CAMAS — When Jon Eagle heard the news that Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski had died by suicide, his response was one with the masses.
“I, like a lot of people, was just sick to my stomach when that whole thing came about last January,” Eagle said, “and was like, you know, I want to do something about this.”
Understanding his position on the local prep football scene, he did.
Eagle, the Camas head football coach and a longtime coach in Clark County, ordered decals with the No. 3, Hilinski’s college number, for the back of every Camas helmet this season.
It’s a move in step with many within of the football community and outside, seeking to bring awareness to mental health issues, and noramlize asking for help in the wake of Hilinski’s death.
We are honoring the memory of Tyler Hilinski #3, WSU QB who took his life last winter, to bring to light his struggles that led to his death. It’s ok to be down. It’s ok to ask for help. You are not alone. Hilinski’s Hope—do 3 good things each day in memory of Tyler. pic.twitter.com/dUbaMPi8cl
— Coach Eagle (@jon_eagle) August 26, 2018
In their season opener at Lincoln of Tacoma on last Friday, the decals were a detail featured as a part of their new uniforms. On Friday, the Papermakers will make their home debut at Doc Harris Stadium against Hazen of Renton donning the No. 3 for their home fans.
For Eagle, it wasn’t about changing the culture on Camas’ football team. It was about challenging what he perceives as a society that doesn’t inform young men it’s OK to seek help.
“The culture in America says, ‘You going to be a dude? Freaking don’t cry. Don’t ask for help. Don’t show any weakness,’ ” Eagle said. “I’ve said that out there. ‘Don’t let people see your pain. Don’t let people see your pain.’ … What about mental pain?”
Eagle ran into Washington State running backs coach Eric Mele at a summer event and told him about his intention to honor Hilinski.
Mele told Eagle he would pass the message along to the Hilinski family, who have started the foundation “Hilinski’s Hope” to raise funding to programs that will help destigmatize mental health.
Not long after, Eagle received an email from the family. They also sent him rubber bracelets that say “Hilinski’s Hope,” which Eagle wears proudly.
To honor the foundation, Eagle adopted its credo: do three good things every day.
That’s the message he preached to his players at the end of a practice during the heat of fall camp.
Senior receiver Luc Sturbelle recalls as Eagle addressed the team, his tone become serious. He prefaced with, “I’m not a counselor,” then launched into his pitch to normalize asking for help for those who need it.
At the end, Sturbelle said, the team huddled up close to one another.
“Everyone was like, ‘I got you,’ and we knew everyone had each other’s backs,” Sturbelle said.
The players then took it upon themselves to spread that message throughout the school, where football players are participants on the most celebrated team in Camas.
“(Eagle) said, ‘If you see someone sitting alone, you see someone who doesn’t get talked to very much, just invite them in and talk to them,’ ” Sturbelle said. “I’ve been doing that, too, because I know how that feels.”
Senior Shane Jamison, like Sturbelle, recalls when the news broke about Hilinski. He watched video after video about it on YouTube in shock.
The message, he said, was simple and impactful.
“It’s a great issue to bring awareness to,” Jamison said.
Eagle doesn’t have any specific connection to WSU’s football program. The longtime coach and teacher attended the University of Oregon. His son, Zach Eagle, plays for Eastern Washington. But as a football coach, the Hilinski story hit close to home.
He has preached to his team in the past that regardless of what team you’re on, Camas or elsewhere, anyone who puts on pads is a member of the same club.
“We’re just playing a game,” Eagle said. “So to get this cultural thing, that ‘I hate you because we’re playing you?’ That garbage? We’re all a member of the same club. Guys get too fired up.”
Last winter, the WIAA commissioned a survey of coaches through a Gonzaga University graduate program conducted a study that examined the presence of mental health and wellness issues in high school sports.
The findings, which The Columbian obtained, were presented to coaches statewide at an annual clinic in Yakima in late July.
More than 13 percent of the 917 coaches surveyed indicated they have seen, discussed or heard student athletes speak about anxiety. Just under 11 percent said aggression and anger, 10.17 percent identified burnout and overtraining, 8.9 percent said mood shifts and irritability and 8.21 percent said depression.
Football coaches — head and assistant — made up 34.7 percent of those surveyed.
“That is a very real thing in the high schools in Clark County that is not publicized like that,” Eagle said.
Students at Camas are encouraged to approach any faculty member they feel comfortable with if they need help. From there, protocol says to direct students to one of seven counselors at the high school, who serve roughly 2,300 students, according to Camas principal Liza Sejkora.
As for Eagle? He hopes each player, from the starters to the scout team, feel like they are a part of one big family. He wants each player to keep in touch with coaches, just as Eagle does with his former high school English teacher, who is 75.
It’s why when Hilinski died, Eagle empathized with the pain of a coach losing a cherished member of their football family.
“We want to be invited to your wedding, hear about your first child, hear about your successes in your life,” Eagle said. “That’s what’s fun for us. … So, making those relationships, players feel I’ve got somebody to talk to if I need to.
“If I can impact just our small group of kids, I can do my part to help.”