The days when laughing came easy are the ones Tom Steigers misses the most.

Back when his boy still held his hand to cross the street. When little Dylan Steigers was actually sort of proud to take youth swimming lessons with his toenails painted -- an ancillary benefit of having eight female cousins on his mom's side, half of whom could hold him down.

It was back before Dylan took a few too many hits to the head on the football field. Before this model middle-school student began to struggle with depression, anxiety and concentration at school, eventually settling for a blue-collar job after graduating from Missoula Sentinel.

A lot of sports dads hope for a fearless sort of son -- the kind everyone calls hard-nosed. Tom Steigers has a message for those dads:

"Really keep an eye on them," he told the Missoulian. "When Dylan was in grade school, middle school, that was like 15 years ago now, we weren't that smart back then.

"We did all the right things when he got injured. We went to the doctor and got cleared. But basically the old adage was brush yourself off and get back in the game when you get your bell rung. That whole concept has changed so much."

Dylan Steigers died in the spring of 2010 from head injuries sustained in an Eastern Oregon University football scrimmage. He was a 22-year-old freshman trying to make a better life for himself, his 2-year-old daughter and his partner, Liz Apostol.

Had Tom known what they do today about concussions, he would have fought his son like an angry grizzly to prevent him from trying college football. Instead, Tom settles for pleasant memories these days and pours his energy into a therapeutic journey he plans to start on Friday.

Steigers, 62, will walk from Missoula to La Grande, Oregon, with a goal of reaching Eastern Oregon's football field in time for the Mountaineers' spring scrimmage on May 6. That day marks the sixth anniversary of the game and the hit that led to his son's death.

"When I came up with the idea it was almost like, I don't know if epiphany is the right word or not, but you know what I mean," said Tom, who will trek roughly 20 miles per day and encounter snowy mountain passes on his 368-mile journey.

"I've had a lot of friends and family tell me I'm crazy. So I said, 'OK, I'm going to prove to you I can do it.' Since last July I've walked over 2,100 miles in my daily routine and then really kicked it into high gear the last four weeks."

The endeavor is being used as a fundraiser locally -- you may have heard of the Dylan Steigers Concussion Project -- and at Eastern Oregon where plans for a scholarship are in the works. But really this is about a father still coming to terms with the loss of his son.

"I think you'd drive yourself crazy if you didn't try to put some kind of positive spin on it," he said. "I'm a very faith-filled person and I haven't held any grudges. I guess it probably did happen for a reason.

"Both my wife and I could have gotten very sour and closed ourselves off. But we chose to do something positive with it, jumping on board with the concussion foundation here in town. Then the state law they passed a couple years ago (Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act). We got on board with that and testified at the hearings."

Most parents tell you they'd jump in front of a truck to save their child. Tom Steigers never had the chance, so he'll walk alongside rock-splattering trucks and the raging Lochsa River to celebrate his son.

A non-walker turned hoofing hero. A quiet man who became a voice for positive change.

On this Easter weekend, Tom Steigers is a ray of light worth celebrating. At a time when it's so easy to be sucked in by the darkness we see on the nightly news, Tom reminds us that positivity is always plausible.

"I can think a lot of fancy thoughts, but I can't put them into words very well," offered the former mill worker who just retired from a position at the University of Montana. "I guess I've always been a person who is more action than words.

"But I really do think about my son most every minute of the day. I really truly do."

Safe travels, Tom. Somewhere Dylan is smiling.

To help out with the fund-raising cause, log on to dylansteigersconcussionproject.com.

Bill Speltz may be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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