WHITEFISH — As the April sun shone over the University of Montana’s campus in Missoula in 2017, Gage Smith couldn’t handle it.
The then-sophomore Grizzly linebacker lived mere blocks away from the Adams Center but needed to sit down on the pavement. The sun's rays were far too intense.
“I couldn't be in bright environments,” Smith recalled 17 months later. “I had to cover my eyes walking home or I'd feel like I was going to have this massive panic attack. It wasn’t a fun time last spring.”
Smith’s newfound sensitivity to light came a few days after his third diagnosed concussion during Montana’s spring practices in 2017. His fourth diagnosed concussion that came five months later exacerbated his side effects.
“I wasn’t sleeping. Or eating,” he said. “And I was losing weight.”
The most serious side effects: depression and elevated levels of anxiety.
Due to Smith’s declining mental health, he took a break from football over the winter to weigh his options. He made the decision to retire from football in the spring.
"The way my concussions affected my anxiety played into my decision more than anything,” he said. “On paper you look at it, 'Oh he's had a few concussions in college.' That's not what it's about. It was affecting my mental health and how I'd go about my day-to-day things. My mental health was declining because of my concussions. It put me in a scary place. Stuff like that sticks with you. Even if I don't have concussion symptoms anymore, just the way my brain was for those months, it f—s with you.”
When Smith reported his concussion last spring, he breezed through his medical paperwork — Gage Smith, male, from Whitefish, 19 years old.
But Smith wasn’t 19. He was 21.
“It freaked me out,” he said of his Spring 2017 concussion. “It’s scary when that happens. Obviously I knew I was 21, but I wrote down 19.”
Smith doesn't remember the hit that caused the concussion that Monday, but he remembers bits and pieces of the practice, saying he felt "horrible at the very end.''
He didn't report the concussion right away and went into workouts the next day still foggy.
"I thought, 'If it's still around on Wednesday when practice comes, I'm going in and saying something because I do not feel good right now. Everything feels messed up,'" he said.
In total, Smith has had four diagnosed concussions — three of which came from football. He had a concussion falling off a lawn mower when he was younger. His second concussion came during high school football. And the other two were while he was playing college football.
Smith's concussion in April 2017 was his third diagnosed concussion.
His worst symptom after last spring's concussion was his elevated anxiety.
"I could be in a totally calm, non-threatening situation and this would happen. I could be buying ice cream at the store and have a panic attack," Smith said. "That's one of the tough things to explain. It just can happen."
Sometimes he'd shoot awake at night in a panic, not remembering where he was. He'd walk into the kitchen and forget what he was doing. And he'd become angry at his girlfriend.
"She's super helpful, super caring, very sensitive and I was constantly so angry at her," Smith said of his girlfriend, Maggie Voisin, a two-time Olympic freeskiier. "We're talking and I didn't have control of my emotions. That was one thing that was an eye-opener. I had no control over my emotions towards her.
"She'd be like, 'Hey, is everything OK.' And I'd be like, 'I just don't want to talk to you right now.' And it made her really sad. She was just trying to help and she was helpless. That made me feel really awful."
His fourth concussion came in August 2017 during Montana's final preseason scrimmage.
The side effects from that one were even worse.
"I remember sitting on the sidelines after it happened asking if I could go up to the locker room because being around everything was driving me nuts," Smith said. "It reset my anxiety over the top again."
Smith was a four-year walk-on special teamer who suited up as the third-string outside linebacker behind James Banks and Dante Olson last season. He played in five games on special teams — Montana's matchups with Valparaiso, Washington, Savannah State, Eastern Washington and Portland State — and recorded two tackles. They came on kick returns against Valparaiso and Savannah State.
Despite seeing the field, Smith struggled.
He staked out seats next to doors — in class, at football meetings — just in case a panic attack came on. He'd scroll through channels on TV and do double takes, not remembering what he'd just read. Sunlight continued to bother him, too.
"The last five minutes of the Cat game, I don't even remember," Smith said. "I was on a knee on the sidelines. I was a mess mentally with the anxiety."
The Montana State game was three months post-concussion and his symptoms worsened.
He stopped eating. He couldn't sleep. The weight began to fall off. He'd developed depression.
"It got to the point where we had a morning workout and I had to go in and be like, 'I've gotta step away for a little bit,'" Smith said. "'I'm in an uncontrollable place right now. It's affecting my health.'"
One in five young adults have anxiety or depression, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and more than 75 percent of all mental health conditions begin before the age of 24.
But the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially athletes and mental health, is real and heavy.
According to an NCAA survey in 2015, 30 percent of student-athletes self-reported being depressed and 50 percent experienced high levels of anxiety.
Smith said his eight-year journey with anxiety has never been treated.
"It's been one of those things like everybody has their (stuff) going on," Smith said of his anxiety. "But I always tried to play it off like I had everything put together. I wanted to be the person who had it all figured out. Obviously I didn't. Hardly anybody does.
"The term anxiety can be so loosely thrown around. Like, no. True problems with anxiety are far different than the loosely thrown around term. It's like a term like depression. 'Oh I'm depressed right now.' Well, true depression, true anxiety, it's different," Smith said.
Concussions, according to recent studies, play into mental health as well.
A 2017 study published by the National Institutes of Health concluded that concussions and impaired mental health, depression in particular, were associated.
And then there's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that's found in athletes, veterans and other people with repetitive brain trauma.
There are several studies regarding CTE and football, including the 2017 study laid out in the New York Times where 110 of 111 brains of former NFL football players had CTE. And a study from May 2018 outlines that children "who start playing tackle football before age 12 will, on average, develop cognitive and emotional symptoms associated with (CTE) much earlier than those who start later."
The Associated Press reported recently that the NFL concussion claims hit $500 million in less than two years.
Smith said the conversation surrounding CTE makes him think of his days as an offensive lineman.
"What they talk about is the repeated hits to the head. One thing that worries me is I played offensive line in high school and I was always leading with my head," he said. "I liked to throw my head into guys… Waking up with massive headaches and neck pains after high school games, who knows what could have been going on. I think it'll be fine, but the more they look into it, for anybody it's scary."
The concussion discussion hits closer to home as well.
Smith is the second Montana football player in the past calendar year to retire after suffering multiple concussions. Former UM wideout Caleb Lyons stepped away from the sport last August after having a seizure and developing social anxiety, claustrophobia and migraines.
“If I had that from that concussion, there's no telling what I would get from the next one,” Lyons said of his symptoms last August. “And that's something I really didn't want to find out."
And former Montana State linebacker Corey Widmer, who spent eight years in the NFL with the New York Giants, declined his induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame due to concussions.
“I can’t even be associated with it," Widmer told 406mtsports.com back in March. "Honest to God, if you gave me a million dollars a year to talk about football, I’d pass it up. I could use the money, but I wouldn’t touch it with a thousand-foot pole.”
History of Anxiety
Smith’s anxiety didn’t start with his collegiate concussions. He said his anxiety began at the age of 14 after his mother, Carolyn, died at 47 due to a blood clot.
The day Smith's mother died, he was with his father, Barry — a professional hockey coach who coaches around the world 10 months out of the year — 10 hours away in Penticton, British Columbia.
"My older brother called me in a panic and was like, 'Something happened to Mom. The ambulance took her,'" Smith recalled. "She had a blood clot. It started in her leg. She was an All-American basketball player in college and had ankle problems and thought it was something acting up, so she ignored it.
"... My mom was the do-it-all mom. She was so loved in this community. She was involved in everything and did everything. Her funeral at the church here was insanely big. There were people in the street, it was crazy. I always say any bit of good I have in me is from her."
The Smith family dynamic drastically changed.
Before she died, Smith's mother stayed home with him and his two brothers while his father coached hockey. But their father stayed home for a year after she passed.
Smith said her death drove a wedge between him and his family.
"One of the things I didn't really sympathize with growing up is that he (his father) never really knew how to parent because he was never around it," Smith said. "He was gone 10 months out of the year. He didn't really understand some stuff and my dad and I are very much alike and we would always butt heads.
"Not all of us really saw eye-to-eye and it tore us apart. It pushed us away from each other for a long time. I separated myself from my whole family and was like, 'I'm going to do it on my own.'"
Smith said he hadn't talked to his older brother Maxl for five years. He hadn't spoken with his younger brother Hutton or his dad for years, either.
But Smith knew he couldn't face his depression alone.
"When this whole thing was going on, I finally broke down and called him and called my dad and talked to my younger brother, who I never talk to," Smith said. "Obviously I knew I could rely on my family but I was like, 'Wow, I haven't talked to either of my brothers in years. To a great deal, that's my fault.
"But everything happens for a reason. I'm kind of one of those people. When all this stuff happened, I got the chance to reconnect with my family. That's been great so far. We all went down to San Diego and watched my little brother graduate."
Smith didn't choose to leave Montana's football team for good right away. He said he checked in with several athletics staff members every week — safeties coach Shann Schillinger, wide receivers coach Brent Pease, head coach Bobby Hauck, strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson, head athletic trainer JC Weida and a mental health specialist who works with UM football players —during winter conditioning.
He also leaned on his support system during his time of reflection. But the more he agonized over his decision, the more it made sense to walk away.
"The bad started outweighing the good. If I was to get another concussion that was bad," Smith said before trailing off and regrouping himself. "I was a walk-on. There's been staff changes. I've fought to get on special teams. I've done all this and that. I can get through it but was it going to be good for me to get through it anymore? No."
One of the toughest things about leaving the team, Smith said, was many of his teammates didn't know he'd left.
Smith didn't post on social media about leaving and told a few people in person.
"That's one of the things that hurts. It was a sudden decision. I was somebody who tried to act like I had everything so together. And then to suddenly leave like that, people were like, 'I never knew that was even going on.' That's a hard thing to explain to people," Smith said while wearing a Montana linebackers T-shirt. "I'm such an outgoing, goofy person who's always trying to keep the mood light. You would never think I was somebody who had all that going on."
Smith will remain enrolled in classes, as he's one or two semesters away from completing his degree in communications. He's hoping to go into medical sales.
"School's something I'm definitely going to finish. I'm not throwing that away," Smith said.
What would have been Smith's senior season is just around the corner. He doesn't regret his choice, though he admits Saturdays in the fall will be tough.
"I grew up watching Griz football. It was something that was so special to be a part of. This decision does and will continue to still hurt me — especially in the fall," Smith said. "They could go undefeated or all-defeated next year and no matter what I'd still be so bummed that I'm not out there. I made a tough decision. It was best for me. I'm going to stand by it. I'm not going to make excuses. It's something I had to do."