PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) Kyle Sweet got out of the cold rain that greeted the first day of spring practice for Washington State and threw on a black baseball hat with a `3′ affixed to the side.
On the day spring ball started for the Cougars, Sweet’s hat represented the most outward, notable tribute to Tyler Hilinski.
”I think about Tyler every day as I’m sure all of us do. But right now we’re trying to move forward. We’ll never forget him but we don’t want to just keep being stuck in one spot,” Sweet said after the nearly three-hour practice. ”We love Tyler and he was a great person but we’re trying to move forward.”
There will be benchmark events for the Washington State program following Hilinski’s death in January. Thursday was one of them, the first full team practice since Hilinski took his life on Jan. 16.
”Our team has talked about it from beginning to end and none of that we’re going to share with you guys,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said.
The 21-year-old was expected to be Washington State’s starting quarterback for the 2018 season, the next in a line of standout passers to play for the Cougars. His death rattled the Washington State campus and shocked college sports – a player who seemingly had everything going for him deciding to take his own life.
”We’ve all been together. We’ve talked about it. We’ve had people to talk to about it,” safety Hunter Dale said. ”He’s always going to be in our minds. He’s always going to be on the field with us.”
Hilinski’s death was a crisis situation for Washington State’s athletic department. What’s come out of it is a strengthened focus on mental health and perhaps more of a willingness campus wide to speak about personal issues.
Dr. Sunday Henry became the director of athletic medicine for Washington State last fall. It was Henry along with Jerry Pastore, a mental health counselor, and psychiatrist Dr. Kate Geiger – all employees inside the Cougars’ athletic program – that were the spearheads of a plan to help Hilinski’s teammates and the entire athletic department cope with the shocking death. Henry and her team worked from the inside out, starting with the football program, then the rest of the athletic department, if nothing else than to be an ear to listen. It required collaboration and cooperation across the tight-knit campus, and borrowing counselors from other areas of the campus to be available for those who needed help in the immediate aftermath.
”We just didn’t know what to expect. That’s part of it. When you say there’s no script, we didn’t know what to expect,” Henry said. ”My approach was I didn’t want to have some sort of scenario where you’d say, `Can you wait?’ … The entire campus felt this. They continue to feel this and we continue to feel this. We are still having people surface. There has been a lot of emotional and mental things going on since then. As an entire campus we’re still feeling it.”
Jordan Frost is the president of the Associated Students of Washington State and has heard the stories of how Hilinski’s death has impacted the student population. Student government was already working on an endowment to fund peer-based sexual assault prevention education and mental health awareness prior to January. Since Hilinski’s death, the efforts have ramped up and the endowment could be in place soon.
”I hate to say it, but because he was a notable popular person it’s helped us get our message to more people,” Frost said. ”I don’t think people don’t care about the issues, but people get busy, your life is crazy, there’s a lot going on. But this has really engaged everyone and they’re staying engaged in the conversation rather than kind of leaving.”
The evaluation of how the football program is handling Hilinski’s death is an ongoing process. Henry and her staff had a mental health evaluation of the entire football team done within the first two weeks following Hilinski’s death, a move Leach fully supported. The start of spring football is one of those important moments, Henry said. So will the start of fall camp in August and the Cougars first game on Sept. 1 at Wyoming and even more so a week later when the Cougars host San Jose State.
”I think then moving forward from now, when you talk about no blueprint, we’ve taken care of enough of that acuteness,” Henry said. ”Now we can see what can we do for the future both here at Washington State but also to push that culture change, how do we make a change nationally and help turn this really sad thing that happened into something positive.”