HELENA — On Dec. 6, 2009, the Detroit Lions went head-to-head with the Cincinnati Bengals. Down 23-7, with 8:05 remaining in the game, tight end Casey FitzSimmons caught a checkdown pass from rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford.
His helmet went flying before his head hit the turf.
“I had a special helmet because of my concussions and I had a chin strap and I wore a mouth guard,” FitzSimmons said. "I did all the precautions and I had a special chin strap that was secured."
Watch MTN's full interview with Casey FitzSimmons
Despite taking every precaution to avoid head injuries, the play ended FitzSimmons' career and changed his life forever. Another concussion piled on top of a lifetime of head trauma linked to his football career.
“I was in a bad spot. And to be honest with you, I went pretty manic and went kind of off my rails for quite a few years,” he said.
Since the incident, FitzSimmons — a Chester native and former Carroll College standout — has been an advocate for protecting football player's brains.
“People were doing things that were brain (injury) related and that's not who they were,” he said. “People were getting killed. People were abusing their spouses, and doing stuff that's out of character for them. And so when that happened, it was time to speak out.”
To protect himself now, FitzSimmons only puts himself in situations that he can control.
“The will to want to get better and trying to see outside of that before it's too late. Before you take your life or before you go down to an addiction,” FitzSimmons said. “And then it's too late, or you commit a crime and spend your time in prison. And so trying to stay out of those things and controlling the environment. It's so important for me in order to maintain my mental stability.”
FitzSimmons recalls his first concussion, it was against the Cleveland Browns his rookie year in a preseason game. Now, the NFL is requiring Guardian Caps for all offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends during the first 14 practices of the preseason.
“So the Guardian Caps are good. I think any time you take away the risk of going through what I went through is a plus and keeping guys on the field longer keeping contact and brain trauma down to a minimum is key. It's not going to reduce it because you still gotta play on Sundays, right? And so they're still going to be concussions, they're still going to be brain injuries,” he said. “But if you can reduce the risk of long-term I think it's a great thing. And I think any step forward and protecting a brain is really, really important because you only get one brain and once the damage is done, it's done, and then you have to live with it and learn how to deal with the disabilities that come with it.”
According to the NFL, Guardian Caps can reduce at least 10% of the impact, at least 20% if both parties are wearing them. Though he’s glad the NFL is stepping up on the issue, he believes more can be done at the younger levels.
“The thing that's really glaring to me is youth football. These five- to eight-year-old kids that have been playing tackle football, these are the people that you're committing crimes, killing people, killing themselves or committing felonies,” he said. "And so I think that’s the thing that parents really need to evaluate. There are science-based facts out there that pre-puberty, these kids are playing tackle football, and taking repeated hits with lack of coaching on tackling or proper coaching on hitting. It doesn't show up when they're 12, 13, 14, it's when they're 25, 26, 27, 28. And so that's the thing that I think that people need to do.”
According to the CDC, youth tackle football athletes had an estimated 18 times more head impacts per practice and 19 times more head impacts per game than flag football athletes, undergoing seven head impacts during a practice and 13 impacts during a game on average.
“The small fry football program that has done so much for so many people in this community, I think, needs to probably be, in my opinion, reevaluated. I don't think there's a need for it. I played in junior high, and then I played my senior year of high school. And so a lot of people aren't going to make it to the pros. But there's a lot that comes with sports that I think is beneficial to that they need to be involved in,” the former tight end said.
Above all FitzSimmons believes in considering the risks and rewards of life, and encourages athletes do the same.
“You have to decide if you're willing to pay that price. And so I think with the 10% reduction, 10 out of every 100 people that have suffered concussions, I think [Guardian Caps] it's going to benefit them,” he said. "And I think long-term effects, people going out after their playing days are going to have a chance to have a second career.”
The most surprising thing about FitzSimmons story? He’d do it all again.
“I didn't want to retire. And I didn't want to accept the fact that maybe there was something wrong. When you get to the level of the NFL, or any professional sport and the work and the time and the effort that you put into it to get there, you spend the remaining time trying to stay there,” he said. "I'm an ultra competitor, and I never wanted to walk away from it, I was forced out of it. And people asked me today, would you still do this? And I say, absolutely. Because winning and losing to me is important. Below my family and my faith, I'd say that winning and losing is the most important thing in life to me.”