INDIANAPOLIS Luke Falk will complete more passes. He will throw for more yards. He will impress more coaches. Next, it will be in the NFL.
But the former walk-on, the winningest passer in Washington State history and Pac-12 Conference’s career leader in passing yards, won’t be more impressive and genuine than he was at the NFL scouting combine this weekend talking about the January suicide of Tyler Hilinski.
"I lost a friend," Falk said of his fellow WSU quarterback.
The All-Pac-12 thrower as a sophomore for the Cougars had--still has--a bond with Hilinski unlike with any of the other 103 Cougars players.
Falk was rattling off a series of rote answers Friday, routine combine queries about passing accuracy and toughness and experience. Those responses were well-spoken and well-scripted, the product of today’s specialized preparation draft academies that do as much as for interviews from NFL teams and media as they always have for 40-yard dashes, vertical jumps and throwing sessions.
But when I asked Falk how Hilinski--two years his junior and his heir as WSU’s starter until he took a former teammate’s rifle and shot himself in his Pullman apartment Jan. 16--affected him, Falk leaned in to me from behind the podium. He nodded. He shook his head from to the side.
Rote transformed into real.
More than for USC’s or Washington’s blitz, Falk had steeled himself for this question. Not from the media. From the NFL teams that interviewed him this past week, as they probed whether they want the pinpoint passer from the Palouse to be their next man at the sport’s most important position.
He paused. He detached from the biggest job interview of his life to talk about an issue so much more important and lasting than three-cone drills and out routes.
"It still just feels…unreal," Falk said. "I know the guys up there are trying to do a lot of team activities to come together. But, you know, I don’t think that we’ll ever get over it.
"Tyler’s always going to be with us. Hopefully, a lot of good comes from it. We just have all the love and prayers for the Hilinski family.
"Tyler will always be part of us."
Three days after Hilinski’s death, Falk stopped his preparation for this combine in Southern California in mid-January and flew to Pullman and join his now-former teammates for a memorial service, candlelight vigil and healing day on WSU’s campus.
How could he not?
The NFL and the dream of playing in it Falk has had since he was a kid in Logan, Utah, could wait.
"I think life kicked in," Falk, 23, said. "This is football. We are extremely blessed to be here. We are job interviewing to get paid to play a game. I think it really just set in what really matters in life—and that’s how you treat people and relationships.
"You know, we are all here for a short amount of time. It really put a lot in perspective for me.”
Falk cried at WSU vigil, as did just about every one of his Cougars teammates. Those tears flowed from beneath a white baseball cap Falk wore with Hilinski’s crimson jersey number 3 on it. He kept that cap on throughout Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Ala., at the end of that month.
Instead of his number 4, he wore Hilinski’s number 3 in the Senior Bowl practices. The day before the hugely important all-star game, his first, big audition directly in front of NFL scouts, Falk backed out of the game to fly to California to attend Hilinski’s funeral. It was on the same Saturday as the Senior Bowl. Honoring Hilinski was more important to Falk than the Senior Bowl.
So he went.
How could he not?
"I was really glad that I could attend all the things that I could," Falk said, "just because Tyler was someone that personally affected me, a lot. I didn’t really, I guess, associate with the other quarterbacks all that much—until Tyler came in. He just had this infectious energy,
"I have no doubt that he would have led the Cougars to a great season this year."
Which would have continued what Falk started.
Falk persevered through being buried on the WSU depth chart as that walk-on. He kept throwing and grinding, grinding and throwing. And completing. He threw for 14,486 yards for Air Raid maestro coach Mike Leach and the Cougars. Falk exquisitely led open receivers with precise passes that almost always hit them in stride, to gain gobs of additional yards after the catch. He led WSU to the Sun Bowl, Holiday Bowl and Holiday Bowl in consecutive seasons. It was the Cougs’ first run of three consecutive bowls since 2001-03.
Falk’s 119 touchdown passes and 1,403 completions were also Pac-12 records—in a conference that has produced Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway, NFL and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers and fellow Super Bowl-champion Jim Plunkett, among other legends.
A battering, sub-par season as a senior in 2017 dropped Falk down some draft boards. But he also played through getting smashed by opposing pass rushers and Leach benching him twice, for Hilinski.
Tacoma NFL draft guru Rob Rang and the guys at NFLDraftScout.com and the Pro Football Hall of Fame estimate Falk will be a fourth-round pick in April. They love his intelligence, his toughness and his touch on his passes. They don’t love so much what they see as his lack of arm strength, a lanky, 6-foot-4 frame, and his injured left wrist. That led Hilinski to start the Holiday Bowl against Michigan State in December instead, in what proved to be the last football game of his life.
Falk still had a black brace on the wrist at the combine, but he said it’s healing fine.
If Falk does last until the third and final day of April’s draft, some NFL team is going to be getting the most real, appreciative and properly aligned pick out there.
In the six weeks since Hilinski’s devastating death, Falk has become vocal advocating for more discussion in our society about depression and mental illness. He’s become more vocal about the fact suicide is the second-leading cause of death for American men aged 18 to 45.
"I know I have a platform that can reach out to a lot of people. And hopefully, a lot of good can come from it," he said, again pushing aside the seemingly all-important NFL for something truly more important.
"I think there definitely needs to be a change. I think there definitely needs to be less of a stigma about mental health, especially with men. Hopefully, a lot of good will come from it.
"I know the family is doing a lot of things in his name, and in his honor, which is awesome," Falk said of the family of his gone-but-never-forgotten friend and teammate.
"Because he was a heck of a guy."