My Wish for Football

We learned recently that football icon and certain Hall of Famer Junior Seau suffered from conditions consistent with the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The legendary Seau sacrificed his whole body to the game of football over a career that spanned nearly three decades (including college and high school), and his family continues to cope with their tragic loss. In the wake of the National Institutes of Health’s findings, Mr. Seau’s children are left questioning if they could have done “something more” or had “the awareness to help him more.”

According to his family, Junior Seau suffered from bouts of depression, irrationality, mood swings, forgetfulness and insomnia. From the reports I’ve read, he hid these conditions well in public, but those family members and friends close to him saw the truths he struggled against on a daily basis. Like most professional football players, years spent grimacing through pain to survive through another play likely aided his ability to paste a smile on his face in public settings.

My heart aches for the Seau family, as it does for all the families of athletes, war veterans, and others who have suffered while a loved one deteriorates from CTE’s unrelenting assault. My heart breaks for them because I understand the pain, and I empathize with the remorse over wishing I had known or done more.

My father, former NFL running back Rob Lytle, suffered an unexpected heart attack and died eight days after his 56th birthday in November 2010. Our family donated his brain to the researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and learned in early 2011 that Dad’s brain demonstrated signs of moderate to advanced CTE.

RL Broncos Hit 2

After learning this news, the father I remembered during his final years crystallized into sharper view. I immediately considered the week before his death, when my mom, sister, brother-in-law and girlfriend celebrated Dad’s birthday with a Saturday lunch before retreating to our Fremont, Ohio, home to watch that day’s college football games. Unlike most afternoons I spent with him, Dad vanquished the day sleeping in his bedroom away from our family (normally he just snored on the couch next to all of us). I didn’t think much of it then, just assumed he was tired from a long workweek.

I then recalled the day at Michigan Stadium in 2008 when Michigan announced him as an honorary captain for the Wolverines game versus Northwestern. He seemed distant meeting people before the game, somewhat off in his situational awareness and awkward in his response to simple questions. Two months later, he had a small stroke, and I attributed the strangeness in his behavior in Ann Arbor to this looming near calamity.

Finally, I thought about my mom’s comments regarding how Dad interacted with his granddaughter. Sure, he called my sister’s young baby the “love of his life,” and to me he seemed to exhibit the same involved, loving, playful behavior with her that he did as a father to my sister and me. But Mom knew better. She knew that something was wrong by the slightly pained smile worn on his face and in his reluctance to hold his granddaughter as much as normal if he were completely healthy.

There were signs that something was wrong, but they were always easy to dismiss. As a family, we observed the physical destruction wrought by his lifelong affair with football: ten mangled fingers that pointed in about ten separate directions, two artificial joints, vertigo, faded scars slicing through the skin above nearly every joint on his body and his reliance on prescription painkillers to numbingly navigate each day.

What we missed, or maybe chose to ignore, was the emotional and mental pain he concealed with his humor and deflecting self-deprecation.

Following Dad’s death, and after my family understood the news of the trauma inside his brain, I began to think it plausible (even likely) that his behavior represented the initial unraveling of the veil he’d used to mask his depression, bouts of dementia and inconsistent judgment—all symptoms typically present for an individual whose brain is plagued by CTE.

I’ll never know whether this is true.

Football embodies much of the masculinity present in our society. From an early age, boys are instructed to play through pain, hide their weaknesses, attack without regard for safety and persist as the rock that “weaker” people break themselves against. Showing cracks in your protective armor, whether physical or psychological, means a seat on the bench. No mercy exists for the frail or exhausted.

This is the athletic culture embraced by our society. It captivates millions of fans every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the fall and winter. Football is our national sport, and its game day combatants are our heroes, gladiators who refuse to cower in the face of certain destruction.

My wish for football—beyond the improvements in helmet technology, concussion awareness, medical advancements and hit count limitations—is for a culture to bloom where former players are encouraged to relinquish some of the pride that has carried them to so much success and admit they can’t will themselves through every situation.

My wish is for fans to understand that these players are not warriors but real men with wives, daughters, sons and parents.

My wish is for former players (whether high school, college or professional) to have a forum where they can feel safe to admit how much the loss of football affects them, and how impossible it is to find satisfaction in a life without the camaraderie of daily practices and weekend games.

I witnessed firsthand how challenging life without football can be for someone who once devoted every fiber in his body to succeeding in the game at its highest level. My wish is that my dad and I would have had one honest conversation about the state of his health in those final years. I wish that I didn’t have to live with the regret of biting my tongue and not pressing him more over what was really wrong when he confessed to me that everything inside him “felt tired,” but that he knew he would “tough it out.”

I wish that I wouldn’t have ended that conversation by saying “I know you will, Dad.”

I’m confident the medical advancements made possible by the diligent work of many dedicated individuals will make football a safer game for players. I believe that children playing this game in the future will appreciate how the game builds character, teaches the importance of teamwork and stresses a tireless work ethic.

But my final wish is that players come to understand that they don’t have to be invincible warriors after their days of competition conclude. Being vulnerable and asking for help is not just acceptable, it’s brave. Having the courage to realize something is wrong and admit it to family will not cure the physical toll exacted by repetitive collisions. However, it could prepare a wife for a future with her husband that is different from the one she has always imagined, and it could encourage a son finally to ask his dad all the questions he’s always wanted.

Most importantly, it could help show players that regardless of what they’re fighting, they aren’t fighting alone.

For my life, that’s my wish.

Kelly Lytle

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22 comments

  1. Kelly, well spoken words. My wish is that others read and reflect on your comments and attempt to make a difference whether it involves encouraging safe play, making a donation or research or just talking about CTE to raise awareness.

    Kim

    1. Well written. This should be a concern of every player regardless of the age. Plus, the way coaches coach the young players.

  2. Kelly another great piece. Can’t imagine having to write this. I thought about Rob when the news of Seau came out of his untimely inheritance of CTE. Knowing all ex-players have endured thousands of these devastating hits, which cause guys still so “young” to have to experience the symptoms of CTE. I was lucky and proud to know the jovial, outgoing Rob Lytle. We all knew of the physical aliments he had due to the requirements of being a professional athlete, especially in a sport so brutal at times. What the fan does not see is what happens to the minds of some years after their playing days. It’s painfully sad. But maybe with the news of Seau, articles like this one, and other forms of awareness coming out, there will be a recognition of the severity of concussions, hit counts, etc.

  3. So well written, Kelly. I knew your father, and as you know my husband and his family knew him extremely well. We, too had no idea he suffered from this condition. Congratulations to you for being brave enough to share this with the world. It brought tears to my eyes. Hats off to you my friend.

    Jessica

  4. The fact that CTE has been in the news lately is a big step in a positive direction to unveil a serious problem. In 2010, when my father died he too was found to have CTE. At the time of his death none of us had heard about the disorder. It would have made a huge difference if we had any idea that he was suffering from something like this. There are things we could have done better. Now it is too late for him. We can only help spread the word. Good luck to you and your family.

  5. Hi Kelly,

    Your poignant story tells the sad truth about life after pro football for so many men. Beyond the cheering crowds and the glory days past, former players by the hundreds (maybe thousands) are silently suffering from the aftermath of damages incurred on the playing field. Many don’t even realize that something is wrong. Many don’t have the resources to seek medical help. And many have lost their families because of their unpredictable and sometimes scary behaviors caused by the damage inside their brains. My husband (a former Atlanta Falcon) suffers from the same symptoms you mentioned. Two years ago he was diagnosed with a form of dementia which doctors believe was caused by concussion damage he suffered as a player. His diagnosis came before the news media began covering stories about this type of problem. I was totally shocked by the news. The day of his diagnosis was the first time I had ever heard of CTE, but since then I have become well versed on this devastating condition. I didn’t even know my husband as a player, yet I’m left here to pick up the pieces of his broken life. There aren’t many resources available to these men or their families. For so long the NFL has turned a blind eye and discounted the statistics that such a high percentage of former players suffer from many symptoms of CTE.

    There’s not a lot of help for someone like me dealing with one of these “wounded warriors.” In the beginning I didn’t know which way to turn. Over the past two years I have forged ahead with finding a great team of doctors to care for him. We have implemented many lifestyle changes which allow him to remain fairly stable. We have three teenage sons, and it’s very difficult for them to understand why their father acts the way he does, but having a diagnosis helps. Before we knew what was going on inside his brain, each of us blamed ourselves for the problems. Thankfully we have now built an excellent team of doctors who care for my husband and have enabled him to maintain a fairly good quality of life considering his limitations. He is not longer able to work, and he sometimes feels like he has no “purpose” anymore.

    Your story brought tears to my eyes because I know EXACTLY what your family endured with your dad. I’m sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing your insight.

    And most of all I hope all your “wishes” come true!

  6. Thank you to everyone for your kind comments regarding this story. I appreciate the encouragement and thoughtful sentiments, and am glad to play a small role in raising awareness for this issue. Thank you again to everyone who has read My Wish for Football!

    1. Kelly, Reading all this through teary eyes. Jan 7 was 20 years since Norm passed away and you know what Rob meant to him and me. During High School he was a constant in our home. Still miss both of them every day and jus want you to know I am so very proud of you.

  7. They way TV glorifies the Big hit and how it seems that kids try and go for the kill shot, it’s a shame that things don’t seem to be getting better anytime soon. I was at the Michigan High School Coaches clinic and it was nice to on more than a few occasions that the Michigan coaches repeatedly pointed out that kids should lead with their face masks not with the top of their head. I noticed a photo of a spring practice at the University of South Carolina and they were wearing a protective head piece over the helmet. I thought that was a great idea.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Paul. I think there are many advancements being made in high school, college, and professional football on this topic. Organizations such as the Sports Legacy Institute are truly advancing the cause (they were recently given a very generous donation from Vince McMahon and the WWE to research CTE treatments for individuals still alive). I hope that over time the overly masculine/macho culture that demands on the quiet acceptance of pain and suffering subsides and more open dialogue is welcome.

      Thank you again for the comment. Go Blue!

    1. Thank you, Bev. Very much appreciated. Great man indeed. I’m glad I can continue to pay a small tribute to him and hopefully build on what he taught me.

  8. Kelly, you are so brave to be so honest about this issue and your own experiences. This was very well written and I sure not easy for you to write. I am so proud to have known your Dad. God bless you.

    1. Thank you for the note. I try to be as honest as possible in these pieces. I’ve learned that we have our stories and if those stories can help encourage others to learn and grow, then they are worth sharing. But the only way to do so is to be honest and authentic… Sometimes that is harder than others.
      Thanks again for commenting!

  9. Kelly, your article was very well written and brought me to tears. First of all, because I have two young sons who play and love football. Secondly, because I knew your family growing up. I knew your grandparents and parents. In fact, I even babysat for you and your sister once. I was very sad to hear of your father’s passing and now sad again to hear how he quietly suffered. I do hope that more people become aware of this and that they can change football to make it safer. All the best to you and your family.

    1. Hi Meredith, Thank you for the note and well wishes. The SLI and many other organizations are pushing some important and meaningful initiatives around prevention and education at the youth levels. It is awe-inspiring to see what they have accomplished in only a short amount of time. Football is a hard sport to digest. On one side, I do believe that it teaches lessons that other sports cannot. Perhaps I’m biased in this thinking given my upbringing but I just dont know of another ‘game’ that stresses sacrifice, dedication, teamwork, and camaraderie the way football does. But the downside is its violence (and this is not new information). How do or should parents, fans, coaches balance these timely lessons with the potential for long term negative effects. That question is one I just dont know how to answer. Thank you again for reaching out!

  10. Hello Kelly,
    Thank you for the well written piece. You brought home the feats that I have for not only my future self but the future of my son as well. I suffered my fair share of head injuries and am fearful of what may be jumbling around in there now. My son is growing up loving the game as I did and not unlike you did with your father and I fear for his future. I can’t always protect him but hopefully the open dialogue that is taking place and initiated by people like yourself, can really make difference moving forward. You allow for a certain perspective that is often overlooked. I appreciate that view and hope others do to. Thank you for sharing. I grew up admiring your father and respecting his presence. I wish you and your family nothing but the best. Thank you again Kelly.

    1. Hi Kevin, Thank you for the thoughtful note. Your comment means so much given your experiences and history playing. I always admired your abilities on the football field (RB, QB, returner, WR, the list goes on and on) and I remember fondly when you helped me “try” to learn hurdles when I was in junior high. That first fall did me in and kept me as a lowly, basic sprinter!

      The football subject is such a difficult one. As I’m sure you know, football teaches some lessons better than any sport or really anywhere else that I’ve experienced. I havent found a substitute for what football can teach in terms of sacrifice, team work, and work ethic. I know I’m biased in this given my upbringing, but that’s just a fact of life. It seems the challenge, as you mention, is how to approach both your future (as someone who played for so many years) and your sons, which is just beginning. I have no answers to these questions, but the fact that dialogues exist where they didnt just a few years ago, is progress. And I know that families must have these challenging conversations – about the risks of football, about its long term effects, and how it can impact a life long after the days playing are done. It’s encouraging that so many families are doing just this.

      I hope all is well for you and your family. Thank you again, for the note.

  11. Kelly: This article brought tears to my eyes. Not only was it so well written but it exposed what a lot of people overlook in former athletes. They are told and trained to “tough it out.” There is a certain sense of failure if they cannot or if they expose something that is “wrong” with them. Thank you for pouring out your heart and giving us the facts, not only on your dad, but to the disease as a whole. On a personal note …. your father was one of those people that I truly appreciated speaking to. He was one of the few people in Fremont that I knew understood the sacrifices and pain collegiate and professional athletes go through. Both of which very, very, very few people actually see. I will forever remember the support and words of encouragement he gave me throughout my career. His words ALWAYS mattered just a little bit more than everyone else’s and I could always tell his heart was always behind his words. He was a true class act in my eyes and that is very hard to find in today’s athletic world. Keep speaking out on behalf of your late father and know that you are impacting people!

    1. Hi Dawn. Thank you for connecting with me. I should mention now that Dad always told me that the best athlete in Fremont Ross history wasn’t Charles Woodson, but Dawn Zerman.. “Way better than me,” he always said and he meant it!

      The point you mention is one that I struggle with as I watch sports and reflect on how not only athletes, but really men in general are taught from the time they are young boys. “Toughing it out” isn’t an option, its a mandate. Those who cannot aren’t “man” enough; those who admit fears or vulnerabilities or even emotions are too often considered weak. There is a time and place for both paths, but I know from my life that I wish I would have learned earlier that sometimes showing/ admitting fears or asking for help can be infinitely more courageous than just powering through alone. One of my hopes is that this thought process becomes more commonplace as dialogues increase around some of the after-effects of a life dedicated to athletics. And I hope that I can use my experiences to help humanize those conversations.

      Thank you again for your note. It means a lot that you reached out to me, and I appreciate your comments. I hope that everything is going well for you.

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