Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski had CTE when he ended his life in January, his parents revealed in an interview with the “Today” show Tuesday to discuss a Sports Illustrated documentary about his death.
Mark and Kym Hilinski found out after they agreed to give Tyler’s brain to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for an autopsy, they said. The autopsy found he had Stage 1 CTE, the lowest level, at the time of his death, and the brain of a 65-year-old. He was 21.
CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease that has been found in many deceased football players and has caused increased scrutiny and discussion of brain injuries in athletes. It is believed to have been a factor in the suicides of former NFLers Junior Seau, Andre Waters and Terry Long, among others.
“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.”
Hilinski was found dead in his apartment after his absence from a team weightlifting session. The team asked police to check on him when they couldn’t reach him by phone.
Hilinski largely played backup to Luke Falk but took snaps in eight games last season. His parents said in the documentary that it was after Washington State’s game against Arizona in October that they noticed a change in his behavior.
The Mayo Clinic found tau protein in Hilinski’s brain, which is considered the hallmark of CTE. The protein forms clumps and spreads throughout the brain, killing brain cells.
“It was a shock to get those results and find out he had [CTE] and to realize that this sport that he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis,” Kym said on “Today.”
Kelly Hilinski, Tyler’s older brother and a medical student, told Sports Illustrated he has switched his focus from cardiovascular medicine to neurosurgery in order to study CTE. Tyler’s younger brother, Ryan, is committed to play football at South Carolina.
A study by Boston University’s CTE Center found the disease in 99 percent of 202 deceased football players who were suspected of having it. The study concluded that CTE can begin soon after head injuries, even in young adults.
The family started the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation in the wake of Tyler’s death “with the goal of keeping Tyler’s memory alive and generating the funding necessary to support programs that will help destigmatize mental illness.”