(Editor’s note: Former Chester, Carroll College and Detroit Lions tight end Casey FitzSimmons recently invited MTN Sports to his ranch near Canyon Creek outside Helena. To view the complete MontanaSports.com Original “Retirement Ranch” with FitzSimmons, please click the video at the top of this story.)
CANYON CREEK — A decade ago, Casey FitzSimmons was hauling in touchdowns and winning national championships at Carroll College, eventually playing in front of thousands for the Detroit Lions in the National Football League.
After seven seasons in the NFL, FitzSimmons, who was born in Wolf Point but became a multi-sport standout at Chester High School, retired from football. The retirement party didn’t last long.
The FitzSimmons family moved to a ranch near Canyon Creek, bought nearly 30 cattle and started FitzSimmons Land & Cattle Co., which has grown to thousands of acres and more than 200 head of cattle.
“Some people think I’m crazy,” he laughed. “I mean, I could have probably retired and lived a pretty simple, easy life, but I wanted my kids to see me work and I wanted my kids to grow up in this environment and learn how to go out every day and deal with adversity and success, all that stuff, and I wanted them to see it all firsthand. It’s been fun and I really enjoy it.
“A lot of people do things for certain reasons, mine was that I played football to buy a ranch. I have no background in ranching, my dad was in the agriculture business and John Deere, so I dove into this with really no knowledge or experience.”
FitzSimmons credits his parents for instilling a work ethic and motivation at a young age, which has helped him navigate the ranching world over the past nine years. He jokes about still being competitive, noting “My shoulders are shot, my elbow is bad and I’ll still try to out-throw a rock on somebody. It’s one of those things that I don’t know if I’ll ever lose it.”
Despite “loving the game of football” and perhaps the itch to coach, FitzSimmons has never second-guessed his decision to trade the pigskin for cattle, even during the long hours of calving season.
“Everybody sacrifices for their job. If you want to be good at what you do, and I’m not trying to say the rancher is the hardest-working guy or anything, but there was a week there where we had anywhere from 15 to 20 calves a day, which on our place is quite a bit. That was 15 hours of sleep for the week. But that’s what we signed up to do, and I knew that going into it,” said FitzSimmons. “I’m a firm believer that if you enjoy what you do, it doesn’t matter how much time you put in, and that’s kind of where I’m at and I love it. My kids get to go out and do it with me, my wife does, too, so it’s a fun thing.”
Miles away from the so-called “city life” of Helena where he became an all-American and national champion at Carroll College, FitzSimmons spends his days with his wife, Alison, and their children — 9-year-old Addison, 6-year-old Bode, 3-year-old Cooper and 6-week-old Ryder.
“My kids are great. My daughter has really gotten into the horse thing, and I’m not a big horse person, but I get on a horse with her and ride, she enjoys it,” he said. “Yesterday my little 3-year-old, Cooper, and I were out picking up sticks from a hayfield and the conversations we have are the ones I’ll remember for the rest of my life. He won’t remember it, but for me, it’s the stuff he makes up, just the fun we have and the memories. A lot of my football stuff is kind of where someone says something and I’m like, ‘I can’t recall a lot of it,’ because it was a job and I guess it’s not as important to me at that level as it is raising my children.”
A rural boy at heart, FitzSimmons wondered about the transition to the NFL and Detroit Lions after signing with the organization in 2003. Turns out, the Wolverine State wasn’t much different than Big Sky Country.
“It’s kind of funny, Detroit, and Michigan in general, is a lot like Montana. There are a lot of blue collar people, the auto industry,” said FitzSimmons, who played in 99 games, hauling in 88 receptions for 677 yards and five touchdowns. “There were some changes, the higher crime rate, bigger poverty levels, but it woke me up and helped me appreciate what I had back home. It was cool. I love Michigan. Michigan is a really beautiful state, there’s a lot to offer, there’s a lot of hunting, fishing, outdoors stuff. I always refer to it as a poor man’s Montana. Their hills are smaller, their rivers are smaller, and their deer are maybe a little bit smaller, but it’s fun. I had a great time. There’s an adjustment in everything. Anytime you leave the state of Montana, because we have it so good, is an adjustment for anybody. It was fun.”
According to FitzSimmons, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre was the only athlete to make him starstruck, “because I think of the way he was and the way he presented the game.” These days he keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, often times taking turns leading one another on hunting trips in each’s home state.
An inductee to the Montana Football Hall of Fame just last year, FitzSimmons, who played only one year of high school football before being recruited to Carroll, hopes today’s athletes take advantage of every chance they get.
“Life is full of opportunities, and going back to this, it’s what you take from those opportunities. It’s not how you handle success, it’s how you handle failure. Everybody is going to fail and there are going to be ups and downs, you either fold shop or you dig in and fight. My philosophy was fighting. I wanted to make sure to prove people wrong,” he said. “There are people that doubt people, but I never doubt anybody because I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what opportunities I had. Those kids, never give up. You never know what’s around the corner. That’s my thing, I was always fighting to see what’s around the corner, see what was going to be presented to me next. We all make bad decisions, we all get in trouble, we all have success, but it’s how you handle those things is what makes you be able to go to the next level.”
“At the end of the day, it takes talent, too, and it takes time to hone that talent,” he continued. “There were lots of guys that played in the NFL that were way more talented than me, but at the end of the day I was reliable, and don’t get me wrong, I was talented, but they were a supreme athlete compared to me, but I knew how to study film to prepare for games and how to be a professional. Just because someone is better than you and in front of you, I wouldn’t give up because there’s so much that you can do and it’s all in your own control. You can’t ask for anything better. When you can control your own destiny, there ain’t nothing better than that.”