COLUMBIA, S.C. — When the South Carolina Gamecocks raced out of the tunnel Saturday morning for their game against Charleston Southern, freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski led the stampede, right fist in the air.
When Kym Hilinski saw her son at the front of the charge, she yelled, “Go big, Ty!”
Once she realized what came out of her mouth, Kym crumpled to her seat. And she didn’t yell again for a long time.
“I really think I was yelling for both Ryan and Tyler,” Kym said later.
Were Ryan playing only for South Carolina, carrying only the burden of being an 18-year-old freshman leading an SEC offense, his performance Saturday would be the stuff of instant legend.
In the first college game he played, much less started, Hilinski threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another score, in three quarters of play. The Gamecocks not only beat the outmatched Buccaneers, an FCS team, 72-10, but they set a school record with 775 yards of total offense.
“I thought he would play extremely well,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “Did I think he would be 12-for-12 to start the game?” Muschamp lands somewhere between a chuckle and snort. “No. You don’t ever know, and anybody who ever says they know? They’re full of it.”
The South Carolina offense didn’t commit a single penalty all day: no motion penalties, no delays, no lining up incorrectly. No confusion.
And no punts, either.
All of which is to say Ryan Hilinski appeared to be uncommonly mature on the field, not just because, six weeks before his 19th birthday, he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds.
Not just because his first eight passes went to eight different receivers — four wideouts, two tight ends and two running backs — one more sign of a quarterback who knows the offense and has the patience to read and respond to the defense.
Not just because, in preseason work, the minute he got to practice with the starting offense against the starting defense, he went right at Jaycee Horn, one of the best corners in the SEC. “He has a swagger to him,” Horn said after the game Saturday. “That’s what I love about him. Every team I’ve been on, I had a quarterback like that, it ended up being good for us. As y’all saw today, that didn’t look like an 18-year-old out there.”
But there’s one other thing: The uncommon maturity that everyone sees in Hilinski has as much to do with what he has endured off of the field as what he has accomplished on it.
Ryan wears the No. 3 jersey, the number his older brother Tyler wore when he led Washington State to a comeback overtime victory over Boise State in 2017, when he started for the Cougars against Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl at the end of that season. Nineteen days after the bowl game, Tyler died by suicide. He died without his family having the least notion he had been struggling with mental illness.
Ryan is playing for South Carolina. He is also playing for Tyler. When Ryan threw a 60-yard strike for a touchdown to Bryan Edwards in the second quarter Saturday, Ryan raised his right hand, three fingers up, and looked skyward.
Mark and Kym Hilinski, Ryan’s parents, have become advocates for mental health care for student-athletes. Their foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, has begun staging seminars at athletic departments across the country, urging big, strong, competitive athletes that it’s actually healthy to be vulnerable and to seek help.
To raise awareness among the public, at the suggestion of a Gamecocks fan, Hilinski’s Hope is asking everyone at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday to hold up the number three on the first play of the third quarter.
Hilinski’s Hope is Mark and Kym’s attempt to salvage something positive from the tornado that wrecked their lives. As they have grieved in public, they have also turned inward toward their two living sons. Mark and Kym and their oldest son Kelly, 24, all moved east from Southern California to the Columbia area after Ryan enrolled last January.
This isn’t a case of backstage parents basking in the glory of their son, or of Kelly, whose quarterback career at Columbia University and Weber State ended because of injury, living vicariously through his brother. The Hilinskis all are trying to heal and nurse one another’s wounds, all trying to figure out how to live without Tyler.
Ryan is mature enough to have given a eulogy for a South Carolina student who died by suicide two weeks ago. Ryan didn’t know the student who died, but he knew the student’s friends, and they asked, and he wanted to help.
Most nights, Ryan eschews his dorm room and drives a half-hour to Kelly’s apartment, where he sleeps on a queen mattress on the living room floor. Kelly aspires to attend medical school. He took the MCATs at the end of August.
“That was the plan with Tyler,” Kelly said. “I was going to move up [to Washington] for med school. That was the plan. I don’t know. It got transferred to Ryan.”
It’s unusual for siblings aged 24 and 18 to be this close. It usually takes a few more years to grow together as peers. But Kelly and Ryan recognize that all they have is each other.
Kelly is Ryan’s big brother, there to counsel. But Ryan is there for Kelly, too.
“He does things beyond his years,” Kelly said. “It’s not just football. He apologizes first. He takes the blame. He doesn’t make excuses. He acknowledges where he F’d up. He gets better every day. It’s so beyond football. I’m so happy for him, but I’m just proud of him as a kid. I wasn’t this good. I wasn’t that nice of a person. I wasn’t that humble and understanding of the world. It’s really cool to see that.”
It’s especially cool in the hothouse world of the SEC. Ryan wanted the spectacle and challenge of it. Mark is discovering what it feels like to be recognized at the car repair shop. “That’s Hilinski’s father,” one worker said to another in a stage not-whisper.
Kelly couldn’t believe the traffic and hullabaloo around Williams-Brice on Saturday morning, four hours before kickoff. “Thousands upon thousands of South Carolina fans, lining up everywhere, screaming at God knows what, cussing out Clemson fans,” Kelly said. “It’s 8 in the morning!”
Kelly went downtown that early to bring Ryan the white polo shirt the team would wear for Gamecock Walk. None of the other three Hilinskis panicked, or even expressed surprise, that Ryan had forgotten it. Mark said on Friday he wouldn’t be surprised to hear, ”Do you have any red [size] 13 cleats? Because I can’t find mine.”
So there is a freshman in there somewhere. As Ryan projected composure and intensity to his coaches and teammates, he came home and wondered if he would ever fit in a locker room where half the kids are from South Carolina.
As Ryan aced test after test in the quarterback room, he came home and worried he wouldn’t get enough time with the starters to prove to them he knew what he was doing.
“I don’t know if the guys are going to trust me when I get the chance,” Ryan told his dad, “because I haven’t done anything. I’m not doing it in practice in front of them.”
Mark replied, “No, you’re wrong. What they’re going to trust is they see you in the weight room. They see you eating the nutritional stuff or not. They see you at practice. If they’re not in front of you, they’re on the sideline watching you. They’re going to listen to you bitch and moan, or suck it up and do it.”
Senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards, one of the best in the conference, noticed how Hilinski didn’t obsess over missing a throw. He told Muschamp, “Coach, he moves on to the next thing.”
After spending the first quarter Saturday making short, safe throws, Hilinski opened the second quarter with a deep post to an open Edwards. He underthrew it just enough that the corner batted it away.
“He wasn’t too down about it,” Edwards said. “He said, ‘Aw, I missed you. I’m going to get you on the next one.'”
On the second play of the next possession, Hilinski hit Edwards on another deep post for that 60-yard touchdown.
That’s perspective. That’s understanding a bigger picture. That’s not unusual just for freshmen. That’s unusual for top players.
“Some of the highly competitive guys I’ve been around, and Ryan is highly competitive, have a hard time letting the last one go, especially if it wasn’t successful,” Muschamp said. “But at that position, and in most situations, you’ve got to be able to move on.”
Hilinski pumped up a Gamecocks fan base deflated by the season-opening loss to North Carolina and the foot injury to starting quarterback Jake Bentley. South Carolina’s next opponent is about as far removed from Charleston Southern as a college team can be. No. 2 Alabama comes to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.
Not only is the Crimson Tide bigger, stronger and faster than the Buccaneers, Alabama isn’t likely to remain in a 4-3 base defense all afternoon that Hilinski can sit back and pick apart, especially after head coach Nick Saban watched the South Carolina video.
“He had a good arm, he was very accurate,” Saban said of Hilinski. “He made good decisions. He got rid of the ball, he got the ball out of his hands quickly. He executed the offense really well.”
Yet as coaches and teammates and writers praise Ryan’s maturity, Mark and Kym stare at him a little more intently.
“He comes in, ‘How you doin’? You good?'” Mark said, describing Ryan working the room. “Tyler was like that. What I know about Tyler now is I think part of that was the front he put on. I wonder how much I really know.”
It haunts Mark and Kym that they took Tyler’s good nature and concern for others the same way everyone else did — at face value. They didn’t know that deep down, Tyler was scrabbling for purchase, trying, and failing, to maintain his equilibrium. How could they know? Tyler didn’t tell them.
So with Ryan, they glean clues and they listen.
“Ryan’s maturity, if you will, is he’s stable,” Mark said. “He used to get really high and really low. I think he’s flattened out a little bit. I think Tyler, and all we’ve talked about and been through, and Ryan’s exposure to all this in the world, people being sick and people that love them not being able to help, has sobered him.
“I think that, for 18, is about as much as you hope for,” Mark said.
It would be simple to surmise that Ryan is carrying the burden of his brother’s legacy, of feeling he has to succeed for his brother, for his family. But it’s more complicated than that. The pain the Hilinskis have endured won’t be soothed by Ryan throwing touchdowns. All the touchdowns in the world won’t bring Tyler back.
To celebrate Ryan’s first start, his extended family converged onto the South Carolina campus from New England, from Miami, from Sonoma County. At dinner Saturday night, in the 1801 Grille on campus, the Hilinski party of 12 talked up a storm. The adults sat at one end of the table; Ryan, Kelly and their four first cousins at the other.
As they waited for their food, Ryan took a knife, clinked it against his ice-water glass, stood, and turned toward the table.
“I want to thank you for coming,” he said. “It meant a lot. I know this is tough for everyone, but Tyler’s here with us.” He paused, and the grin on his face stretched a little wider. “Let’s beat Bama.”