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The most important person vs. Oregon State: family

Football is football. But this family, and yours, are everything.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Those we love never truly leave us. There are things that death cannot touch.

J.K. Rowling

It’s the little things you remember most. You’d think it’s all the more grandiose things but, really, it’s the things that you never knew you’d miss.

It’s the way Dick Johnson greeted his granddaughter and I whenever we arrived at their home. The way he said “Hey gang!” followed immediately by a handshake and hug. Then came the question about whether your liver had been satiated as yet; an answer of “no” led, inevitably, to directions to the well stocked beer fridge or a vodka tonic, dirty, with a couple of olives.

I’ll always remember the dedication Dick had for his family, especially his wife of more than 60 years. The way he smiled when his grandchildren were happy; the way he could tell a story; the way he always called my wife and I on the way home from Pullman on Sundays to talk about the game.

But on Tuesday when he died, the first thing I missed was “Hey gang!”.

Before Saturday’s game against the Oregon State Beavers, the Washington State Cougars will honor quarterback Tyler Hilinski on what should have been his Senior Day. On what should have been his final home game at Martin Stadium. On what should have been the end of his second full year of starting for the Cougs.

Nearly two years ago, our family lost Tyler. To this day, it’s not the big things, like his cannon of an arm or his scrambling with beautiful, reckless abandon. It’s the smile, it’s the joy with which he played the game.

Through their grief, Tyler’s parents Kym and Mark continue to do incredible work with student-athlete mental health awareness, a reminder of which I wear on my right wrist everyday. They continue to tell their story in articles and on television and, for that matter, the story of their son. A son who was theirs but also ours; a member of a family bound by our love for the institution which Tyler spent three years donning a jersey twelve Saturdays every fall.

Pullman makes this family a weird one; six or seven reunions every fall where things are jovial and warm, not awkward and weird like they are with Aunt Donna who brought her fifth husband she met at a bowling alley. Pullman itself helps forge that bond that makes this family what it is, one that shouts at each other when we see one another wearing the t-shirts from the last reunion at airports, even in far flung places on the other side of the globe.

This family is, and always will be, one I’m proud to call myself a part of. The love, the compassion, the generosity to those we do not know from Adam but that they are in this family, it’s all inspiring on a daily basis. To know that this is the family you chose and it’s perhaps the best choice your 18-year old self ever could have made is comforting on a level it is hard to comprehend.

Tomorrow, this family gets to say one last official goodbye to a young man who gave us so much, even just by putting on a uniform. What Tyler Hilinski gave this family, and what every other senior playing their final home game gave us, were feelings unlike any I can find anywhere else. We aren’t on the field with them, but we feel a part of it and a part of their successes and their failures. It’s a shared experience that, though we agonize with them perhaps too much on a Saturday-by-Saturday basis, you have a hard time finding anywhere else.

Tyler Hilinski helped give us that, including one of the most befuddling, wonderful, and stupifyingly awesome comebacks you’ll ever bear witness to. It remains a day seared into my memory, one that will likely be retold to my children and my grandchildren. For that, I am eternally thankful.

Dick Johnson could tell a damn story. The life he lived with his wife, three children, five granddaughters, and one great-grandson is as full as you might imagine for a man who could mix a bloody mary so mean, it’d peel the hair off your chest if you asked him to “add some more Tobasco, the last one wasn’t hot enough”.

He always made sure you were close so he knew you were listening. It always started with your name, exclamation pointed for emphasis so you knew this was going to be good. “Michael! My man ... “ and on he would go, leaving you captivated for 30 minutes at a time as he recounted old stories of his working days, his travels to Australia and Europe with his wife, Kathy, and his football games at Washington & Lee (at a little over 210 pounds, he played a stout center).

Nothing tops a night we had with him and Kathy at their cabin on Harstine. We brought good wine, the really good stuff you need a membership for. We steadily poured glasses all night, never enough to take anyone to the wrong side of tipsy, but just enough to make the belly laughs deeper. Story after story from everyone; ones they hadn’t heard about my wife and I’s early dating history, ones we hadn’t heard about growing up in the debutante ball days of southern Virginia, and on and on.

Eventually, 2 a.m. rolled around. Dick finally made the call that it was bed time after he and Kathy had stayed up later than they had in perhaps decades. Kathy shuffled off to bed and Dick gave me a hug, put his hand on my shoulder, looked at my wife and said, “See you in the morning, gang.”

It’s the little things you remember most. You’d think it’s all the more grandiose things but, really, it’s the things that you never knew you’d miss.

Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.

Guy de Maupassant

Family, the most important person vs. Oregon State. And thank you to all the seniors for everything you have given us and this university. We can never forget it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is hope. Please reach out for the help you deserve to get because you are an incredible human being loved by so many people.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours): 1-800-273-8255

WSU Counseling Services: 509-335-4511

After Hours Crisis Line for WSU Students: 509-335-2159

If you are able to financially, please consider a donation to the Hilinski’s Hope foundation. You can do so here.