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?
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.