The Boise State-Washington State football game on Sept. 9, 2017, is a memorable one for Alexander Mattison.
The running back scored in the first quarter of what became a 47-44 win by the Cougars in triple overtime.
Tyler Hilinski, Washington State's backup QB at the time, came in during the third quarter and threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Mattison recalled being impressed by the opposing passer's talents.
"After playing a game like that, I think you just kind of leave room for there to be a connection," Mattison said. "Whether that's down the line with them as a teammate in the NFL, or just running into them in life and being able to chop it up about that game, whatever it might be – there's just a connection left in the air when you pour that type of emotion onto the football field."
But Mattison never had the opportunity to rehash the epic contest with Hilinski. Rather, he and his Broncos teammates received the news on – along with much of the sports world – on January 16 that Hilinski had taken his own life.
"That took a toll on our team," Mattison said. "You could just feel it in the room that everyone's hearts were heavy."
Unlike a few of his teammates, Mattison had no personal relationship with Hilinski; nonetheless, he felt connected to the fellow athlete who grew up just 30 miles from Mattison's hometown of San Bernardino, California, and also was an older brother.
The tragedy motivated Mattison to learn more about depression, suicide and mental health in general, both within the athletics community and beyond. In addition to self-educating, he engaged in conversations with health professionals who gave presentations and talks at Boise State.
"I learned a lot, as far as accepting that things are hard. I was always the one to kind of push it off, fight it off, and let it get to a boiling point where you can't handle it anymore," he reflected. "I've learned a lot about how unhealthy that is for you, as far as your emotions, your mind, trying to navigate through day-to-day life – it just makes things harder. And then you start to get to a place of negative thoughts and just negative feelings."
Mattison became increasingly passionate about suicide prevention and raising awareness for mental health, and he's since come to understand better how to support friends and family members who are battling mental illness. When the Vikings drafted him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, he didn't take for granted the incredible platform.
Following his rookie season, Mattison branded and launched I AM GIFTED, a clothing line he's using to be a positive light and share hope.
"Everyone was born with a gift," he said of the message behind I AM GIFTED. "Find it. Embrace it. Use it to shed light into this world! Life is what you make of it – so what are you going to make of it?"
Mattison will don custom-designed I AM GIFTED kicks in Sunday's My Cause My Cleats game. He currently is working on establishing an official foundation and in the future plans to dedicate proceeds of sales to suicide prevention, as well as to support youth causes and military veterans experiencing homelessness.
"I'm extremely grateful to be in the position where I have a voice," he said. "I know I've been in a position before where, even last year, just feeling like I didn't really have much of a voice or much leverage to say anything – whether that's just encouraging somebody or sharing my opinion about things.
"But [I've gained] that confidence and [gained] that support through social media and through people who are supportive of the things that I want to do and some of the things that this world needs to open [its] eyes to," he continued. "I'm extremely grateful that we're in a world today where we're able to use our platforms for good, and it's really making a difference."
View photos of which causes Vikings players are supporting with their one-of-a-kind cleats in this season's 'My Cause My Cleats' campaign.
Especially in a 2020 that's brought hardships such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic challenges and racial injustices, Mattison hopes to change things for the better.
"It's definitely the year to bring this to the forefront – letting people know that their life is precious and they are worthy," Mattison said. "It's definitely something that's been even heavier on my heart this year."
To learn more about Tyler Hilinski's story, read the first of multiple stories written by Sports Illustrated's Greg Bishop here. (NOTE: Story contains content that could be difficult for some readers.)