Luke Falk on late Washington State QB Tyler Hilinski: 'I wish I could give him one more hug'

MOBILE, Ala. – A beehive of nearly 40 reporters circled around Baker Mayfield, stretching their arms over the hoard to record him and craning their necks to hear him. Mayfield developed a flair for the dramatic both on and off the field at Oklahoma, and perpetuated that on Tuesday by not firmly committing to play in the Senior Bowl. He added a quote about his image surely to go viral, noting the media’s penchant to focus on “the bad boy, the Johnny Manziel stuff.”

About 10 yards away from the circus surrounding Mayfield, former Washington State quarterback Luke Falk’s highlighter-yellow No. 3 jersey was plainly visible. There was no crowd around, as a lone scout asked him a few background questions about his family and film study habits. Soon after, when asked to reflect on some poignant comments earlier in the day, Falk delivered a message worthy of going viral.

At Senior Bowl media day, Falk addressed changing his game jersey from No. 4 to No. 3 in honor of his late teammate, fellow Cougar quarterback Tyler Hilinski. On Jan. 16, Hilinski took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But Falk did more than switch wardrobes, he addressed changing the paradigm in which suicide is viewed in society with remarkable poise and poignancy.

Luke Falk (left) cries during a candlelight memorial service for Tyler Hilinski. (AP)
Luke Falk (left) cries during a candlelight memorial service for Tyler Hilinski. (AP)

“It should be talked about, and we should do something about it,” he said. “I feel like at times we feel like we can’t express our emotions because we’re in a masculine sport and him being a quarterback, people look up to you as a leader. He felt like he really probably couldn’t talk to anybody. We’ve got to change some of that stuff. We have to have resources and not have a stigma of people going to that.”

Falk spoke about suicide being one of the leading causes of death of men between the ages of 18 and 45, and wants to be part of changing that. He showed an uncommon vulnerability amid a football setting, admitting he and his teammates have been riddled with guilt about what they could have done differently. “All of us that were close to him just kind of go back and ask ourselves, ‘Were there signs? What could we have done?’ ” he said. “I think we all kind of feel a little bit of guilt. I wish I could give him one more hug. I wish I could give him a pat on the butt one more time and let him know that he’s loved.”

After the Senior Bowl practices on Tuesday, Falk spoke to Yahoo Sports about why he chose to use his pulpit at the Senior Bowl to speak about suicide. He reiterated that he wanted to celebrate Hilinski’s life and legacy and also attempt to bring the conversation about suicide into the mainstream.

“For it being such a big part of our culture, you never hear it talked about,” he said. “You never hear people feeling like they’re able to speak openly. We’re in such a masculine culture, people don’t feel comfortable doing it.”

The Senior Bowl is essentially a meat market for the country’s top NFL prospects. It’s a place where things like hand size, 40-yard dash times and hip flexibility are scrutinized with more intensity than an IRS audit. Falk is here because he’s a three-time All-Pac-12 selection, a former walk-on who graduated as the school and league all-time leader in passing yards (14,496) and touchdown passes (119).

While Falk’s play this week will serve as an audition for the NFL, his appearance here will be remembered much more for the public-service announcement he delivered with poise and grace. “I think Tyler and I are going to be tied forever now,” he said. “I think that we really need to do something about [suicide]. I want to be a guy that has something to do with it.”

Here’s hoping his message goes viral.

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