MISSOULA — Montana senior running back Alijah Lee vividly remembers his winter break, especially the days following Jan. 16.

Lee, who played football at Washington State before transferring to Montana, was back in Pullman at the time hanging out with some friends.

"They were like, 'Hey, did you hear the story?' Lee remembered. "I was like, 'What story?'"

His friends then told him about how Lee's friend and former Wazzu teammate, quarterback Tyler Hilinski, committed suicide and was found earlier that day.

"I was lost for words. I was there for the vigil in Pullman," Lee said. "It was really sad. All us teammates, were all clueless wondering why he did it. It's hard to explain being in that moment."

Ten months later, Lee honors Hilinski in several ways.

Lee wears his navy blue "Hilinski's Hope" bracelet all the time. It's tucked inside his right glove during practice. During games, the bracelet rests on top of the tape on his right wrist.

"RIP 3" is written in black ink on the outside of his cleats. And a big "3" is inked on the top of his left wrist tape, visible from several feet away.

"He was my dog. He was a funny guy. I loved seeing him — he was always high in spirits," Lee said of Hilinski. "I clicked with him instantly. I had met him before in SoCal in a 7-on-7 thing. It started there. He was a real good friend. I miss him. We love that guy. He's watching us, looking over us."

Before heading to Pullman as a freshman, Lee went to high school in Venice, California. He didn't have any offers out of high school, but had three connections —Teondray Caldwell, his cousin, and two friends: Gabe Marks and DeWan Thompson — who were either already at Washington State or were headed there. 

"I had three people up there, so I was like 'I'm definitely going to Washington State,'" Lee remembered of deciding to go to Wazzu. "Even though it was expensive, that was one of my favorite places to be."

Getting onto the team to play with Hilinski and his friends from California wasn't a given, though.

Lee lived in the traditional student dorms as a freshman, rather than the dorms with the other athletes and walked onto the team in the spring of 2014.

Having to walk on motivated Lee.

"It actually helped me. I actually weighed 175 coming out of high school," Lee said. "I was able to gain 10 pounds that first semester and I had a good GPA so that was a good start for me.

Lee played at Washington State from 2014-16, redshirting in 2014 and playing on scout team in 2015.

He played in 12 games as a sophomore, suiting up mostly on special teams. Lee saw his first collegiate carries against Idaho in 2016, receiving the handoff from Hilinski both times. 

Lee's first carry was an 8-yard run and the second was a 6-yard touchdown on the next play. Several weeks later, Lee caught his first collegiate pass — thrown by Hilinski — against Arizona. 

By the end of the season, Lee had 20 yards rushing and one reception for no gain. He also had a special teams fumble recovery against Arizona. 

Lee loved Washington State, and even now admits he'd like to move back to the Evergreen State eventually.

"I met some of my best friends who I still talk to today," Lee said. "I met them in my dorm. I wasn't living where the athletes lived, so that's where I met a bunch of my friends. My sophomore year, I moved in with my friend (Thompson) from high school and then one of his good friends from his freshman year, we moved in together and then we had another guy from LA. That started it off.

"Our house was the house, the central hub. Everybody would go there. Watch games, hang out, it was so much fun and we had a tight bond between a lot of us. I'm even considering moving to Washington after because I met so many people there it's like family."

He also enjoyed playing for coach Mike Leach.

"He's a comedian. Even when I first came here, people were like, 'What is he like?' I can't even pinpoint anything," Lee said of Leach. "He tells hilarious stories. You laugh a lot. It could be a serious meeting. He could be yelling, cussing somebody out and the next thing you know he's telling a funny story. He has millions of stories. You can never be bored talking to him."

But after the 2016 season, Lee decided to pursue other options.

"For me, I wanted to play. I had fun doing special teams for two years, but going against guys on scout team, I realized I could play somewhere FCS for sure," Lee said. "It was that and the fact that I wanted to get a scholarship, help my mom so she didn't have to pay for out-of-state for another year or two. That was the big motivating factor."

Lee made a clip of his scout team highlights, along with highlights from Thursday Night Football — a scrimmage Leach holds for guys who didn't get to play the week before — and put it on YouTube and his Twitter. 

Coaching connections helped Lee out too. Clay McGuire, the current co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, was the offensive line coach at Wazzu when Lee was there.

McGuire, Lee said, put in a good word with the Montana coaching staff. Before Lee knew it, recruiting coordinator Justin Green followed him on Twitter.

One thing led to another and Lee was eventually in the middle of former UM coach Bob Stitt's 90-minute interviews.

"I came out here on the visit and shortly after that, right after school was over, when they said they were offering me, I was like, 'I like this place, other than the winter time,'" Lee said. 

Lee, a 5-foot-6, 197-pound running back committed to Montana in mid-May 2017.

Even though he's only been here a short time, this place already means the world to him.

"It has a special place in my heart. I've only been here a year and a half, but I've met a bunch of good dudes here," Lee said. "Playing college sports you get to meet a bunch of people, essentially network. You might not know who's the next doctor or millionaire. I think of it that way. I love this city — when it's not cold."

Montana's coach Bobby Hauck sees how Lee's been a vital part of the Grizzlies, on and off the field.

"Alijah's popular with his teammates. He's a fun guy to be around," Hauck said. "He's respected. He has worked hard. He's a guy that can give us some plays and do some things on the field. He's great in the locker room."

Lee was Montana's second-leading rusher in 2017, racking up 517 yards on 131 carries with six touchdowns. This year, things have started slow, as Lee has eight carries for 22 yards through three games. 

But Lee's staying positive, because he's come a long way.

"One of my teammates told me, you always have goals to follow. But for me, it was be able to get on a college football field after being a walk-on. Not too many walk-ons get to play," Lee said. "The next big thing was for me to score a touchdown. That was huge. Being put on scholarship was another goal of mine. I wanted to actually play. That's why I came here."

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— If you or someone you know needs support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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