My Complicated Football Life

I was born in a Denver, Colorado, hospital on September 12, 1982, the opening Sunday of that year’s NFL season. My dad, Rob Lytle, was a running back for the Denver Broncos and needed a police escort from the hospital to reach Mile High Stadium in time for the opening kickoff. The Broncos welcomed me into their family that afternoon with an announcement over the loudspeaker, and the Rocky Mountain News made a point to poke fun at the situation with a cartoon in the next day’s paper. Thus began my connection to the game of football.

Source: Rocky Mountain News; Cartoon by Drew Utah

Source: Rocky Mountain News; Cartoon by Drew Utah

I love football. As a kid, I played hundreds of make-believe games in my backyard and living room with only a small leather ball, my imagination, and a pen and paper to track the fictitious statistics for that particular fictitious season. I intended to have a college football career but mangled knee ligaments and two knee reconstructions in high school left me scant hope for an athletic future. Every fall, the hairs on my arms rise and butterflies return to churn through my stomach. The sight of grass wet with dew or a light frost reminds of Saturday morning games, and the smells of chili, chicken, beer, and cigarettes returns me to the tailgates I once frequented. Heck, I even left a career on Wall Street for an internship in a professional football front office. The game is in my blood, and I am thankful for it.

But I believe that football, or rather the toll of playing it, also contributed to my dad’s premature death at the age of fifty-six. The game ravaged his body and taxed him emotionally. Still, all he ever wanted after retiring was the chance for one more play. Football has brought many highs to my life, but those highs have been accompanied by many lows. Like a former girlfriend who keeps me around her life just enough to cause me torment, so to am I left confused by my love affair with football.

I’m thankful that playing football gave my dad purpose, direction, and identity. He cherished the game, and for many years, it returned his appreciation. Retirement, though, carved an oval-shaped void into his heart that no job, inspiring acts, or love from his family could fill. Purpose, after football, was unattainable, and I stood idly by and watched his constant struggle for direction.

Touchdown

Photo by Rod Hanna

I’m grateful for the advantages that I piggybacked on thanks to my dad’s football success. I made trips to his bar as a ten-year old to watch Monday Night Football with the big boys, developed friendships with teachers and coaches that made it nearly impossible to get in trouble at school, and had access to people, places, and things not accessible without my connection to Dad’s football legacy. With the good, though, came the pressure I felt to meet the outside expectations others had for me as the son of an ex-NFL player. These expectations matter less to me now, but as an adolescent boy shedding solitary tears in my room at night after hearing again that the only reason I got to play in that day’s game was because of my last name, the pressure felt exhausting and unbeatable. Trust me.

I admire the trophies, accolades, records, and appreciation my dad collected, but with success came consequences. At the time of his death, he owned an artificial left knee, an artificial right shoulder, persistent headaches, ten fingers pointing in ten different directions, and a postmortem diagnosis of moderate to severe Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). His heart spent its final three decades pumping upstream against the toxins he ingested because of a functional addition to painkillers, a condition that isn’t entirely surprising for a former NFL player. When my dad died, his body was a junkyard of used parts, a collection of leftovers from a sacrificial offering to the pagan god of football.

I longed to hear the praise from former teammates about the toughness Dad displayed on the field. However, whenever I turn on the TV, I see the lessons of teamwork, sacrifice, and perseverance that football teaches better than any sport overwhelmed by highlights of brain-rattling collisions and the deification of players who refuse to allow a few cobwebs to keep them off the field. Worse, I fear that the youngest players, the future of the game, who are most susceptible to missing football’s most enduring messages. Football is a ferocious game and must be played that way. However, as we celebrate every bone-jarring hit or even seemingly ordinary tackle, it’s important to remember that there is a real person inside each helmet whose family might suffer the consequences of his passion for the game later in their lives.

My life is better for the Sunday afternoon football games my friends and I played as kids. Dad directed these games as our all-time quarterback and often seemed to be the most excited to play. He showed me what it means to be a part of not just your son’s life, but to care for the lives of his friends as well. And I’ll never forget this lesson.

Somehow, and I’d like to blame centuries of prescribed masculine behavior as much as our own fears of appearing vulnerable, but Dad and I used football (and sports in general) as a crutch in our conversations. We relied on football to say many things without truly saying anything. In a relationship where we could have discussed any topic, we skirted important subjects such as goals, hopes, fears, and dreams, in favor of play-by-plays and practice recaps.

If sports didn’t matter so much to each of us, could we have developed an even richer bond? Or did we grow as close as we did because we had sports to unite us?

I’ll never know this answer.

Football, in all its violent beauty, is a contradiction. Not just for me, either, but I think for everyone. From my own experience, I know that the lessons football teaches can last forever. But I also know that the physical scars imprinted on the bodies of former players never fade. Part of me loves the sport, while another part disgusts it. I am a fan caught in no-man’s land, a version of football purgatory, where I still believe the game tests and builds character, stresses the importance of teamwork, and encourages an unrelenting work ethic. I just don’t know if learning these lessons through the game is worth the price that is paid.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about my complicated football life.

What do you think?

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20 comments

  1. leah and i were just having this convo about whether football is worth it (in regards to henry playing). she decided she’d be ok with him being the kicker.

    then, i wanted to share a poem i re-stumbled upon earlier this week. seems applicable to your post in some way.

    “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind”
    from Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman
    ————-

    As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
    only someone lost could find,

    which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
    its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

    seems both ghost of the life that happened there
    and living spirit of this wasted place,

    wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
    that is open enough to receive it,

    shatter me God into my thousand sounds…

    1. Thanks for sharing. Powerful poem and I enjoyed reading it (several times today). I’m drawn to the 3rd stanza and the contrast of the ghost alongside the living spirit. Seems fitting with my confusion and appreciation with the game. The subject of kids playing is such a hard question to approach. Do the lessons learned outweigh the costs accepted? And is it possible to judge? I dont know…

    2. Kelly, you bring illumination to the light and dark of football. I can relate to your feelings. I do like how you mention correctly that if not football what else could create these feelings of confusion. My dad died when I was seventeen years old. I never had the chance to sit down with him and drink a beer,
      he never saw me compete in basketball on any level. We never shared the times of young adulthood with middle age. Yes Rob died early and with problems caused by a game we like to cheer for but your dad told me many times he would change nothing. Have peace in that, We make choices and they have outcomes. It is all part of lifes journey. Be proud of your legacy. Remember the times you shared with your dad and keep them in your personal vault for you shared what many can only dream about. Peace, David Fahrbach

    3. Kelly…GREAT article. I am about 5 years younger than your dad and always idolized him. (Both as an kid and an adult!) I will never forget the 1st time I met your dad. Your family lived at the corner or Park and Birchard. I lived down the alley on Arch St. My wife and I were re-painting our old house. Your dad would come down the alley, on his way to Lytle’s, and he would always stop and talk. I couldn’t believe that “Rob Lytle” was taking the time to talk to “ME”! But he always did. I really got to know your dad when he became a fellow Rotarian.We had many great times. Probably the best time was when he took me to the Ross Stag Night at the Legion. We sat at a table, surrounded by many, and after a few beers, your dad started to tell stories. EVERYONE sat and listened. Watching your dad re-live his college recruiting days were definitely my favorites. When he and I left, I thanked him for inviting me and telling the stories. He said that he hated telling the stories, but that’s what everyone else wanted to hear! Your dad always seemed to put others before himself. I went to Ann Harbor this fall when your dad was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Honor and PROUDLY wore my LYTLE jersey. As I walked around the stadium, before the game started, someone came up and tapped my on the arm and said “that’s the best damn jersey in the whole stadium!” I was very proud then and am very proud now to call your dad, my friend! On the subject of football or any other sport, really, it is a very difficult decision to let your son or daughter risk permanent injury for what? Very few high school athletes make a living playing their sport. I played football, baseball and wrestled in HS, but when it came time for my boys to play football, my wife had her concerns. We talked about it and decided against football. My boys played baseball and then got into swim. They have become good swimmers, but I worry that sore shoulders now might affect them later in life. Is it all worth it? I don’t know. I really wonder. God Bless you and the rest of your family!!!

  2. Even though you are conflicted about your feelings about the “game” of football, remember your dad always said, even knowing the physical, mental and emotional toils he suffered, “I would do it all over again if I could.” Reflective thoughts very appreciated, Kelly.

  3. Kelly, I am rarely on FB. I am so glad your article was shared with me and that I had a chance to read it. I am such a Fremont Ross fan and I have a News-Messenger article that has a photo of your father and a couple of other Ross teammates, standing on a bench rooting for the Little Giants ( must have been rooting for the defense). It was his sophomore year, which during our time and yours, was his first year in high school. Your mom was also a great athlete, but ” girl’s” sports was not then what it is now.
    It must have been extremely hard to lose your dad. It was hard to lose mine and I was twice your age. I am sure you have many memories you will truly cherish. Hold on to those. With all the new technology and hand held this and hand held that….I would love to see more dad’s playing with their children in the yard and being the”all-time-quarterback. “. Be Blesses!
    “Roxie”

  4. Very well written Kelly, my children were around your age I believe my son James Abney was in some sports w/ you & my daughter Lindsay Dabrunz. I as well lost my mother at 55 & I still to this day miss her terribly. I was 25 when she past, it’s a hard thing to go through life with a parent gone to be able to talk to or share life’s challenges & not be able to talk to them. But you had many memories to hold on to & a beautiful mother (who I must say was my daughter’s favorite teacher ever she shared w/ me) who you can share your concerns & help you with your loss. Take care Kelly

  5. Kelly, even though I went to school with your dad, I can’t say I knew him well outside what I read in the paper or heard from others about his incredible talent on the football field. But from your writing I get a picture of someone I knew all too well, rather I should say many men who shared your father’s ways and approach to the father/son relationship. For whatever reason or reasons we would care to analyze on why men struggle so much with expressing sensitive emotions to other males, particularly sons is an issue we could talk on all night, all I’ll say is it is something all men need to work on and correct. But from the little I know of you from others and your writing I get the picture of a fine young man, one in my world that would be referred to as a Man of Honor; that’s something that is rarely seen without the example and guidance of others, particularly parents, a loving father. Here’s something I always told my boys as they grew up, “If I have done something wrong, learn from it, correct it, and make it right. If I have done something right, build on it and make it even better.” As I mentioned, your dad wasn’t someone I knew well, but I have a feeling that Rob Lytle, as much as he loved the sport of football and the achievements and accolades it brought him; he would consider it secondary at best when compared to an even greater legacy he left behind, Kelly Lytle. I see you have a gift, you should consider sharing with more people who might benefit from what you’ve have experienced and learned, and yes, are still learning.
    I wish you well and God’s Blessings as you continue life’s journey,
    Blessings to you and your loved ones.

  6. Kelly, you truly have a gift in sharing your thoughts, and in this message you have brought back some great memories. I am seven years younger than your Dad, but remember like it was yesterday when all of us in the neighborhood would go to Stamm Elementary School where your Mom worked summers for the Fremont Rec Department. Your Dad was always doing his preseason workout at Harmon stadium and would stop by to see your Mom almost every day back then . Your Dad always talked with us, and as kids we didn’t know it at the time, but he was inspirational in a way that exceeded the aura of the great athlete that he was, he truly was a great person that touched more lives than you can imagine. I met up with your Dad after his NFL career in the business world when he was working for Turner Construction, and he still had an inspirational message, but what was interesting was that we talked more about family than football in our brief conversation. I remember your Dad telling me you were at Princeton, and I could tell he was proud of you. What was even more ironic, is that when you played in high school, my oldest son was on the opposing team for Findlay, and I would mention to him and my other two boys who your Dad and Mom are and how I had a small connection, and that you had their genes as an athlete, and it was evident in the few games I saw, and on the track. Another brief connection was when my second son, playing for Findlay against Ross was pulled out a play for a late hit on Fremont’s QB and I saw your Dad talking to my Son on the sidelines, he was working the chains. After the game, I asked my son if he knew who he was talking with, and he knew it was “Rob Lytle”. Thank you for sharing and all I can say is Rob Lytle did it right, and you will be able to instill that spirit in your kids some day and with those close to you.

  7. Kelly I dont know if you remember me I coached at Ross your senior year. I was amazed by your character as well as your athleticism. Thank you for sharing your amazing story. It goes to show that we really never know what’s going on in the life of others. I knew your Dad and admired him, not only because he was a football giant. I remember when your mom workeed at Stamm school in the summer when I was a kid for the Fremont Recreation Dept. I too grew up with football as the focal point of my life, playing sandlot games and winning imaginary Heismans and Outland trophies. I went on to play college football on where I saw that football was no longer a hobby but a job. It had lost its innocence and some of its appeal. Despite all of this Im still drawn to the game like a moth to a flame. I still fantasize about what copuld have been. I was there on the sideline at Toledo St. John, where I saw you break a touchdown run and outran angles that two defenders had on you that defied the law of physics. Yeah, you werwe that fast. I also remember your injury. Kelly God has a plan for all our lives just like he is greater than us, well so is his thinkling. We must find solice in the fact that nothing, I mean nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. I love you and I loved your Dad God Bless.

    1. Hey Coach. Of course I remember. I believe the phrase was “on the bounce” that you would shout at us running between stations and drills! Thank you for the reading the post and for the kind comments – though I think you are giving this out of shape/overweight ex-sprinter too much credit. There were some holes big enough to drive a truck through in that game!

      It never ceases to amaze the winding road and journey that life takes us all on. Ups and downs, twists and turns, and everything else all-around, we really never know what will happen until it does.

      Thank you for the great comments. Best to you!

  8. I went to school with both your parents. You are a fantastic story teller. I was deeply touched by this article that someone share with me. Am so glad to have had the chance to read it. I am sure your Dad is looking down beaming with pride. You should continue on your journey and share your thoughts like these again. They will help others. Best of luck to you.

    Tina (Weiler)Rigby

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