Was it Worth It?

Frontline aired its provocative documentary League of Denial on Tuesday evening. League of Denial offers insights into the NFL’s concussion crisis with, for me, painstaking detail. It took me three sittings to finish. The subject matter was too frustrating and too close to home to absorb in a single viewing. After Dad died, my family and I donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) to help advance their research into concussions, brain injuries, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). If you’ve seen the documentary, there is a segment that discusses the difficulties Chris Nowinski, SLI’s co-founder and executive director, faces when he phones the families of recently diseased players and asks about the possibility of acquiring that player’s brain for medical examination. Our family was one that Chris called, and we are thankful he did. The doctors and families in the two-hour documentary are not strangers. They are part of an extended family, one connected by the physical and mental havoc wreaked on former players by CTE.

Conversations swirl around what the NFL could have or should have known about the linkage between concussive trauma endured by players and decreased brain functionality. Opinions fixed with bayonets have been drawn about how the NFL should have reacted when the autopsied brains of deceased former players showed conditions consistent with CTE at ages too young to be mere coincidence. Battle lines exist everywhere one turns in this discussion. The field of play is littered with land mines camouflaged as questions.

Is the NFL acting in the best interests of former players or is it merely executing a PR blitz to keep its pipeline of dedicated youth foot soldiers clamoring for a spot in its army?

Has enough research been performed, have enough brains been examined, for scientists to draw definitive conclusions about the causation between repetitive collisions and early onset brain defects?

What does America’s reverence for such a violent, overtly masculine game say about our country in general? Have we traded lessons that football can teach for highlight reel collisions? Have we lost sight of the message of teamwork, sacrifice, and perseverance embodied in football in order to listen to sound bites about football’s warrior blood as pimped by the NFL’s propaganda machine.

Should we even have these conversations? After all, former players, my father included, understood that playing football carried extreme risks to their health. They chose to play. Should the consequences be theirs to endure. Alone.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know, and what I lived with, is the collateral damage that underscores the entire subject of the NFL’s concussion crisis. Families of former players suffer (and have suffered) as the husbands, fathers, and friends, they once knew deteriorate before their eyes. Many families ache as helpless bystanders while violent mood swings, erratic decisions, depression, and questionable judgment cripple these once strong men. Others must watch as the enduring physical torment of so many violent encounters on the playing field swallow them with pain from which there is no escape.

If I leap past questions of where to assign blame, though, I can picture grieving players and the families who love them. These are the men, women, and children whose stories we must continue to tell. These are the individuals who, unfortunately, humanize football’s brutality with their mangled bones, scarred skin, and broken hearts. These are the people who must answer the most important question about playing football: Was it worth it?

The story that follows is a draft excerpt from To Dad: From Kelly, my memoir about the lessons I learned from my father and the questions that remained in our relationship when he died. It asks if Dad would believe the sacrifices he made to play football were still worth it if he somehow knew when his life would end.

Was it Worth it?

Dad, #41, after suffering the injury that would end his career

Dad, #41, after suffering the injury that would end his career

I always marveled at my dad’s hands. If I looked hard enough, I could imagine them in their prime, strong and powerful, with one clutching a football and the other jabbing at an opponent standing in his path. This vision was fantasy, though, because in real life I saw his hands as a gateway for suffering. The ten swollen and inflamed fingers pointed in ten directions. Each one carried a combat story from his days playing professional football.

I watched Dad labor physically every day for almost three decades before he died. Near the end of his life, the sport he loved had reduced this once proud athlete to limps and winces. Dad rarely mentioned the pain. Complaining wasn’t part of his makeup. I don’t think he felt he had anything to complain about, either. As a child, he dreamed of playing professional football, and I often wondered how he accepted the costs of realizing his dream with a single regret: that his myriad injuries kept him from reaching his potential and forced his retirement before he was ready to say goodbye.

Now, with his life abbreviated at the age of 56, I wish I could ask Dad one more time if he still believes all the treatments, operations, excruciating mornings, prescription drug dependence, and even his early death are simply the acceptable collateral damage for an athletic dream achieved. Would Dad accept the same deal he made with football’s devils if he knew the real outcome?

To understand my dad is to know a man whose life had a singular mission. As a boy growing up in Fremont, Ohio, Dad told his parents and two sisters that he would play professional football. He wasn’t boasting with his pronouncement but stating a fact. He had chartered a course with the NFL as its destination, and he prepared for whatever abuses and sacrifices would be necessary to achieve it.

In playground basketball games versus neighborhood kids, he wrapped ankle weights above his shoes, believing they would strengthen his legs enough to withstand the punishment of the career he envisioned. Later, while still in junior high school, he started lifting weights and running sprints with the older players on the varsity team. He craved the satisfaction competing versus the bigger, stronger, and faster high school kids brought him.

“Couldn’t get enough of it,” Dad told me years later. “All I wanted was to keep working. Every day, hell, every minute. I loved football, Kelly, I really did.”

Many people doubted his abilities. They said he was too small, too slow, or too white ever to play in the NFL. Find a new dream, they said, but Dad refused to listen. “I didn’t care,” he said. “Nothing was stopping me. Nobody knew how hard I’d work to get there. Nobody realized how much I had to play football.”

A part of me wonders if the same obsession would consume him if he knew how it would dead-end. Another part of me believes that it doesn’t matter. Football chose Dad as much as he chose football, and he loved the sport as a parent loves a child–unconditionally.

First about his days in high school, then college, and finally the NFL, I heard stories about how Dad persevered through injuries and dedicated his body to the team. Legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler called him one the toughest players he ever coached, claiming that he absorbed abuse while playing like an “ugly outsider trying desperately for the last spot on the team.”

Following Dad’s memorial service, I learned from several former Michigan players that Coach Schembechler judged future generations of Wolverines by their willingness to pry their battered bodies from the training room table for another grueling practice. “Lytle would play,” became a common phrase uttered in the Michigan locker room by Coach Schembechler. After his death, past teammates echoed this sentiment in their tributes, many calling Dad the best teammate they ever had. Others stated they never played alongside a tougher man. At Michigan, Dad might have been an All-American, Heisman Trophy finalist, and the school’s all-time leader in career rushing yards when he graduated, but it was his self-sacrifice that lingered as his most respected trait.

My question for Dad is whether the toughness that earned him the respect of coaches and teammates was worth it.

I want this answer because I saw unrelenting suffering become the cruel counterpart to his earning such compliments. Whether the result of pride, masculinity, his passion to succeed, or a combination of all three, I know that Dad believed reaching his football goals required a full speed charge through any obstacle. If finishing a game meant sprinting back to the huddle for a series of plays that he would hardly remember, after enduring a collision that his body and brain would never forget, he willed himself up to the task. If the chance to play depended on receiving another numbing injection to mask burning joints, then he allowed the doctor to jab the medicine into his body. Knees, toes, shoulders, it didn’t matter. He welcomed the shot with a smile. The shot meant that he was one-step closer to returning to the field.**

Football’s stranglehold on Dad demanded that no alternatives existed. Many years after he retired, he remarked that he still longed for the camaraderie of joining his teammates in the locker room, laughing while having their ankles and wrists taped. Despite the carpenter’s set of screws and pins inserted to hold his body together, he craved one more play. It seems that no roadblock could have stopped his life from colliding with football’s seductive force. The game gripped him as nothing else in his life could.

With success came consequences. By the age of 56, he owned an artificial left knee, an artificial right shoulder, persistent headaches, vertigo, carpal tunnel so severe it stripped all feeling from his hands as he fought to sleep at night, and a mind that had begun to distance itself from reality. Time and age faded the scars slicing through his arms and legs, but his arthritic joints and pained gait remained. When Dad died, his body was a junkyard of used parts, a collection of leftovers from a sacrificial offering to his pagan god of football. Teammates and opponents praised his determination, but our family lives with the costs.

I never felt for a sport or a job or anything, really, even a measure of what my dad did for football. He worshipped the game, and grieved without it every day following his retirement. Perhaps it’s unfair for me to question his devotion since it isn’t something I can entirely understand. Before passing, he told me on countless occasions that he accepted his physical suffering because that toll came with playing the game he loved. I suppose that in his eyes, the desire to reach the pinnacle of his sport meant nothing without a willingness to sacrifice and stretch his body across the goal line to achieve it.

For a long time, I accepted this thought process. But everything Dad said about appreciating the pain he endured from football changed for me on November 20, 2010. A heart attack too powerful for his body to overcome became his final reward for the toughness admired by fans. On the day he passed, his daughter lost her father, his wife became a widow in her mid-50’s, and I lost my best friend. In the aftermath of his death, I question whether Dad would still choose football if someone warned him of the consequences.

The thing about my question is that I already know its answer.

“Yes,” Dad would say. “All I want is one more play. And maybe one more after that.” Then, he would smile.

** – Footnote

Dad loved telling a story about one particular painkilling shot he received into the little toe on his left foot while playing for the Denver Broncos. In Dad’s words: “Doc and I got to bullshitting and laughing about this or that while he was busy shooting up my toe. Now, I can’t feel a damn thing, but he must not have been paying attention because the next thing you know, I’m screaming, ‘Doc, Doc, look.’ And he looks down and screams, ‘holy shit!’ because the medicine was dripping onto the floor. The doctor put the damn needle right through my toe.

This story always made Dad smile. He cherished everything, even an injecting stabbing through his toe, about football.

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34 comments

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. Yes, the documentary was thought provoking, challenging, but an important piece to drive understanding of the issue. Football is such an important part of my DNA that its difficult to even begin to ask these questions. Thank you for reading.

    1. Thank you, Adam. I do believe this is an important subject that (for better and for worse) I have familiarity with. I hope that my stories, and those of so many others, can help share insights into the very important questions. I’m glad I can play a small part in it.

  1. Kelly you have a gift for sharing your dad’s story. I could see his fingers in my mind. Miss him everyday. Good luck in your continued writing.

    1. Thank you, Mary Ellen. I enjoy sharing the stories and hope they are rewarding and meaningful for others to read. I know how much they mean to me. Thank you for your well wishes. I hope that you are doing well.

      1. Kelly, I really enjoyed your story. I can relate with my dad playing 13 years of pro football. At age 52, I can see the pain even though he refuses to show it. He has too much pride and love for the game he played. Thank you for sharing!

        1. Hi Steven. Thank you for your kind comment. It sounds as if our fathers share a similar pride, love for football, and unfortunately lingering pain from so many years devoted to it. I hope that you and your family are all doing well. Please let me know if you ever want to chat on the subject of the NFL, fathers who played there, and/or the lasting impact of the game. I always enjoy connecting with new people.

  2. What a wonderful piece this is. You are probably speaking for more families than you can even imagine. Your Dad was a great guy. You did him proud with this. I also wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your Hall of Fame speech a couple of years ago. You are very talented!

    1. Jill, thank you for the note and the compliments. I do hope that although this experience is specific to my family, that others can recognize familiar elements from their lives and leave with a rewarding, meaningful take away – perhaps even leading to conversations that otherwise would not have occurred. Thank you again, and I hope that you are doing well.

  3. Kelly…..You have a gift for expressing your thoughts and feelings in a profoundly moving way. Your writing touches my heart.

    1. Thank you, Marci. I hope to be as honest as possible with each piece – really there is no other way to do it in my mind. Thank you for the kind comments. The work is so personal that it is incredibly rewarding to hear such feedback. Thank you.

  4. I watched that documentary and of course I thought of your dad…he is the closest that many people from Fremont have ever been to the NFL! He was a legend (Little Giant and Wolverine too!) and sorely missed. Lovely that you had each other and congratulation on your fine skill and passion for writing! My dad would have loved to read the finshed piece.

    1. Hi Linda. Thank you for the note and your thoughts. I hope that my small efforts encourage conversations and interest around the post football and concussion subjects. Thank you!

  5. Your dad would be so proud knowing you are immortalizing him forever! He was a wonderful person inside and out…thank you for sharing the personal side of him! Good luck with the book and I cannot wait to read it…

    1. Thank you for the note! Your kind thoughts are appreciated. I hope that stories like these, and others I will share in the future, show Dad more as a great man/ father, because more than anything else, he was a great friend for me. Thanks!

  6. Hi Kelly,
    As I mentioned once before, I went to school with your dad but didn’t really know him except as the great football player he was. Your story tells much more about the man than I could ever realize, and I find myself reading this in admirable awe for his perseverance and determination, but also with tears for the pain that not only he endured but also the effects it had on you and your beloved family. You have brought light to a sad subject in the arena of football that I never realized existed until recently, while at the same time exemplifying the total man of honor your father was. You, my young friend are a wonderful legacy to his name that I know he would be very proud of.
    Blessings to you and your beloved family.

    1. Hi John, Thank you again for reaching out to me. I appreciate your kind words. I think the struggles that so many people (not just ex-athletes but all of us) endure in private can be important to share, especially if they can compel dialogues and conversations that lead to positive changes. Thank you again for your comments and support.

  7. Beautifully written Kelly. To us, his classmates of ’73, he was a wonderful thing to watch on the field on Friday nights and a genuinely nice person in later years. If only we would have know what those Friday nights of excitement would later do to him.

    1. Thank you, Bev. I appreciate your kind words. I dont think anyone anticipated what the lasting affects would be, which makes the current rush to educate and increase awareness so important.

  8. Kelly, what a wonderful tribute to your father. Always had the upmost respect for him, as an athlete and especially as a man. Thanks for sharing. Dave Y.

  9. Kelly the article was great. I talk to your mom once and she told me of what was done with your Dad’s brain. I know it must of been a hard choice
    but a good one for the future players. I hope to read your book. God Bless all of you.

    1. Thank you for the thoughts. We’re glad to play a small role in this still developing subject. The team at the SLI really are accomplishing some amazing work increasing awareness and insights into the medical, physical, emotional and human pieces of this “crisis.”

  10. VERY well written, Kelly!! Amidst the personal pain you have gone through with the loss of your dad, what a tribute! Whether one agrees with the violent nature of professional football or not, you cannot deny the perseverance, determination, and work ethic your dad put into reaching his goal. And THAT is a lesson everyone should learn/embrace. I feel your pain in losing such a wonderful father way too early. But the life lessons you learned from him and your memories will forever be with you. I look forward to reading your book. And rest assured. your dad is still smiling!!

    1. Thank you, Jane, for the thoughtful note. Football played such an instrumental role in the affirming the lessons you mention above (and several others as well) that it is impossible to dismiss the game’s importance (and not just for him, but for what I learned, too). I do believe that football instills these lessons better, perhaps, than any other sport, which is what makes the conversation and question so difficult. Thank you again for sharing with me!

  11. Kelly,
    I played against your Father. I watched him in college as well. He was a fine sportsmen and never seemed to complain or over react to the rigors of game day competition, He consumed it all with a confidence & subtle flair. The question you asked, “is it worth it” I played 11 years for the Oakland / L.A. Raiders 1977 -87. I found out after retiring form The NFL that I sustained 9 concussions based on my medical records from the Raiders. With the effects of such caused me to have hearing loss, that developed into rapid hearing loss that lead to total deafness and all the symptoms that apply, vertigo, headaches balance problems lack of sleep and the entire works of other health issues. ESPN did a story on me & my conditions..The one question asked of me was the question you asked..Was it worth it??? at the time 10 years ago, I said it was, later that day, I thought about it and became depressed, because it was not worth it..As I live now, I’m 57 tears old. I manage ok, But I’ll go on record saying It was Not worth it! I too loved the game of football. Had I and the Players of my era & your Dad’s era had resposable Medical attention the treat & educated us all on the dangers of certain injuries, e could had made better informed decisions regarding our own health then & future…. Lastly, regarding your family & your Father as you stated, the choices was his to make and he felt it was worth it..I feel, Had your Father, Like Me had true medical advice and direction on the dangers of what concussions and like injuries would have on us then and the future..Not to mention other injuries that were half fixed, like knees, hips, shoulders etc that lead to replacing such joints. In short, I feel It was not worth it, I feel more than 80% of retired players feel that too.
    Mike Davis
    Raiders 1977-87 S.D Chargers 1987

  12. Kelly, you put into words a lot of what I have been thinking since watching League of Denial. Some of these questions have been around football since the beginning when on the field deaths prodded President Theodore Roosevelt to call a meeting to fix the rules – the beginning of the NCAA. My father played in the NFL from 1926 to 1933 and it gave him an escape from his probable future working for the railroads, a job which killed his father before my father was in high school. It was a step up. And think of the guys that came out of WWII and went into pro ball – they had seen a lot worse. I don’t blame anyone for choosing to play football, but I do think it’s inexcusable that the NFL was so resistant to the bad news of brain injury and CTE. And what about the NFLPA – they were AWOL in that story. I’m certain your dad, my dad, and a lot of others dads would choose to play football in spite of the dangers – just like some dads will be linemen for the power company or policemen or firefighters – but that doesn’t absolve their employers from responsibility for on the job injury and their union should be their chief advocate.

    1. Hi Michael. Thank you for your comment and for sharing the anecdotes about your family. I am incredibly intrigued and wonder if you and your dad had conversations regarding his experiences playing pro ball versus working for the railroads – especially considering the escape it offered versus the life his father had. If you ever want to share such moments, I would enjoy hearing them.

      The NFL’s role in this “concussion crisis” is incredibly frustrating. Not only were they resistant to the entire subject for so long but they continue to contradict themselves in order to support the game (a game that, I admit, I still love and appreciate). Players decimated physically, emotionally, and mentally by the game continue to pile up, but the money also continues to roll in. Even scarier is the push for younger players to throw their bodies into the ring and compete without the right supervision or approach. I dont know what the future of football is, but I hope that players receive more support going forward than they have in the past.

      Thank you again for your comments. They are very well received.

  13. Kelly-

    Enjoyed reading your thought provoking reflections on your dad’s football career. The photo of your dad lying prone on the field and being comforted by #85 startled me. As a member of the Denver Broncos from 1967 to 1969 before being traded to New England, I wore #85. I followed your dad’s illustrious career from his collegiate days at UM thru his years with the Broncos. What’s more ironic, 2 of my college teammates at the University of Detroit were the late Fred Beier and his younger brother Tom. They, like your dad, were 2 tough SOB’s from Fremont, Ohio. Unfortunately, your dad, like many of us, paid the ultimate price for his love of the game. God bless you and your family. Your dad will always be remembered for leaving it all on the field where he loved to compete.

    Tom Beer-TE
    Denver Broncos 1967-69
    (Boston)New England 1970-1973

    1. Hi Tom, Thank you for the note in response to the article. It is ironic to hear that you also wore #85 and that you played with Fred and Tom Beier while at the University of Detroit. You are right that all of those guys are/ were tough SOB’s. Perhaps it is something in the water in Fremont? I appreciate you taking the time to write me and I hope that you are doing well. Thank you again.

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