The night before he died, Richmond senior Kurt Schmitz left his home in Haskell, New Jersey, to return to Richmond around 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2014. He called his mother, Yvonne Schmitz, at 3:30 a.m. to tell her he had made it back.
He was found dead in his apartment on West Marshall Street eight hours later. The state medical examiner determined his cause of death to be an enlarged heart and hypertensive cardiac disease.
He was 22 years old.
Schmitz died from dysrhythmia, made possible by his enlarged heart and caused by the mixture of two substances—an energy drink to keep him awake on his ride home, and an oxymorphone pill, a painkiller, to calm him down once he got there, his mother said.
She was increasingly worried about her son because of texts he sent about how he was feeling after head injuries he suffered during his football career at Richmond.
I'm just scared I kinda am messed up from my concussions like ever since freshman year when I got the first bad one…
His mother said he probably would have taken an antidepressant instead of the painkiller, but he had stopped taking those because they “made him feel fuzzy,” she said. “I could always tell when he had taken one.”
…My emotions in general and thoughts have been just so different, and I tell you I'm good and great cause I am compared to where I was, but I truthfully don't know if I'll ever be the ‘same’ me.
Schmitz played offensive lineman for the University of Richmond for about one year between his freshman and sophomore years. During that time, he estimated that he suffered four concussions, the last of which landed him in the hospital, he told former Collegian reporter Lauren Shute during an interview in March of 2014.
After Schmitz’s concussions, he suffered from memory loss, depression, mood swings and headaches. Football did not kill him, but when he died he was not the same man he was before he stepped on the field in Robins Stadium. His parents could see that clearly.
It took Schmitz’s parents, Yvonne and Kurt, 50 weeks and six days to tell the full story of their son. They recognized the impact his story could have—a 22-year-old man, suffering from troubling, muddling symptoms as a result of a short college football career.
Schmitz arrived at the University of Richmond in August 2010. He was a bright young man fresh from decorated high-school football and wrestling careers at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, New Jersey. His 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound frame was intimidating, but his warm, friendly face was not. He planned to study finance at Richmond’s Robins School of Business and to simultaneously excel on the football field.
Schmitz’s brightness would quickly dim.
It took just two weeks of training camp for Schmitz to suffer his first concussion at Richmond, he told Shute. He suffered a second concussion shortly after he returned from his first. This time, he concealed his symptoms from his coaches and trainers to avoid losing playing time. It worked. He started five games and played in another, all as a guard. His mother said coaches had promised her that her son would redshirt his first year, but since he gave the Spiders the best chance to win, he was put on the field.
During spring ball a few months later, Schmitz suffered what seemed like his third concussion in about six months, he told Shute. Using what he learned from his second concussion, he again hid his symptoms.
He could not hide the next one. During training camp his sophomore season, he suffered his fourth concussion and woke up in the hospital. When a team doctor asked him where he was, he said he was “out in the field having fun on fun day,” according to Shute’s article.
Schmitz visited Robert White, the team’s neurologist, who told him his career did not have to end because of his concussions and that he could continue to play, his mother said. White, who works for HCA Virginia, could not comment on Schmitz’s case because of HIPAA regulations.
Jennifer Hopp, a sports medicine physician for HCA Virginia who did not treat Schmitz, explained that concussions, whether a player’s first or fourth, are always treated based on symptoms, which places responsibility on the players to be honest about symptoms throughout the treatment process. Some institutions have rules that will prolong the recovery process after a second concussion in a season, she said. Schmitz never reported more than one concussion in a given season.
Still, he was sent to White, likely because of the severity of his last concussion. It is unclear what tests White used, but often when symptoms are persistent or severe enough, players will be given an MRI, Hopp said.
Schmitz’s mother saw signs that her son was not all right, so she brought him home and sought a second opinion.
“I sent you my son and you broke him,” she said, referring to people associated with the Richmond football program, although she did not name anyone in particular. “It’s my job to fix him.”
Schmitz also thought his brain was more damaged than White did. He expressed his doubts about White’s diagnosis in a text message to his mother.
…I don’t know anymore dr white obviously thinks it’s migraines but I don’t know, I never friggen had a migraine in my life and this shit only started last semester
Schmitz told Shute during their interview that after his last concussion, he couldn’t read, watch television or listen to music and his appetite was gone for a few weeks afterward. “I probably had lingering symptoms for about five months,” he told Shute.
After consulting further with his parents, who urged him to focus on his future and health and reminded him that his grandparents suffered from Alzheimer’s, Schmitz decided to stop playing football during his sophomore year. But the game had already taken its toll.
The effects that football can have on its players’ long-term health have been well documented in recent years. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE, is a degenerative brain disease characterized by a buildup of plaque as a result of repeated blows to the head. It was first found in former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who suffered drastically from memory loss, mood swings and far worse symptoms, after he died in 2002 at the age of 50, according to “League of Denial,” a book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru that documented the history of CTE and the NFL’s handling of concussions.
Schmitz did not have CTE. He did, however, suffer from cavum septum pellucidum, or CSP, which is a split cerebral membrane. After his death, his parents sent his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, formerly known as the Sports Legacy Institute, where brains of former athletes—primarily football players—are studied for CTE and other injuries. The Foundation partners with the Boston University CTE Center, where Ann McKee, director of the center’s Neuropathology Core, analyzes the brains in search for CTE or other related issues.
McKee studied Schmitz’s brain and although he did not have CTE, she found signs that his brain may have suffered from his days playing for the Spiders. McKee explained what she found in an email to Schmitz’s mother:
The changes in the white matter in Kurt’s brain occurred around the time of death; they obscured our ability to see if there was any long-standing damage to those same areas of the brain. (The recent changes made it impossible to see any other long-standing changes.)
The split in the membrane was likely caused by [repetitive head impacts], but we cannot be 100% sure because sometimes the split is found in individuals who were not exposed to trauma.
Please let me know if you have any other questions
Schmitz’s split was about 1.2 centimeters wide, which is unusually large, McKee said. The size of the split, which she most often finds in older brains riddled with severe CTE, was wide enough to suggest, but not determine, that its origin was repetitive head trauma.
“We see that split sometimes in normal people,” she said. “But when it’s a very wide split, when the separation is over a centimeter, it’s often the result of repetitive trauma and in his brain, it was over a centimeter.”
McKee also found small amounts of tau protein, which is a sign of CTE when there is enough of it. In Schmitz’s brain, there was not enough for a CTE diagnosis. McKee was adamant, though, that the study of younger brains such as Schmitz’s is fairly new, so no definite link could be determined between what was found in his brain and the symptoms he felt.
Although there is no certain tie between Schmitz’s split membrane and what he suffered, he and his mother were convinced that his symptoms were a result of having played football at Richmond. He had memory issues that his mother said were never present until after his concussions.
She once heard him listening to an old song that he used to make fun of. He seemed to like it now, so she made fun of him for it. “You used to joke this song, now you like it?” she asked him. “What do you mean?” he responded. Schmitz thought the song was new and had no recollection of ever making fun of it, she said.
Another time, Schmitz complimented his mother on a bathrobe that he had bought her for Christmas. “Where’d you get that?” he asked. He did not recall ever having seen the bathrobe before.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him,” she said.
Schmitz’s memory issues were not always arbitrary, though. They began to affect his ability to learn and focus on school. Although his effort never wavered, he did struggle at times to focus and complete necessary academic tasks. During his junior year, he decided to switch his major from finance to political science because the math and statistics, which used to be his strengths, became too difficult. His political science professors, including department chairman Daniel Palazzolo, who taught him during the spring of 2014, recognized his effort as well as his struggles, so they did what they could to help him.
“The consensus among my faculty was that he tried to overcome some of the academic difficulties that stemmed from memory issues and cognitive difficulties,” Palazzolo said. “We all knew about it.”
Sometimes his weakened memory kept him out of the classroom altogether. One day he was sitting in his dorm room in the middle of the day when he heard a knock on the door. It was his coaches, asking what he was doing. He didn’t know what was wrong. “You’re supposed to be in class,” his coaches told him. Schmitz broke down and began to cry, having completely forgotten that he had class at that time, his mother said.
Schmitz’s struggle with depression seemed to come in part from his own awareness of the issues he was having. Unlike some older, former NFL players such as Webster who did not always recognize when he was behaving abnormally, Schmitz understood himself.
His brain was conditioned for depression—injured enough to cause his symptoms, but healthy enough to recognize that he was broken. Schmitz struggled emotionally because of his inability to play football. He missed the game immensely. He displayed distress on multiple occasions in texts to his mother. One read:
It's just I hate sitting in my room when all my friends are doing things I can't do.
Another was a more detailed account of his frustration:
Mom I was in a bad place after that 5th concussion diagnosed and god knows how many I got at bosco on top of them, I didn't think I'd actually get any better. And that's why it kills me cause the thing I love, something that was seriously apart of me, has ended and negatively effected my health, and there was nothing I could do about it therapy wise. I honestly step back after saying something and I cry cause I can't believe what I just said or thought and it destroys me cause I just never never was like this. I'm sorry for being so bad and immature, I promise
Schmitz played just one full year of college football, but his brain suffered nonetheless. Although he could still function day-to-day, his texts are eerily similar to a less-coherent letter that Webster—a 17-year NFL veteran during the more-violent football era of the 1970s and 80s—once wrote to himself, as quoted in “League of Denial”:
No Money Poverty Worse Every day. No money many weekends almost everyone sit can not do anything or Go anywhere. No source of Help and Where to Turn So I do not know when last time any Fun & Enjoyment and Cost of Medical and other Costs has been staggering.
My goddamn writing and mind are going to shit. Wow.
Schmitz never allowed his mental impairment to alter his personality in front of others, though. He maintained his warmness, his friendliness, even during his darkest periods.
I walked past him on campus about a week before he died. I did not know him well, and I was not sure he remembered who I was considering I was three years younger than he was. I had met him three years earlier during my one year on Richmond’s football team—he was an assistant at the time. To my delight and surprise, he stopped me to ask how my classes were going. How my life was going. How’s that journalism degree coming along? Do you enjoy it? What about everything else, are you happy? I never would have guessed that he would stop to talk with me, much less know so much about my life, but that spoke directly to who he was.
Schmitz remembered those details about me, having not spoken with me for about a year, but did not recognize a bathrobe he had bought for his mother. That moment spoke to how odd head injuries can be—some moments are forgotten altogether, while more unusual things are remembered.
It was during that conversation that I learned Schmitz was no longer around the football team. He had spent about two years as an assistant, but it pained him to be around the game because he wished he could still play. He decided to leave the team altogether the semester before, in the spring of his junior year, and he discussed this decision in a text to his mother.
Good spring game. Just now I know for sure I can't be around it anymore. Too much to handle too many what ifs. I'll talk to coach Monday
During Schmitz’s time as an assistant, he pushed to make a difference. He took it upon himself to constantly check the safety of the players. He would grab their facemasks to be sure their helmets fit tightly. He wanted players to understand the repercussions of playing through head injuries.
“Guys on the team aren’t superman,” he told Shute for her Collegian article. “You may want to play through days where you can’t see straight, but from what I’ve experienced, it will catch you.”
Schmitz wanted to make a difference. He wanted to use his suffering for the good of others.
He never expressed resentment toward the game of football, though. Neither does his family. In November, his parents traveled from New Jersey to Richmond to watch the Spiders play their last regular-season game against William & Mary. Afterward, they spent time with some friends while Ohio State and Michigan State played in the background, then watched intently as Don Bosco Prep’s playoff game streamed from a friend’s laptop onto the television.
Kurt was there, too—his ashes were used to make silver necklaces, featuring angel wings shaped as a heart, that his mother and a friend wore around their necks.
It’s not about taking down football, Yvonne says. That will never happen. What it is about, though, is awareness.
Schmitz’s brain provides an early data point in the developing study of traumatic brain diseases in young people. “He’s enormously important,” McKee said. “It’s a tragic case. …Hopefully we will learn a huge amount about what trauma does to the brain and how the brain reacts because of studying brains such as this.”
The same way Schmitz spent two years checking players’ helmets and talking about the importance of life after football, his mother donated her son’s brain and told his story to promote player safety, research and education. She thinks all players should be educated on the effects football can have on the brain, she said.
“If you can teach these kids how to go from 100 to 250 pounds in a year,” she said, “then you can teach them how to recognize a concussion and why it’s important to report it. Don’t just say, ‘Tell me if you get dizzy.’ Show them how to recognize it.”
Yvonne will never miss her son any less than she does now. Time will not heal that wound. She will never forget his relationship with his sister, and how they planned to open a physical fitness business together. She will never forget how he and his sister used to argue because he was sleeping and his sister wanted him to make her food.
She will never forget.
Even so, she recognizes the impact that his story can have, and that’s what she feels is his highest purpose.
“We want it to make an impact,” she said. “Everybody knew he was a great guy. He was this, he was that, but if he could come back and say one thing. … It’s about awareness and life after football.”
Yvonne’s words echo the message her son was trying to send. He told Shute during their interview:
“I think concussions are the most dangerous injuries in sports right now. You can’t ice your brain.”
Contact sports editor Charlie Broaddus at email@example.com