I grew up in a Michigan family. My father, Rob Lytle, starred at running back for the Wolverines from 1973-1976, and I spent my childhood staring at posters of famous Michigan players on my walls and living and dying with the team many Fall Saturdays at Michigan Stadium. When it comes to supporting Ohio State, though, I learned a different appreciation than many Wolverine fans.
“There was no cleaner, more hard-hitting, or fun game than Ohio State. Out of respect for the rivalry, in our house we root for Ohio State as long as they aren’t playing Michigan.” Such words might seem hollow, but when the man saying them is both your father and the person who gained 165 yards for Michigan in a 22-0 win over Ohio State in 1976, they become more instruction than empty phrasing.
Dad’s words, then, played in my head as I cheered for Ohio State versus Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night.
I watched as the Buckeyes—from the supposedly slower, inferior Big Ten—overwhelmed the Crimson Tide with big plays and athleticism until Alabama’s SEC swagger disintegrated like a flake from one of Café du Monde’s beignets.
I watched OSU play faster and more disciplined, and I saw a quarterback making his second start go 5 of 9 passing for 153 yards on 3rd down. Cardale Jones stood tall, made decisive decisions, delivered contact, and imposed his will on the game. Credit goes to Cardale for his poised performance, but without question Urban Meyer and Tom Herman were better prepared than their counterparts.
I watched, with wide eyes and jaw dropping near the floor, as Alabama chose to not hand the ball to Derrick Henry from late in the first quarter to late in the third. Shotguns, option routes, precision along the passing tree are great, but winning is better. And winning football for Alabama that night meant feeding Henry. As Rob Lytle would have said, “It ain’t rocket science. Run the damn ball.” Sometimes, football can be simple sometimes.
I watched and it interested me that Urban Meyer, who as the coach of the Florida Gators announced the SEC’s dominance with an athletic thumping of OSU in 2007, stomped the beating heart of the SEC’s superiority with a Big Ten manhandling.
Finally, though, as I watched Tyvis Powell intercept the game’s final pass, my thoughts fled the on-field action and rushed to two players who never laced up their cleats for the contest: Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. I pictured Braxton in street clothes, a white towel loose over his head, and I thought of J.T. moving on the field in his walker with his foot in a protective boot. Then, a sickness settled in my stomach.
Braxton Miller has thrown for over 5,000 yards and 52 touchdowns and won Big Ten MVP twice. His stutter-step, shoulder-shake, plant his foot and go moves helped him gain over 3,000 yards rushing and score 32 touchdowns (Michigan, California, Miami OH). J.T. Barrett, for his part, replaced an injured Miller, threw for more than 2,800 yards, ran for 938, and combined for 45 passing and rushing touchdowns before fracturing his ankle versus Michigan. His poise impressed and his leadership is unquestioned. Watch a replay of the Sugar Bowl and see how he encourages Cardale after every series. J.T. Barrett is a player who cares deeply for his teammates.
With their on-field exploits, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett have solidified Ohio State’s place within college football’s elite. They’ve played with flair, decimated the Big Ten, won individual awards, and received praise as two of the NCAA’s best quarterbacks. Still, as the National Championship game approaches, I ache for them.
An injured player can do many things for their team. They remain a teammate, of course, and a friend to others on the team. They can inspire with their resolve through rehabilitation, cheerlead, and act as a mentor or pseudo coach for their replacements. They can say all the right things about wanting to help the team win, and they can feel satisfaction for their teammates’ successes. An injured player can do all these things, but they can do so only at a distance. The truth that gets locked into each injured player’s vault is that happiness comes with limits.
This doesn’t make the injured player a poor teammate or person. It makes them human. The emotions experienced as an injured player may be negative, but they are normal. The injured player knows that his teammates practice and play together; they sweat and bleed together; they win and lose together. Meanwhile, he stands aside, spending monotonous hours in the weight room completing exercise after exercise while praying for a future that somehow approximates his past. As time passes, three emotions tear at the competitive fibers of any injured player.
The first is isolation. When an injured player finishes another shoulder press or hobbles through another round of side-to-side leg hops on a gimpy ankle, there is no celebration. He acknowledges the progress and trudges ahead through more sets and more reps while solitude’s screams that he has no purpose without his team and his sport become deafening. Hope for next season is a mythical panacea, a misguided dream that an unknowable future will be better in a violent sport where past greatness guarantees no future success.
Loneliness is next. Bonds forge within the team over shared stories of yesterday’s practice bruises told during today’s training table taping. Wins accumulate and though an injured player can celebrate each triumph alongside his teammates, he knows that their jerseys are sweat-soaked, grass-stained champions of exhaustion, while his is as clean after the game as before it. His teammates have earned what he craves, and although he smiles while the lights shine, as the lights fade so does the smile, until all that remains are the questions of why me and what next howled into the dark.
The third, then, is jealousy. As a competitor it’s natural for an injured player to ache as others gain his yards, score his touchdowns, throw his passes, and celebrate his successes. Broken bones throb and an ACL tear pulsates, but witnessing teammates (and friends) conquer mountains as a bystander on the sidelines is an incomparable loss.
Isolation, loneliness, and jealousy are natural consequences of a competitor seeing all zeroes beside their name in the box score. None of this condemns the injured player. The cruel fact is that his brothers (to apply an overused sports cliché) are in the grind of the season together and the injured player – regardless of how often coaches, teammates, or fans say he’s a part of the success – is the odd man out.
On Monday night, I’ll have lucky Buckeyes in my pocket and my eyes fixed on the television. My heart, though, will sting for Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett because I know their smiles are veneers masking a lonely suffering over not being a part of the biggest moment in their athletic lives.
I know this because I’ve been the forgotten man spending his life on the sidelines.
The following is an excerpt from To Dad, From Kelly titled “Life on the Sidelines,” which describes my experiences as a high school junior coming to terms with a devastating sports injury and the harsh loneliness an athlete encounters when they can no longer play the games they love. To Dad, From Kelly, is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Life on the Sidelines
Life on the sidelines is a lonely place for a sports-crazed kid struggling to cope after losing a high school football season to a knee injury. Just 17 years old and three months removed from reconstructive surgery to repair torn ligaments and cartilage inside my right knee, I was standing between cars in a parking lot in Toledo, Ohio, when I collapsed and sobbed away a youth’s worth of frustration. I felt lost and alone, desperate. In that moment, Dad clutched my fragile shoulders and changed everything with two simple words.
It would be a gross understatement to say that sports played an important role in my life. Dad was everybody’s All-American, a high school football star turned collegiate icon. He finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy after his senior season at the University of Michigan and graduated as the school’s career leader in rushing yards. He was the first man to score a touchdown in the Rose Bowl and the Super Bowl. After his retirement from the NFL, our family left Denver and returned to my parents’ hometown of Fremont, Ohio, where I grew up in the shadow of his accomplishments.
Accepting the importance of athletics in my life was more formality than real decision. As Dad’s only son, I bore the pressure that came with wearing his last name on my jerseys. When I demonstrated an aptitude playing sports, they became part of my inherited identity. The first time I ever made the Fremont newspaper, a picture showed me running with a football at a local high school camp. The title read, “Like father, like son.” Coaches and adults around Fremont called me “Little Lytle,” out of reverence for Dad’s achievements. Playing sports became an addiction, and I was a preadolescent junkie.
An old saying around my house went like this: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does.” I trained for perfection in football, basketball, and track. During my elementary school summers, I spent an hour each morning practicing basketball ball-handling drills, marking the time with two episodes of The Wonder Years. I threaded a basketball around my head in circles and passed it in figure-eight patterns between my legs. Kevin and Winnie had their first kiss and first fight in the background of my drills. Once finished, I moved outside and launched ten jump shots from ten different cracks in our driveway at the basket attached to our garage. I separated the sets with ten free throws and tracked every made or missed shot. If I missed too many, I penalized myself by running sprints around my neighborhood block. My best free throw percentage came in just south of 90% during those morning shooting sessions—pretty good for a fourth grader.
In the afternoon heat, Mom and I drove to the high school track where I prepared for the weekend track meets I competed in every June and July. I laced up my tiny, orange Adidas sprinter spikes, doused my short blond hair with cold water, and exhausted my legs during grueling workouts on a blacktop surface harder than most roads. Dad scripted each workout, listing everything from the times I should run to the length of breaks I should take between each sprint. He adapted my training from routines he completed while a college sprinter for Michigan. Mom timed everything, and we reported the results back to “Coach” each night. I kicked benches, rattled fences, and launched water bottles across the track when I ran slower times than the workout suggested, but I never considered quitting. Somehow, too, I even craved more, so I competed on traveling baseball and basketball teams. The rugged workouts and regimented schedule seem sadistic now, like a tariff on being youthful and energetic, but aside from the handful of verbal outbursts I unleashed during track workouts, I embraced everything about it.
A need to exceed the expectations set by my last name burned inside me. Competition mixed with my passion to excel. Combined, they seduced my compulsive nature. The athletic successes I earned stimulated my ego and hooked me on sports. My life buzzed so fast between training and competing that I never considered any different path.
By my sophomore year of high school, I started receiving recruiting letters from colleges for football, basketball, and track. Major schools with marquee names that competed in the best conferences contacted me. Would I play football and run track in the Big Ten? What about Stanford, Notre Dame, or Virginia? Maybe one of these schools would become my college home. The plan I had set in motion in elementary school to receive multiple college scholarship offers in multiple sports was within my grasp. I would have my choice of both where I wanted to attend college and what sport I would play.
But everything changed in the summer before my junior year when a crossover dribble in the final seconds of a high school basketball tournament separated the alphabet soup of ligaments inside my right knee. Doctors offered a dreadful prognosis for any athlete: a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament (MCL), and bucket-handle tears of the medial and lateral menisci.
The surgery to repair my knee lasted over four hours. I woke from the anesthesia delirious and spewed vomit onto my hospital gown. I dropped into sleep again somewhere mid-puke. A few hours later, after the fog from the knockout medicine lifted, I writhed in pain around the hospital bed. My leg burned like 500 pounds of enraged firewood ready to burst into flames. I had to pee but the muscles I needed to use to go to the bathroom had entered hibernation following surgery. Drugged, sad, and needing to relieve myself, I asked my parents the most important question of my life up to that point: “Will I ever play sports again?”
“Of course you will,” Mom and Dad assured me in unison, even going so far as to share stories of other athletes who overcame worse injuries. As they spoke, I saw tears collect in Dad’s eyes. Jesus, I remember thinking. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him cry. A sick feeling unlike anything I had ever known blindsided me. Even in my haze, I knew my parents had just lied. They were clueless just like me. In that moment, I believed my sports life had received its death sentence.
And I still couldn’t pee.
Over the next three months, anger, frustration, self-pity, and fear assaulted me in turns. I knew no outlet for these emotions so I bottled them away in places where only I could find them. Wherever I went, I told people how well I was recovering and how I expected to return to the varsity basketball team that winter. Everything I said was a lie, though, because I shivered at the threat of altering my sports-obsessed life.
Sports had been my closest friend since I had started playing flag football in second grade. Without sports, I felt deserted, as if that friend had abandoned me without a warning or a promise to return. On the outside, I remained the same smiling kid I had always been. On the inside, I felt like a capsizing ship trapped in stormy waters. I had no compass, no life raft, and nobody to guide me home. I needed help, but I didn’t know how to express my fears—not even to Dad, someone who had experienced the anguish of sports rehab throughout his career.
As my anxieties became more distilled, I realized that I still believed I would compete again in sports, but what I really feared was coming back and no longer excelling. How could I be part of a team but no longer a star? This question stalked me at every turn.
While I internalized my fears, two other emotions came to full boil. The first, a searing jealousy toward my teammates, fed the second, which was loneliness. Any happiness I felt for my friends still playing that football season came with limits. Their successes challenged my competitiveness. Although I hoped my teammates performed well, I wanted them to come close and lose. If they lost, it was clear I remained an important part of the team. If they won, I was replaceable and forgotten.
During the first months following surgery, I realized that athletics—and life—march on regardless of the participants. On the sidelines and removed from the game’s outcome, I loved hearing people tell me I was the missing link between the team winning and losing. Their words were a shot of helium to my deflated ego. My small-mindedness during this stretch of recovery disturbs me to this day.
Handling my loneliness was trickier. At 17, I thought a man’s toughness must be without cracks so I hid my isolation and allowed no one inside—not Mom, not Dad, and not my friends. I didn’t know what to say to them. How could I let anyone glimpse my eroding rot? Everywhere I went I felt alone.
Three months after my knee reconstruction, my emotional cauldron boiled over. Seven games into what should have been my junior football season, the team prepared for one of its most challenging tests of the year on the home turf of a respected rival and their all-state running back. Our locker room hummed with nervous energy before kickoff. I wandered by myself through a sea of friends having their ankles taped. I watched their heads bob to music playing from inside their headphones. Fists pounded shoulder pads and hands slapped to wish good luck. Eventually, a quiet focus enveloped the team inside the locker room. Determined stares foreshadowed the fine game they were prepared to play. It was our purple and white against their blue and gold. I wore a uniform of khaki pants, an unused game jersey, and white sneakers on the sidelines.
We took an early 6–0 lead and held it until late in the fourth quarter. Keeping their star running back and speedy wide receivers from reaching the end zone took an entire team effort. I watched with veiled jealousy as my friends ran, blocked, tackled, and covered the opposition with more zeal during that game than they had shown all season. After the clock reset to zero, resentment conquered my happiness. I felt excited they had won the biggest game of the year, but I hated being an outsider to their success. On the field, with sweat and dirt clinging to their jerseys, players embraced in exhausted exultation. I stood in quiet detachment away from the team, half-listening as the head coach praised the victory. Tears stung inside my eyes, and I drove them deep into my stomach’s pit.
Inside our raucous locker room, I drifted through cheers and animated embraces. The stink of damp socks and trampled grass reminded me that I played no role in the victory. A pasted smile on my face remained until I left the locker room red-eyed and combustible, my presence as unnecessary there as it was on the field earlier. I hobbled on a swollen knee to the parking lot where Dad stood waiting to drive me home.
We walked in the direction of his car in silence, moving through crowds of other parents busy congratulating themselves on the team’s win. At the car, I stopped and let three months of tears unleash in a storm down my cheeks. I demanded answers. Why did I have to miss the season? Would I ever play sports again? What use was I now without the games I loved?
In that moment, Dad did the best he could. He wrapped me in his arms and said nothing for several minutes while I wept. He let me exhale the sadness I’d wanted to show since the operation. Then he spoke the two words I needed to hear.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
Dad knew because he understood my suffering firsthand. For six of his seven NFL seasons, he had buried his pride and watched his teammates play the game he cherished without him. Other players practiced together, won and lost together, and celebrated together, but injuries kept Dad on the sidelines. He endured operations, physical therapy, and years of rehabilitation to rejoin the team. For some reason, his efforts always failed. Dad’s loneliness and frustration became part of his personality, sharing space alongside his humility and sense of humor.
Now he watched as his son experienced the same emotions that still tormented him fifteen years after leaving professional football. Yes, I was only in high school, but desperation can exist at any age. Since the injury, Dad had suffered alongside me, internalizing my pain as his own. Now, with two words, he lifted me off the sidelines and put me back in the game.
We made the sixty-minute drive home in silence, having already said everything to each other that we needed to say. By 8:00 a.m. the next morning, Dad and I walked into the weight room together and continued the unceasing task of rehabbing for future sports seasons. After the previous night’s catharsis, I relinquished the defeat of my past and faced the challenges placed before me, this time with my teammate by my side.