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Like other Washington State fans, Drew Bledsoe was stunned by the suicide of Tyler Hilinski, the 21-year-old quarterback at his alma mater.

But Bledsoe, whose son John was a friend and teammate of Hilinski, also saw his death last month as a reminder of the emotional distress many young men face.

Bledsoe, who led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1996, said he spoke to a sports psychologist twice during his 14 seasons in the NFL.

“I forget how I tracked down the guy that I talked to the first time out there in New England,” Bledsoe, 45, said in an phone interview with the Globe. “I think maybe it was through a trainer. . . . I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m just really kind of bumming right now. It might make sense for me to talk to somebody,’ and it did.”

Too often depression in college and professional football isn’t talked about because it’s “supposed to be this masculine sport where everybody’s a tough guy,” he said.

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Bledsoe was the Patriots’ starting quarterback from 1993 to 2001.
Bledsoe was the Patriots’ starting quarterback from 1993 to 2001.Globe Staff/File 1998

Bledsoe, the Cougars’ quarterback for three seasons before he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Patriots in 1993, publicly mourned Hilinski. In a post on Instagram, Bledsoe implored young men to ask for help.

“As men we have to learn to TALK about how we are feeling,” Bledsoe wrote. “Trusting your friends and asking for help is the ultimate sign of STRENGTH!!”

Bledsoe said he first sought counseling while playing for the Patriots, and later while he was with the Cowboys.

He found therapy “tremendously helpful.”

“For me, it was just a chance to talk to somebody that was not connected directly with the organization,” said Bledsoe, now the owner of a winery in Washington. state

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“It was extremely helpful to me, to just kind of sort out my own thoughts, “ the former Pro Bowler said. “I was really glad that I did. It was definitely helpful, both personally and athletically.”

He said he was never worried about the press finding out.

“If they had, I wouldn’t have had much problem just talking about it,” Bledsoe said.

Mental illness should be treated like any ailment, he said.

“If you’ve got a sprained ankle, you go see the trainer. If you’ve got a cold, you go to the doctor. If you’re head’s not quite right, you need to go see someone.” Bledsoe said. “We have to get over the stigma associated with asking for help. We need to get to the point where we treat emotional distress the same way we treat other ailments.”

Depression, he said, can strike the least likely players.

“It was the guys that outwardly had everything together,” who were more likely to suffer, he said.

It can be hard for some to realize the signs of depression.

“A guy says, ‘Well I don’t have any reason to be depressed, you know? What’s wrong with me?’ ” Bledsoe said. “And then they start feeling guilty about feeling bad, when they don’t outwardly have anything to be depressed about. And then it gets worse and worse, and they feel guilty about it more and more.”

An athlete’s depression might not be linked to performance pressure, he said.

“You get to play a sport for a living, that’s not real pressure,” Bledsoe said. “It’s more just kind of sorting out what’s in your own head. It’s not the outward stuff. It’s the inward stuff that has to be taken care of.”

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He shared his experience with some teammates.

“I was always really careful about suggesting they go see [someone]. But I did make it known with some teammates.”

Some asked for the name of his therapist.

“That was more effective,” Bledsoe recalled. “Letting guys know that I talked to somebody.”

Bledsoe, a father of four, was saddened by Hilinski’s death. The local coroner announced last month that Hilinski died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

John Bledsoe, a redshirt freshman quarterback at Washington State, knew Hilinski “extremely well.”

“There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that anything was going on” with him, Drew Bledsoe said.

Drew Bledsoe said he hopes there are lessons to be learned from Hilinski’s death.

“If we could do anything going forward, it would be to spread the word that mental illness is a real thing,” Bledsoe said. “It’s a real illness, and it needs to be treated like an illness.”


Adam Sennott can be reached at adam.sennott@globe.com