(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen. Now, we feature the tight ends.)
No. 1 tight end – Casey Fitzsimmons, Chester
After an inauspicious high school career, Casey Fitzsimmons demonstrated his talent and athleticism to become a three-time all-American at Carroll College on his way to a seven-year NFL career with the Detroit Lions.
Casey Fitzsimmons stat sheet
Fitzsimmons, who was born in Wolf Point, nearly gave up his football career in high school at Chester. He missed his junior season but returned his senior year to earn 8-Man all-state recognition and a spot in the Montana East-West Shrine Game. His size and talent, which was also evident on the basketball court, was enough for Carroll College coach Mike Van Diest to give Fitzsimmons an opportunity with the Fighting Saints.
Fitzsimmons paid immediate dividends, becoming an all-Frontier Conference player at Carroll during his freshman season in 1999. He ultimately earned all-conference honors all four seasons with the Saints and ended his career with three huge seasons to earn consecutive all-America nods. As a sophomore in 2000, Fitzsimmons tallied 70 catches for 686 yards and eight touchdowns. He built on that in 2001 with a 78-catch season totaling 812 yards and five touchdowns. As a senior, Fitzsimmons hauled in 79 passes for 971 yards and six touchdowns in helping Carroll College to its first of four consecutive NAIA national championships. Fitzsimmons was the Frontier Conference MVP, a first-team all-American and finalist for the NAIA player of the year. He finished his career with the Saints with 244 receptions, 2,698 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound tight end signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2003, which kicked off a seven-year NFL career. Fitzsimmons started 11 of 16 games as a rookie, catching 23 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. He played his entire NFL career with the Lions as a part-time starter at tight end and special teams staple. Fitzsimmons played in 99 career games, totaling 88 receptions for 677 yards and five touchdowns. He even returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2007, helping the Lions to a 37-27 win over the Chicago Bears.
Fitzimmons, who retired from the NFL in 2010, is a member of the Carroll College and NAIA Halls of Fame and was inducted into the Montana Football Hall of Fame this spring. He now lives in Montana.
… on Fitzsimmons:
Carroll College head coach Mike Van Diest: “We had heard about Casey, I went up for the district basketball tournament at Great Falls High’s gym, and my wife and I and our two boys, we just sat and watched. I didn’t even talk to him. I just watched him play, how hard he played, and I watched his interaction with his teammates. After the game I just said, ‘This kid is a class act.’ You could tell sports meant a lot to him. He comes in here as a 198-pound tight end and it was like, ‘We’re going to go with him. That’s all we have.’ But he turned out to be a great player and just a real competitor and very athletic at that position.
“He kind of brought the tight end back to the Frontier Conference, because at the time everyone was going four wideouts. I remember the fall going to the conference meetings, tight ends weren’t even voted on for all-conference. I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ You had Rocky, Western and all those guys going four wideouts, so they said, ‘Oh no, we vote for four wideouts.’ I said, ‘Well, we have a pretty good tight end. I think we better start bringing that position back into play.’
“You could throw the ball anywhere near Casey and he was going to get it. He wanted that football. He wanted it. He was not a blocking tight end his first year here, maybe his second year here, but he was a guy, you get the ball to him, he’s going to get it and he knows what to do with it afterward. He was a great mismatch as he got older, his sophomore, junior and senior years in our program, because he was so much more physical than safeties, but he could outrun linebackers.”
Carroll College offensive coordinator Nick Howlett: “The thing about Casey that was very intriguing was his athletic ability. He excelled on the basketball court. In fact, I think he thought he was the next Larry Bird. Some high school friends of his persuaded him into going out for football, so you knew there was no limit to how good he could be. He was raw. I think he showed up here at 195 or 200 pounds. When he graduated from here he was right at 250, so he put on a good 15 pounds every year he was here. Unbelievable talent, in anything we asked him to do.
“I think Casey definitely benefited from all of those years of playing basketball, the hand-eye coordination. He probably had as good of hands as we’ve ever had here, and a lot of that, I think probably stems from playing basketball. Unbelievable hands. The phrase these days is ‘catch radius,’ and he could box guys out, he could out-run guys and out-jump guys. (He did) everything we ever asked him to do. We put him at fullback at times, just because he was versatile. We split him out wide, we probably should have done more of that, especially if you ask him, but catching 65-70 passes per year wasn’t enough, so we should have used him more.
“I think it was his sophomore year when you saw him start to mature, put on some weight and get to that 220-pound body size, but not lose a step, actually get faster and do some things with the ball that was unbelievable. It just kept progressing. Like I said, there was no ceiling for Casey Fitzsimmons and even all the things they asked him to do in the NFL, just very fortunate to have been associated with Casey.
“It was unbelievable. I remember I was fortunate enough to go watch his rookie year, the last game of the season against the (St. Louis) Rams. Here he was playing against the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ and beating them. I think he had four catches that day. It was just unbelievable to see the Lions using him like we did at Carroll College. I think he started 11 or 12 games as a rookie, which is unheard of at any level. He did enough to impress those guys at the highest level you can do it.”