Alexander Mattison didn't know Tyler Hilinski well, but a 2017 football game created a strong connection to the opposing quarterback.
Alex's Boise State Broncos played Tyler's Washington State Cougars in a triple-overtime thriller early in the season. Tyler, Washington's backup QB at the time, came in during the third quarter and threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Cougars to a 47-44 win.
"It's one of those unexplainable feelings … when you go into a game where there's that much emotion poured onto the field, there's going to be room for an emotional connection across the field," Alex said.
Four months after that matchup, Tyler committed suicide. The 21-year-old's tragic death shook Alex to his core.
"You saw his story unfold – he's a Southern California guy, just like myself, and a great athletic talent. And from the things that we hear, he was a great young man, as well," Alex said. "To hear that happen was just, it hurt deeper than what I would have ever thought, just because I didn't personally know him that well. But just being out there on the field and going to war like that, you leave room for an emotional connection. And there's that respect from the other side."
Tyler's family has wrestled the past three-plus years with unexplainable heartache. Their tremendous loss, however, has also inspired them to establish Hilinski’s Hope Foundation, a nonprofit formed to promote awareness and education of mental health for student athletes.
Alex also has been moved to not only learn more about mental health himself but also to use his platform to raise awareness around suicide prevention.
Research & reflection
The running back said he's "dug pretty deep" into learning about even small things that can help someone improve his or her mental health. After all, depression, anxiety or other challenges can sometimes "creep up on you" without much warning – as he discovered himself several years ago.
"I noticed my mental health was not good. I was in a place where things were just going bad for me, left and right, and I was like, 'Why? The universe just feels like it's crushing in on me,' " Alex recalled. "[I was] sending home money, my stipend checks and things like that, to help my parents; my car breaking down; losing friends. All of these things were just happening, happening and happening, and I realized that I was just trying to fix things myself and trying to get answers and solve problems with answers that aren't even there.
"A lot of times, people can find themselves trying so hard and forgetting to check on themselves. Checking in on everyone else but themselves," he said.
Alex over the years has integrated small lifestyle changes that help support mental health, from practicing yoga to getting a good amount of sunlight and fueling his body with nutritious foods.
He's also relied on his faith.
When Alex found himself knocked down over and over again, he reminded himself to "let go and let God" amidst difficult circumstances.
"I have a strong faith in God and His plan for me, and that's kind of where I just handed Him the baton and cast all my burdens onto Him, and everything started to work out for me," he said.
Whether faith, family, friends or all of the above, a support system is crucial.
"My mom and dad, my brothers, and then my aunt and uncle and my cousins – we're just a really tight-knit family," Alex said. "Whatever it is that anyone in our family wants to do, we're 110 percent in and super supportive of each other. And I think that really goes a long way in mental health.
"For me, I was really at a point where I was hiding, you know? You live in that lifestyle, that stigma, where I was kind of just holding in my emotions, where no one really [knew] what was going on," he continued. "[But I] know I have that support system back home, and some people don't have that. I encourage people to support your loved ones, support your family, support your friends. Whatever it is that they're going through, you might not even know it because they might not wear it on their sleeve like some people do. They might hide it inside, which a lot of people do. So always be that support system."
'We're all human'
Alex hopes people understand that athletes – professional or otherwise — are not exempt from suffering mentally and emotionally.
"We're all human. Whether you play professional sports, you're the CEO of a company or if you're [neither] of those things," he emphasized. "Everyone's human, and everyone has the same problems, the same issues to deal with on a personal level.
“I think a lot of people might stick to, ‘Oh, you play football,’ and [think] you have to be this big, strong man out on the field all the time, and that doesn’t always translate to off the field. We have emotions, and we have things in life we have to deal with.” - Alexander Mattison
Plenty of "rules" exist among sports teams.
Some of them are more overt – rookies make the coffee – while others are unspoken. And of the latter variety, Alex pointed out an expectation to avoid expressing one's emotions.
"It's been tagged with 'weakness' and 'softness,' and that's obviously the opposite of what you'd expect the game of football to be," Alex said. "[But] it shouldn't be that way. Especially because [we live in] this world where so much goes on. It can take you one way and then take you another way the next second. So in my opinion, I don't think that stigma is right.
"We all have emotions that we have to deal with, and some people can deal with them better than others, but at the end of the day, it's not healthy to hold all that in," he added.
It's for that reason, he said, we're seeing an influx of athletes who are willing to share personal stories around mental an emotional health, through the "Getting Open" series or otherwise.
“There have been a lot of athletes that just become overwhelmed with so much, so many emotions, so many things – the weight of the world on their shoulders – and we’re just sort of forced to deal with it in a way that no one else can see us hurting." - Alexander Mattison
As Alex readies for his third season with the Vikings, he's proud to represent an organization that provides empathy and support for important off-field topics.
Minnesota has a successful running game, yes. The Vikings believed in Alex and drafted him out of Boise State in 2019. But above all else, he says what he "loves" about the team is that it cares.
"So much," he reiterated. "I wouldn't want it to be any other way. Just to know that they are very supportive of the things their players are passionate about, is something that's really inspiring to me and definitely just helps me want to use my voice and use my platform even more, knowing that I have that support behind me."
Part of something bigger
Alex plans to continue speaking out to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide.
He's doing so through his personal brand, I AM Gifted, which spreads the message that everyone is gifted. Everyone is loved.
Every life matters.
"I really wanted to start a brand that was more than just a logo. More than just my initials tagged on some merchandise. I wanted it to be more of a movement or something that can mean something to somebody, like it means to me," Alex said. "Everyone is born with a gift. You just have to find it, embrace it and use it to shed some light into the world."
Earlier this spring, Alex returned to Boise with boxes of brightly colored T-shirts, hoodies and stocking caps. He spent two days at a park, connecting with fans who wished to support his brand but also meet a role model.
He tossed a football to and snapped photos with youngsters whom he hopes will learn from his experience, as well as that of his teammates.
"For professional athletes to use their platform and share their stories and note the importance of mental health, that's something that goes a long way. Not only for adults who are dealing with bills and stress and all of these things, but kids, as well, especially during this time," Alex said. "Anyone that's dealing with [something], they can look at that and say, 'I'm not alone. I'm not the only one who's had these emotions and had these feelings. How can I get out of this dark place that I'm in?' And they can look up to some of the players or some of the important people in their life … and they can hear these stories and relate to them, and they can find their way out of that dark place."
It's why Alex believes in an effort to break down the stigma and normalize the conversation around mental health.
"I want to be a part of something that's bigger than myself, and I've been able to do that. I've been blessed to be … part of such an amazing organization in the Vikings, and I just wanted to make sure that I was able to be vulnerable so that someone else can look at that and they can be vulnerable, as well.
"I just hope that anyone out there [reading], anyone out there listening, they get the message that 'You're not alone,' " Alex added.
You are not alone. If you or a loved one are struggling today, please reach out for support.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): nami.org
NAMI MN: namimn.org | 651-645-2948
This is the eighth installment of our Getting Open series. Check out earlier features and keep an eye on the Vikings digital platforms for upcoming features:
- Jalyn Holmes’ Describes Battle with Anxiety
- Eric Kendricks & Ally Courtnall Engage in Supporting Mental Health
- Tyler Conklin’s Family Develops Outreach After Tragic Loss
- Harrison Hand Uses Self-Care to Focus on Mental Health
- Vikings Leadership Provides Empathy, Organizational Support for Mental Health
- Chris Hawkey Battles OCD & Depression on Quest to 'Happy'
- Thielen Foundation Addressing ‘Overlooked’ Mental Health of Youth
By: Lindsey Young