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College Athletes Raise Awareness After Player Suicide

“We feel like we can't express our emotions because we're in a masculine sport.”

Quarterback Luke Falk of the Washington State Cougars. Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images.

During this year’s Senior Bowl practices, Washington State quarterback Luke Falk has been wearing the uniform number of his teammate, Tyler Hilinski, who died by suicide on Jan. 16. The gesture was a way to work through the anguish of losing a friend, Falk said at a press conference on Wednesday, as well as the understandable feelings of guilt and the lingering belief that if only they’d let Hilinski known how much he and his teammates cared, maybe they could have prevented this somehow.

“I wish that I could've given him one more hug,” said Falk. “I wish I could've given him a pat on the butt one more time and just let him know that he’s loved."

A candlelight vigil held by the university the week prior to the Senior Bowl also provided a measure of closure, but Falk also stressed that when it comes to male athletes, suicidal thoughts can (falsely) be seen as an expression of weakness or character flaw — all of which can serve to further isolate the person suffering.


“‘We really want Tyler to be remembered and this to be talked about,’ Falk said. ‘I mean, when suicide is the leading cause of death of men from 18 to 45 years old, it should be talked about. And we should do something about it. I feel like at times we feel like we can’t express our emotions because we’re in a masculine sport. And him being a quarterback, people look up to you as a leader, so he felt like he really probably couldn’t talk to anybody. You know, we gotta change some of that stuff. We gotta have resources and not have any more stigma on people going through that.’”

Zach Heeman is a senior and offensive lineman at Rutgers. Upon learning of Hilinski’s suicide, the pain of losing his brother Luke — who died by suicide while Heeman was still in high school — came flooding back.

“There’s no way to describe that raw feeling, that emptiness that you have when you first hear the news,” he said. “He was such an example for me growing up, everything he did.”

Heeman plans to become a high school guidance counselor following graduation. In the interim, he’s using the media attention provided by football to raise awareness about the prevalence of teen suicide. According to the World Health Organization, suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death for all 15-24-year-olds worldwide,

“It’s such a platform to play at Rutgers,” he said. “So if it’s something as simple as reaching out to kids I know who may be struggling on campus ... if I can help even one kid get out of that dark place, then that’s what I'm going to do.'”

While he initially did not plan to make it public, Heeman said he’s written a letter to Hilinski’s younger brother, Ryan, a junior in high school and college prospect.

Heeman described the contents of the letter to

“The biggest things that I touched on was that strength is contagious. It’s important for family members, friends and the community as a whole to be strong for each other and lead by example, and make sure that everyone is okay when somebody is having an off day. It’s such a raw thing. In that first month or so, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better and it’s a really dark place for everybody who is impacted by it. But over time it does get easier.'”

Falk has received positive reviews for his play this week, and scouts have him pegged as a potential mid-to-late round pick in this year’s NFL draft. He will not play in the game itself, though, as he left early to attend Hilinski’s funeral.

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