When Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hililnski took his own life earlier this year, he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease often found in football players.
Hilinski's parents revealed the news this week on the Today show and in an article and documentary from Sports Illustrated.
"It was a shock to get those results and to find out he had it and to realize that the sport he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis," his mom, Kym Hilinksi, said on Today.
Hilinski (above) was 21 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January. When the Mayo Clinic contacted his family, they agreed to give the hospital his brain for research. The Mayo Clinic's report came back positive for CTE, which is caused by repeated head trauma.
The disease can only be diagnosed after death and studies have linked it to athletes. While it's rare for someone as young as Hilinski to show signs of CTE, it has been found in football players as young as 17.
"Did football kill Tyler? I don't think so," Kym Hilinksi said in the Sports Illustrated documentary. "Did he get CTE from football? Probably. Was that the only thing that attributed to his death? I don't know."
Hilinski's family was told his brain resembled that of a 65-year-old. The family says they want to raise awareness for mental health, and they want to raise money for their nonprofit Hilinski's Hope Foundation. "What we're trying to do for student-athletes is we're trying to fund programs that support them and their mental health," Kym Hilinski told Today.
Phil Weiler, spokesperson for Washington State University, says mental health and suicide prevention has been a "priority at Washington State University for a number of years." Since Hilinksi's death, he says WSU launched new initiatives on campus to address suicide and mental health, including mental health screening for all members of the football team and adding a full-time clinical psychologist to the athletic department.