Brain injuries and the mental-health issues they can cause have been well documented when it comes to football.
And while this is certainly not just a Washington State problem, the Cougars have had a lot of heartbreak over brain injuries, most publicly when starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski died by suicide in 2018 and was later found to have had CTE.
Bringing awareness to the issue to the mental issues caused by brain injuries was Cougar alumnus John Gravenkemper’s motivation for waving the No. 3 Hilinski WSU flag on ESPN’s “GameDay.” And it is why he distributed thousands of eye patches (“It’s a way for people to see what it’s like to have a brain injury,” he explains) with a No. 3 on them at WSU football games.
More recently, Gravenkemper has distributed No. 50 eye patches and waved the No. 50 flag on “GameDay,” in honor of his former classmate Dan Grayson, a star linebacker for WSU in 1988-89. Grayson died at 54 in August and is suspected to have had brain issues.
“That’s all I am trying to do, is bring awareness,” said Gravenkemper, who was not an athlete but suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of an auto accident. “What about Nos. 90, 91, 95 and 99 (other Cougars whose deaths he believes were at least in part attributable to brain injuries). We shouldn’t be losing so many players. Period.”
Three of those numbers belonged to starting defensive linemen on the 1998 Rose Bowl team.
Leon Bender, No. 91, was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders in 1998, but died that May from a seizure after previously being diagnosed with epilepsy.
Dorian Boose, No. 90, was drafted in the second round by the New York Jets in 1998 and played three seasons in the NFL, then helped the Edmonton Eskimos win the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup in 2003.
A singer and piano player, he was known at Washington State for using nothing that might possibly harm him — drugs, alcohol, even coffee. He died in 2016 in Canada — his death ruled a suicide — after reportedly years of substance abuse. His family confirmed recently that he had CTE.
Gary Holmes, No. 95, died in 2018 at 43, leaving Shane Doyle as the last living starting defensive lineman from that storied WSU team.
That fact pains Ryan Leaf, the star quarterback on that WSU team, who has been open about his struggles with mental health and substance abuse.
“It bothers me greatly, and in particular Dorian and Gary because both of them were dealing with something that I dealt with, dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues and we weren’t able to help,” Leaf said. “It’s sad, it’s disappointing, and I miss them all greatly. They were such good people and there is a lot of survivors’ guilt that comes with that.”
Leaf said the fact that his own mental-health issues were so public meant that “I was forced to address my brain trauma and my mental health and all those things, and it is still an incredible work in progress.”
“But (Boose and Holmes) suffered in silence and they suffered in the dark and that seemingly has been the bigger issue in all of this, that the stigma still exists in such a way that when one is going through that, they can’t reach out.”
Mark Hilinski, Tyler Hilinski’s father, started Hilinski’s Hope with his wife, Kym. Its mission is “to promote awareness and education of mental health and wellness for student athletes.”
“We all want to get to the point where we don’t have to call someone courageous when they say, ‘I am not thinking straight,’” Mark Hilinski said in October while promoting College Football Mental Health Week.
Hilinski believes that things are headed in the right direction, noting there are many groups striving to make that happen. And so is Gravenkemper.
“If someone is living with someone who has a brain injury, who do you talk to?” Gravenkemper said. “I am trying to set up a team of people at Washington State who are willing to help. And like I said, I don’t want to lose more Cougs.”