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Armour: Washington State QB Committed Suicide but Football Killed Him

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Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski during a game against Arizona in Pullman, Wash., on Nov. 5, 2016. Photo: Young Kwak / The Associated Press

By Nancy Armour |

Football killed Tyler Hilinski.

Officially, the Washington State quarterback’s cause of death was suicide. But that’s just semantics after Tuesday’s news that Hilinski had the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Hilinski was 21 when he shot himself on Jan. 16. Yet his father said on NBC’s TODAY Show that medical examiners said his son had the brain of a 65-year-old.

While the NFL dithers about the need for more information and CTE deniers insist there must be some other cause, Hilinski’s death lays bare an ugly truth: Football can kill. And that ought to terrify any parent who is wary at the thought of their son, or daughter, playing the sport at a young age.

“It was a shock, to get those results and to find out that he had it,” Kym Hilinski said on TODAY. “And to realize that the sport that he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis.”

While researchers have established a link between repetitive head trauma and CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease, there still is much that remains unknown. How many hits to the head are too many? Why do some athletes in contact sports develop it and not others? Are there aggravating – or mitigating – factors?

And how could a 21-year-old have a brain that was that badly damaged already?

Hilinski spent most of his career as a quarterback, a position not as prone to violent hits as, say, linebacker or lineman. His parents say their son did not have a history of concussions or head trauma, though he did take a hit against Arizona last season that “rocked” him.

Yet he showed signs of depression last fall. Then, on Jan. 16, he shot himself.

As heartbreaking as the stories are of former NFL players who had mood swings, dementia or, in the very worst cases, committed suicide, they at least are understandable. A decade or more of violent hits and full-speed collisions are bound to take a toll.

But Hilinski’s death defies reason. As does that of Owen Thomas, a defensive end at Penn whose brain showed early signs of CTE after he committed suicide in 2010. He, too, was 21.

The only possible explanation is that both played football from a young age. And the game they loved cost them their lives.

Now, that doesn’t mean every kid who plays football will develop CTE. Or that parents are signing away their child’s health along with the permission slip for that local youth league. But when there is still so much we don’t know, when damage doesn’t become clear until it’s too late, why would any parent take that chance?

There are those who will say that football has never been safer, pointing to changes in equipment and tackling technique. But there is no helmet or mouth guard that will prevent head trauma, and players can get sloppy.

Researchers now recommend that kids not play tackle football until they’re between 12 and 14, and that seems reasonable. Waiting until junior high or high school won’t block anyone’s path to a college scholarship or an NFL, but it will help protect their long-term health.

It might even save their life.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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