MISSOULA — Caleb Lyons’ last play in a Griz uniform came on special teams.
When he went out for a seemingly routine kick return, Lyons was unaware of how much the next play would change his college career.
As the ball went off the foot of Eastern Washington’s kicker, Lyons, a wide receiver, realized it was a pooch kick.
The ball sailed into Montana’s second or third row of defenders and Lyons ran to his right, hitting an Eastern Washington player much larger than him. The hit wasn’t big, but it was enough to permanently sideline him.
“It was just the way our heads hit,” Lyons told 406mtsports.com. “I blacked out, fell down and got up all stumbly like Bambi. It was a rough one.”
When Lyons made his way back to the sideline, he felt nauseous, but initially hid from the athletic training staff because he didn’t know what was going on.
Lyons said one of his teammates grabbed an athletic trainer and told them to “‘go look at Caleb.’”
Caleb wasn’t all right. Lyons said the athletic training staff knew right away he had a concussion.
Lyons’ memory of the game is spotty, especially the second half. He apparently jumped on several teammates’ backs and was a ball of energy, even though the Griz were losing by at least 18 points.
“I'm known for being the jokester, so when I heard it, it wasn't too weird, but I wouldn't do that when we were down,” Lyons said.
Even though Lyons estimates he’s had at least five concussions in his life — with two coming in the fall of 2016 — the one he sustained during the Eastern Washington game was by far the worst. His symptoms were unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
Lyons, known for his goofy and outgoing personality, developed social anxiety, claustrophobia and started getting migraines.
That wasn’t all of it.
Roughly two months after Lyons’ concussion, he had a small seizure during winter conditioning.
“I was in the bathroom and I just remember, I thought I saw myself from way up high and collapsed. I remember telling myself that I was having a seizure,” Lyons said. “It was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He woke up in the bathroom and waited 15 to 20 minutes before telling anyone what happened because he didn’t know what to do.
After that time period had gone by, he said he finally asked a teammate to take him to the hospital to talk to someone.
Lyons didn’t work out again after that for two months. Before he hit the ground running again, he went to Peak Performance Physical Therapy to do concussion treatment, like acupuncture on the back of his neck and visual therapy.
He says he still gets claustrophobic, even when there’s no one around. And he still gets a migraine every day.
Because of his strong symptoms, Lyons announced via his Instagram that he was retiring from playing football.
I've been told that the game of football isn't life, But my whole life this game is all I have ever known. You always hear the cliche phrase "don't take this game for granted, you never know when it'll be your last play." And it never hit me until I met my last play. Due to many/back to back concussions/TBI's I will be hanging my cleats up for the sake of my mental health and for my family. This game has taught me more in life than I can even put into words. I am so thankful for everyone who believed in me when the odds weren't in my favor. I am thankful for every coach I have ever had, and all the friends and family that pushed me to be the best I could be. Ever since 4th grade I have dreaded this moment, and it brings many tears to my eyes every time I think about it. But what helps me is understanding God has a plan for every one of us. With that being said I will trust his plan and will be accepting a student coaching opportunity that I was given at the U of Montana. This was truly god given and I am so thankful for the opportunity. And with the help of the UM coaching staff I will work to be the best coach I can be. I believe by being vulnerable I will be able to help other athletes through their rough times, and I truly believe God has me on this earth to help others. This is the hardest thing I have ever done, but I am surrounded by the best family, and best group of brothers in the nation. I love you guys! & Hopefully one day you guys will see Scooter coaching on the big screen! And to my Griz fam we gettin a 💍 this year!!
“If I had that from that concussion, there's no telling what I would get from the next one,” Lyons said of his symptoms. “And that's something I really didn't want to find out."
Even though Lyons’ decision to retire was a difficult one, Montana head coach Bob Stitt agreed with it completely.
“When you have issues with your head, you don’t play anymore,” Stitt said of Lyons’ situation. “If he was my son, I wouldn’t want him playing. It’s just too scary of a situation for him to continue to play.”
Lyons isn’t the first college player to retire early due to concussions. It’s becoming a national trend.
According to AlJazeera America, at least 26 college football players retired because of concussions between 2013 and 2015. Last season, two players at Oklahoma left the sport. So did a Northwestern cornerback. And a Kansas offensive lineman.
Lots of NFL players are retiring in their prime as well due to traumatic brain injuries and with new research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and football, the trend isn’t anticipated to go away.
“That's something I wouldn't want to put my future family and my family through now,” Lyons said of CTE.
Lyons isn’t leaving the game entirely. He’s accepted a student coaching role with the Griz, an idea that inside receivers coach Mike Ferriter came up with.
Having the coaching role offered to him made Lyons’ decision to retire easier, especially since he had the support of his family.
“Once I told them about the opportunity Ferriter proposed to me, they really wanted me to do that,” Lyons said. “They were so, so, so supportive of anything I was going to do. My family, my close friends, the guys on the team here, coaches, made it a lot easier.”
He said he’ll be helping out the younger players, whether that’s helping develop them or get adjusted to life on the team. Stitt said he’ll sit in meetings and shadow Ferriter, as well as help spot the ball, throw passes to receivers and anything else he can do to help.
That doesn’t bother Lyons one bit.
"My goal now is to learn as much as I possibly can from our coaches, ask a million questions and tire them out and annoy them with questions so I can learn,” he said. “Ultimately my goal is I want to be the best coach I can be and try and keep going up in coaching."
Even though Lyons has sustained multiple concussions due to the sport, his love of the sport he’s played his whole life runs deep.
“I've been playing tackle football since fourth grade,” Lyons said. “Basically, that's one thing that I grew up always having was football. Never didn't have it. That was something that was always there for me.
"Even when I'm done playing football, when I made my decision, I still want to be a part of it. You don't stop learning from football. It transfers from the field into your daily life off the field too. That's how I navigate my love for football, even with knowing the repercussions."