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A tragedy, a friendship and a documentary: Behind 'The Secret Sadness of Tyler Hilinski'

Photo courtesy Brandon Farris

On January 19 of this year, I came to work and sat down in front of my computer. I looked at the screen for a moment, and I said to myself, "I'm not doing a single thing today until I write something about that boy."

"That boy" was Tyler Hilinski. Three days prior, he had taken his own life with an AR-15 in an apartment at Washington State University.

And so I wrote about him. I had never met Tyler, and knew very little about him, really. But I wrote about watching his near-miraculous performance against Boise State that season, about how he was like a young colt being set free on the field that day. How watching him was a kind of revelation.

I had been inspired by a photo of Tyler being carried off the field that night on the shoulders of his teammates. It was taken by a guy named Brandon Farris.

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I also wrote about his suicide, and the gaping hole it left in so many people's hearts, because he was a quarterback, because he was a Coug, and because his death was so mystifying. So shocking. So hard to fathom.

It took about 45 minutes to write. I called the story "Unbridled," and I posted it on my KOMO Facebook page, and also on the WSU website Cougfan.com.

There is a link to it here.

Something amazing happened, and even now I can't get over the series of events that followed.

The story blew up on social media. Thousands and thousands of people read it and commented and let me know that they loved it.

And then one day, about three days later, Tyler's aunt, Christine Hilinski-Lombardi called me. She said that the Hilinski family had read the story, and that they loved it. I remember that she was driving when she called, and that she was crying.

She said that Tyler's mom, Kym, couldn't get out of bed one day, consumed by grief. She said that Kym read Unbridled... and then got up to face the world without her son.

In the days to come, I heard from Tyler's dad Mark by way of a beautiful and heartfelt note of thanks.

And then I got a call from Kym, and it was a tough conversation, but she was so thankful and kind. She called the Unbridled story "my greatest gift," and she told me that the family was going to include it in the program at Tyler's memorial service.

I was stunned. And honored. I still am.

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On January 26, the day before Tyler's memorial service, I sent that picture of him being carried off the field to them. I'd blown it up to poster size, and had it framed. I had a little name-plate made in Cougar colors. It said simply, "Unbridled." It was beautiful.

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The frame was packed away in bubble-wrap and put in a big box, but somehow, on the way down to Southern California, the glass inside was smashed and the shards scarred the picture and cut up the frame.

I got a message from Aunt Christine the morning of the memorial and I remember her words, "Your beautiful gift has been destroyed."

But a while later, she sent another note. Apparently there were some Cougs who worked at the hotel where the family was staying. They took the picture and tried to repair it. They pulled out all the shattered glass used a marker to cover the scars on the frame.

'We might be able to save it," Christine said.

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The next day I went online to read about the service. On the Los Angeles Times website I saw the most amazing thing: a big picture, with the framed picture of Tyler being carried away, right next to the alter, surrounded by flowers.

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I got to know the Hilinski family in those next couple months. They seemed so kind, so heartbroken, so numb and devastated.

I found them to be inconsolable, as you would imagine, but also profoundly determined to make something good happen in their son's name.

I was in awe as they told me about Hilinski's Hope, the foundation they started to bring national awareness to mental health and suicide issues for young people. They would use H.H. to raise money, and then use that money to support programs at universities. They were going to shine a light and save lives, and they would do it in Tyler's name. They would not be turned away or put off.

"If anyone thinks I'm going to get tired and stop, they don't know me," Kym said to me. "I don't get tired."

So many people asked me during that time if I was going to interview the Hilinski family, and do some kind of special story on Tyler.

But I considered them to be friends by that time, and I was hesitant to 'use' that friendship for professional reasons.

"If they want me to do something, they'll ask," I said. "If they don't that's fine."

Eventually, they brought up the idea, and I said yes, and the project began to take shape.

We went to Los Angeles and visited the family. We went to Pullman twice. We interviewed dozens of people, including teammates of Tyler's, friends, students, doctors, C.T.E. experts, and WSU legends.

During that time, Sport Illustrated writer Greg Bishop did a big story about Tyler and his family. And when I opened it up, there was a big picture of Tyler's dad Mark, holding that same picture, with the scarred frame, of Tyler being carried off the field.

There has been a lot written about Tyler and his passing. The Hilinskis have been incredibly generous with their time and their emotion, as they try to inform and teach through the prism of their son's life.

But none of it left me feeling like I "knew" Tyler. I'm hoping this project accomplishes that, because he was a bright, loving, happy kid with a beautiful smile and a great future.

I also want the documentary to explore the effect Tyler's death has had on a whole generation of WSU students, some who were forced to deal with death for the first time in their lives.

But mostly, I want it to be a launching pad for tough conversations about depression, mental health and suicide.

I hope families watch it together, and that they talk about it, and share it with their friends. I hope schools show it, and churches and anybody else who wants to shine a light into the darkness of depression which has stolen so many of our young, bright souls.

It will be commercial free. I hope you'll watch it, Saturday night, September 15, at 10 p.m., then again Sunday at 3 p.m.

It's important.

If you need help, or if you're worried about a friend or loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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