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.
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.
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?