Class of 2018
Mike Van Diest decided to recruit Casey FitzSimmons to Carroll College after watching a Chester High basketball game.
“It was up in Great Falls at Great Falls High and I was with my family at a basketball tournament. Casey played a game and went up in the stands,” Van Diest said. “I watched how he played on the court and how he interacted with everybody. He was polite to everybody and engaged with everybody.
“I told my boys (Shane and Clay), that’s how you act. That’s how you act when you play and that’s how you act off the court. You could just see people thought the world of him. And I thought, ‘That’s the kind of guy I want to build this football program around.’ “
FitzSimmons, who led Carroll College to a pair of NAIA national championships and then enjoyed a fine career in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, grew up in the small Hi-Line town of Chester.
“He’s very special,” Van Diest said. “He was Mr. Everything at Chester High School and probably could have played basketball in the Frontier Conference as well. We were just blessed to get him here in football. The timing was right for us.
“He had that gleam in his eye. He was a competitor and a tough kid.”
FitzSimmons played at Carroll College from 2000-03 and went on to a stellar career with the Detroit Lions. In eight NFL seasons he caught 70 passes for 549 yards and five touchdowns.
At Carroll, the 6-4, 250-pound FitzSimmmons had 244 receptions for 2,698 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was a four-time all-Frontier Conference selection and two-time NAIA All-American.
Casey and his wife, Alison, have a daughter, Addison, and two sons, Bode and Cooper. They live on a cattle ranch in the Canyon Creek area, about 25 miles northwest of Helena.
“I wouldn't call me a real cowboy,” FitzSimmons said. “I like to ride horses and all that stuff. My Dad ran the John Deere store in Chester, and all my friends came off farms and ranches.”
FitzSimmons deflected credit for the Hall of Fame award.
“Everybody knows about football and the roles people play on a team,” he said. “I’ve had so many people who have done so much to generate the success that I’ve had. I always struggle with awards, because there’s so much more behind it.
“At the same time, I really respect the honor. It’s humbling and great.”
FitzSimmons’ Carroll career was filled with championships. He cherishes the memories.
“Yes, because when you've got a group of guys that you came in with, and you grow so much from an 18-year-old kid to a 22-year-old man,” he said. “I went through good times and hard times with those guys, and a lot of those guys are still my closest friends. It's a great bond we have at Carroll, and that bond extends to the guys playing now to the guys who played before and after me.
“I take lot of pride in the state that I'm from and the college I went to. It means a lot to me.”
He’s also proud of his NFL career.
“Well, you know, I really thought it was like any other job,” FitzSimmons said. “I know people looked at me as representing my hometown, my state and college and family, and I just tried to do it the best I could. I really don't look back on the accomplishments and think wow. I'm just thankful it gave me a chance to help people out.”
His most memorable NFL moment?
“It would have to be my first game (in 2003 against the Arizona Cardinals),” FitzSimmons said. “I was on the field for the opening kickoff and I started the game at tight end. It was a cool deal.”
FitzSimmons retired from the NFL in 2010. His season the year before had ended because of a severe concussion.
Sean Yuille of prideofdetriot.com visited with former Lions’ president Tom Lewand upon the tight end’s retirement.
"Few Lions’ players ever came as far to accomplish as much as Casey FitzSimmons,” Lewand said. "When you consider that he played eight-man high school football and was not even drafted out of college, then you can truly appreciate what a great career Casey had in the NFL.
"We signed him as a free agent in 2003 because we needed a tight end for our rookie camp. All he did was start in his first NFL game as a rookie, and go on to play as many seasons (seven) at tight end as any player in Lions’ history, other than Jim Gibbons and Charlie Sanders.”
FitzSimmons had several outstanding NFL moments. One came against the visiting Chicago Bears in 2007. The Lions rallied to win 37-27 by scoring 34 fourth-quarter points, the final Detroit touchdown coming when the Bears attempted an onside kick and FitzSimmons returned it for a touchdown.
Jim Schwartz was the Lions’ head coach when FitzSimmons retired. Sean Yuille quoted Schwartz thusly:
"Casey is a guy who played the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Schwartz said. "He was considered an underdog by many, but never by his coaches. He was a guy you could always count on."