One day after former Missoula Sentinel football player Dylan Steigers died from injuries sustained at an Eastern Oregon scrimmage over the weekend, friends and loved ones remembered the 21-year-old as a promising collegiate athlete and an extremely proud father.
Those closest to Steigers then expressed how proud they were of him.
Steigers, a 2006 graduate of Sentinel, was getting his life back on track when Saturday's "freak" brain injury derailed any plans of a future with his partner, Liz Apostol, and their 2-year-old daughter London. Steigers had finally found his way, it seemed, after his first attempts at college football had gone awry nearly four years earlier.
It was almost enough to tear down Steigers. Almost.
"He wasn't always making the right choices," said friend John Hermes. "But when he had London with Liz, that totally reshaped the foundation of that kid's life. I've never seen anybody become a man so fast as I did with Dylan. I was so proud of him."
Steigers enrolled at Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande and was taking spring classes to build up his eligibility to play football in the fall. He was going to use sports to get him to that next phase in life, said Liz's father Edward Apostol.
"He wanted to get things done," Apostol said from the family's living room on Monday. "He knew what his goals were, and he was going to play football in the fall on his way to getting a degree. There were steps that he needed to take and he knew that."
Steigers' young family became his inspiration.
"His girls were No. 1," said Susan Apostol, Liz's mother. "Football was secondary."
It was also his final act.
Steigers took a blow to the head after tackling a ballcarrier on the second-to-last series of the scrimmage on Saturday. He came out from underneath the pile and left the field under his own power. Steigers reportedly told his head coach Tim Camp he was fine, but that he'd gotten hit in the head.
Camp told his player to see an athletic trainer, but Steigers began vomiting on the sideline - often a sign of concussions - and then started seizing. The school's protocol for a suspected concussion is to call 9-1-1, said university spokesman Tim Seydel.
Steigers was taken to the local hospital, then Life-flighted to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise. Medical staff told university officials that he suffered an acute subdural hematoma as a result of contact to the head. Steigers was on life support at Saint Alphonsus until late Sunday afternoon.
The Steigers family is awaiting the results of an autopsy before returning to Missoula with their son's remains. A funeral service for Steigers is tentatively set for early next week, said Sentinel football coach Pete Joseph, who has been in contact with the Steigers family. Liz was traveling back from Boise on Monday.
An acute subdural hematoma is a traumatic brain injury characterized by blood gathering on the outermost layer of the brain. This hemorrhaging can cause intracranial pressure, which, if left untreated, can damage the brain.
In Steigers' case, he didn't make it into surgery.
"Basically, they already knew he was brain dead," Susan Apostol said. "The doctor that talked to the family said she doesn't know how it happened because he's so young. ... She said it had to be a hard hit to the back of the head and then a twist. There had to be a twist in there because his head is too strong at this age. It was just a freak thing."
According to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, a study released to the NCAA and the National Federation of State High Schools by Frederick O. Mueller of the University of North Carolina, three fatalities were directly related to football activites in 2009. Of those deaths, two were from brain injuries. Another 15 deaths were indirectly related to participating in football.
"It's just weird," said Eddie Apostol, Liz's younger brother, "because he's the toughest guy I know."
Steigers' friends said they were shocked to learn of his death, but also not surprised.
"I wasn't surprised to hear Dylan got hurt; the kid plays so hard and so fast," said Hermes, who was studying for finals at the University of Montana when a friend called with the bad news. "But then my friend said it didn't look good. Man, we prayed our asses off that night, hoping for the best, and it didn't turn out."
Hermes looked for the silver lining and found two.
"He was doing what he loved," Hermes said. "If there was one thing he could die while doing, it would be football. The other thing was his family was there watching. If they hadn't been able to do that, I know it'd be pretty tough."
Hermes remembers playing intramural football at UM and bringing Dylan along one day as an extra.
"The other guys on the team said, ‘I don't know if we'll need him,' and I said ‘Trust me.' " Hermes said. "He came in and just destroyed everyone. From then on the kids didn't care if I came, but they'd call to make sure Steigs was coming."
Hermes, 23, also remembers Steigers being so much more gifted than the other athletes in high school, even though he was young for their grade. Steigers was also extremely helpful with youth camps.
"Sometimes when kids are that naturally talented at sports they have trouble coaching it," Hermes said, "but he was so good with little kids."
Another former classmate, Brock Alonzo, was on "literally every sports team" with Steigers since second grade.
Alonzo, who graduated from Montana State last Saturday, is a self-described Bobcat, but his earliest memories of Steigers are as Little Grizzly football players.
"He was our whole team," Alonzo said. "He played running back, defense, returned all our kicks. He was an all-around stud athlete. The most talented player I played with by far."
The two used to go hunting together and offroading in Pattee Canyon with Steigers' old Kia. They would also get into trouble, but Alonzo's last memory of Steigers was that of a changed man.
"He always talked about wanting to play football really bad," Alonzo said. "Everything that happened with Liz and London, that completely changed his perspective on life. He really set his priorities straight. I was so proud of him."
"He was so excited to be a dad and be there for her, because he was adopted," Alonzo added. "He got so much pride out of his little girl. He loved that girl to death."
Lately, Steigers had turned his attention and his friendship to Eddie Apostol, though.
The Missoula Big Sky senior was going to join Steigers at Eastern Oregon next season, playing football for the Mountaineers. Liz and London were coming too.
"Ever since he moved in with us we were like best friends," Eddie said. "We did everything together."
Next year, Eddie is going to take over Steiger's No. 3 jersey and when he's done with it in four years, it'll be retired, a school official said. The team also plans on planting a tree in LaGrande, memorializing Steigers' locker and starting next season with only 10 men on defense to signify a missing player.
Steigers, an all-state wide receiver in high school, had moved up the depth chart at safety, from fourth string to starter. The team is also coming to Missoula on buses next week for Steigers' services.
And then there's Liz Apostol.
The couple was eyeing marriage, but wanted to get degrees first. The morning of the scrimmage Liz and Dylan found a house to live in next year. They would live in it for a year, just the three of them, and then bring Eddie in after his freshman year.
"It's been really hard for Liz, because she doesn't want to be referred to as his girlfriend," Susan Apostol said. "She's not a girlfriend. They were like soul mates, life partners and they planned on being married."
The couple had matching pink bracelets made and always wore them around their wrists. Steigers wore his under some tape during football, and it didn't come off until Sunday night.
"We just did the most crying we've ever done as a family," said Edward Apostol. "We were so lucky to have him in our lives for four years. He was amazing."
Friends of the Steigers family have set up a memorial fund at Gateway Community Federal Credit Union to defray medical and funeral costs, as well as set up an education fund for London. There are three locations in Missoula that are accepting donations. Please contact Colleen at 550-1003 and reference the Dylan Steigers Benefit Fund if donating.