Washington State football player had brain damage at suicide

Tyler Hilinski (Credit: WSUCogars.com)

PULLMAN, Wash. — New light is being shone on the dangers of football after reports indicating a WSU quarterback had the brain of a 65-year-old when he took his life.

His death and brain injury have parents wondering whether they should let their own children play football.

Tyler Hilinski was just 21 years old. His parents blame the changes in his brain on chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a traumatic and degenerative brain disease detected in many older athletes.

>> RELATED: Leach: Hilinski had no signs of depression before death

It was shocking from the start. Hilinksi, the program's heir apparent, shot and killed himself. Those closest to him insist they saw no warning signs.

His parents told NBC's "Today" show that their son's brain showed signs of CTE.

"The medical examiner said he had the brain of a 65-year-old," said Mark Hilinksi, his father.  "That was really hard to hear."

"It is tragic every time we hear about one of these cases," said Dr. Dirk Keene, chief of neuropathology at UW Medicine. He says doctors know CTE is related to concussions in sports.

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​"So if we can prevent brain traumatic brain injury, we could, in theory, prevent CTE," Dr. Keene said. "But there's still so much work that needs to be done in the general population to find out if CTE happens in relation to other kinds of exposures."

A year and a half ago, Sam Treat's mother bought him a pioneering helmet made by Seattle-based Vicis for $1,500. Now, every time he takes the field for Garfield High School, he has the helmet on. He says he can feel the difference.

"Like your initial contact," said Treat, "you usually get like a burnout where it's kind of like a black flash in your eyes. It's only like a couple of seconds, but you feel it. And it's not as strong (with the helmet on), or it's not there at all depending on how hard the hit is."

Still, he worries about CTE.

"For me right now, the good outweighs the bad in terms of high school football," he said. "But I think as I move on with my career, I'll have to reconsider it at the next level, and I'm not sure where I stand right now."

That's a decision a lot of kids and their parents have to make.

But Dr. Keene does warn against one thing: Doctors do not know if CTE has connections to suicide. Suicide is most closely tied to deep depression, so parents and those who are close to kids should be vigilant for warning signs of suicidal tendencies.