Northwestern QB Ryan Hilinski Wages a Bigger Battle Off the Field

Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski will begin the season on the bench, but every game he suits up for his extra special, regardless of whether he plays or not. That’s because he takes the memory of his brother Tyler Hilinksi, who took his own life in early 2018, with him on the field, and everywhere else he goes. “I’ve got this tattoo on my wrist at the lighthouse in Hawaii where I spread Tyler’s ashes with my family,” Hilinski said at Northwestern Media Day.

“I’ve got a tattoo of a three out here on my ribs. So physically I carry him on my body. And whenever I look myself in the mirror when I remember him, I see those symbols, and going on to that field, you
know, I say all right let’s rock.

Hilinksi admitted he will be extra motivated to win when Northwestern hosts Michigan State in the season opener, because his brother’s last game was a loss to MSU. Friday night’s game is expected to be a closely contested affair. If you take a look at the best sports betting app available, you’ll see the Cats favored, but only -2.5 to 3 points. The over/under is 45.5, so expect a low scoring affair. If you want to take the Spartans, the best bets are available on the money line at +130. It’s a late broadcast (WGN Radio AM-720; ESPN on television) kicking off at 8pm locally, 9 in the eastern time zone.

While Hilinkski, who transferred in from South Carolina in the offseason, was expected to be the starter, he unfortunately got beaten out by Hunter Johnson. He’s listed as “OR” on the depth chart with Andrew Marty, so it is unclear who would go in next, should Johnson get injured or perform so poorly that he would get pulled.

Most likely it would be Hilinski, who has both the talent and the skills to get it done. Friday night will be very emotional, with both Hilinski and the rest of his NU teammates extra motivated to get the job done. The Spartans were the only team to beat NU in the shortened season of 2020.

“I know last year these guys lost to Michigan State and that’s motivation,” Hilinski continued.

“That’s motivation for me of course and then of course, Tyler’s last game losing to them. I want to redeem him…I’ve got the Hilinski’s Hope band and I look down and see three so it gives me some extra motivation. I know he’s with me every single day.”

Ryan and the rest of the Hilinski family honors his memory by running and promoting Hilinski’s Hope, a non-profit foundation focused on awareness for mental health issues.

Hilinski’s Hope states their mission as “to educate, advocate, and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, while funding programs that provide student-athletes with the tools and resources that support their mental health and wellness.”

Hilinski believes his organization is indeed making good progress towards eliminating the stigma against mental illness.

“I absolutely do,” he responded to a question in the topic.

“I think the world is going in a better place. And I think the more and more athletes talk about it, the more and more people will understand what we go through on a day to day basis. I mean we’re here from six in the morning till nine at night, and sometimes guys, whether it’s second or third
string, it affects them mentally sometimes and we like to talk about it.

“So I think people are just realizing what we go through on a day to day basis.

Northwestern might also get some extra motivation here in that the bookmakers don’t think much of their conference championship prospects. If you look at the Big Ten title odds, you’ll see NU (who won the Big Ten West last year) way on down the list.

Typically, they are priced around +3500, and about eighth or ninth most favorable in the 14 team league. They are not even in the top three most favorable bets, within their own division, in this regard.

Of course, after all the adversity that Hilinski has been through, with the loss of his brother, and all the larger issues that surround this traumatic experience, talking about depth charts and betting lines all all seems very small by comparison.


Whether or not he plays at Ryan Field this weekend, or how he performs, the causes that Ryan Hilinski is fighting for already makes him a champion.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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