted that each of them could have shared the same feelings as the “universally loved” quarterback — they rarely knew him past a smile on his face.

“Someone like that might be afraid to show weakness because they know that’s who they are and that’s what people expect of them,” Begg said.

The week of Hilinski’s death, a squad of former teammates visited Pullman. About eight of them stayed with him and Pelluer, Begg recalls. They fell asleep together, realizing how deep those relationships ran and how quickly they could be taken away.

“It really just becomes a part of your life,” said Kym Hilinski.

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Marks was at a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena in January with Parker Henry, a former Washington State teammate who was visiting from out of town, when Henry got the call from a mutual friend about Hilinski’s death.

It was a moment they would never forget. Marks has experienced this before.

When he was 9 years old, his grandfather walked in and told Marks that his father had been killed, the victim of gang violence in the Venice neighborhood where he grew up.

“I remember feeling like something was taken from me,” Marks said, “but I didn’t know how to process it at the moment.”

A year later, Marks started playing soccer.

He was good at it. He had natural hand-eye coordination, could catch a pass and had a natural competitive spirit. And he was very angry.

“It’s been my therapy for a long time,” said Marks, who would become a star at Venice High.

Gabe Marks leaves an Oregon defender on the ground after giving Washington State a welcome.

Gabe Marks leaves an Oregon defender on the ground after giving Washington State a welcome.

(Ryan Kang / Associated Press)

Over four years in Washington state, Marks set the Pac-12 conference record for receptions. If the trauma returned or if the fear took over, he would dig his studs deeper. But after failing to be called up in 2017, Marks was suddenly left hovering on the fringes of the NFL roster.

“Once [football] is over, all that stuff you were using to propel you into violent behavior toward your goals — antisocial behavior and whatnot — you suddenly stick with them,” Marks said.

When Marks said goodbye to football, he noticed how many were in his position – guys who had thrived in college but now felt lost without their emotional outlet.

“Especially with the bloated self-esteem that we’ve gained in those areas … afraid to ask for help because there’s no one like us there to help, we fall into these holes where you see these guys end up in jail ‘ Marks said. “It’s a really dark place when the game is over.”

When Henry got that call, Marks was already graduating. Reflecting on Hilinski’s death, he realized that few services were available for football players to safely talk about mental health.

“It was really the first time in a long time that I had to step out of my box and think about what else I could really do,” said Marks.

Now Marks is hoping to help those who have charted his path before – those with unresolved trauma or who are simply feeling weighed down by the pressures of football.

::

Henry could never eat before a game.

He would focus on drinking water. Maybe on a good day he would choke down a waffle. But when he tried to swallow other solid foods, he vomited.

“You have all these expectations, not just of yourself, but of your family, your friends, your coaches, to perform,” Henry said.

Now a defensive assistant at USC, Henry tries to emphasize the importance of mental health and managing anxiety to his players.

“Having a culture that doesn’t shy away from it and makes you feel like that’s weird will help that person manage that fear,” Henry said.

Hilinski, who rose to stardom at Upland High, taught longtime Washington State starter Luke Falk how to view other quarterbacks on the roster as allies, not competition. Falk, who spent a year with the New York Jets, has now started a service called Four-QB Training, which works with young signal callers on both their physical tools and stress management. Falk also began planning a new venture with Begg, which they hope will help athletes provide tools to manage their mental health.

Cougars quarterbacks Tyler Hilinski (3) and Luke Falk take snaps while warming up before a game against USC in Pullman.

Cougars quarterbacks Tyler Hilinski, 3, and Luke Falk take snaps while warming up before a game against USC in Pullman, Wash. in 2017.

(Young Kwak/Associated Press)

“We all just asked ourselves, ‘What could we have done?'” Falk said. “For me, it was just like, ‘Maybe I can help out a little bit and make a positive impact on people like Tyler did.”

Hilinski’s parents, Kym and Mark, founded an organization called Hilinski’s Hope in 2018 to help connect student athletes with mental health resources. They are still in contact with many of Hilinski’s Washington State teammates, including Marks, Begg and Falk, and are grateful to them for taking such an initiative to promote mental health awareness.

But the pain will always remain.

“I’d trade everything back – I’d trade all of Gabe’s success, whatever Nick decides, and Hilinski’s hope for having her [Tyler] for a minute,” said Mark Hilinski. “But as long as nobody uses it, I think it’s great.”

As Marks has identified, there is an urgent need for improved counseling and mental training in sports, and he, former teammates and Hilinski’s family are committed to meeting that need.

However, every small victory will always be bittersweet. It’s tremendous that this is happening now, said Mark Hilinski.

But he wishes the resources they are now trying to provide had been there for his son.

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