Sports

Football’s Problem is Football

Football has problems.

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Roger Goodell is one of them. He should be humiliated over deflate-gate (which was nothing more than a petulant attempt to exact some authority over his old pal Robert Kraft), and he should be appalled by his league’s lack of a real response to violent aggression toward women from its players. Greg Hardy’s presence in the league screams how the NFL feels about this issue. Concussions? Player safety? Benefits for retired players? In the NFL, what’s old, injured, or concussed is forgotten.

Goodell should resign. But when you make over $40 million per year voluntarily walking away isn’t happening. Owners should remove him. But when revenues are at all-time highs and 10-year forecasts would make you wealthier than many small nations, well, nobody is taking your seat at the table. So we’re stuck.

Still, Roger Goodell is not football’s biggest problem, at least not with respect to head trauma and the future of the sport.

Concussions, CTE, and the bone-rattling, crash-course collisions promoted in NFL highlight videos and watched every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday are also not the problem. The head games crisis threatens to destroy football by cutting the pipeline of willing participants. Parents understand better football’s dangers, participation at youth levels has declined for several years, and soon lawsuits may make the sport uninsurable. Fast-forward a decade and letting your son play football could be taboo, not merely dangerous.

Head trauma, though, is merely a symptom of football’s disease.

No, football’s problem is football. It was when public outrage over the 1905 death of Harold Moore forced Teddy Roosevelt to demand the game change or risk abolishment. And football’s problem was football when Chucky Mullins from Ole Miss smashed into Vanderbilt’s Brad Gaines on October 28, 1989, broke four vertebrae in his neck, shattered his spine, and never walked again. I was seven and had already seen my share of highlights celebrating the blindside smacks that bend a quarterback or the head-on traffic accidents that leave wide receivers to writhe in pain. But until Chucky Mullins hit the turf, the players always got up. Not this time. Tears stormed down my cheeks. Football’s innocence had just died for me.

Testing football helmets, 1912

Testing football helmets, 1912; from Rare Historical Photos

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The Disappointment of Roger Goodell

Football has problems.

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Roger Goodell, his black bow-tie snug to his neck, beamed. His tailored tuxedo jacket broke at his shoulders, which bounced in-sync with his amusement. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, presenting at the National Football Foundation’s Annual Awards Dinner on December 8, had just quipped: “I had a chance to sit next to the commissioner of football, Pete Rozelle tonight…Oh, excuse me, Roger Goodell. I apologize. I had six concussions in the NFL.”

Unease lofted from the more than 1,500 people seated inside the Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom. Goodell, undaunted, broadened his smile and intensified his laughter. Tasteless, smug arrogance from the self-professed protector of the shield, a boardroom champion elected to his post by win-at-all-costs NFL owners.

Goodell

Photo courtesy of ESPN

Seated at a table less than thirty-yards from Goodell, I slugged half my glass of red table wine, swallowed, and pursed my staining-purple lips. The cocktail-party humor had hit home, and the offensive reaction from football’s vile prophet had struck a nerve.

I scanned the dais, moving through sixteen hall of fame faces, national champions, and Heisman Trophy winners. Football legends seated at the head table; men who limp and cringe with simple steps. Academic All-Americans flanked their sides, as did heroes from our nation’s service academies, the evening’s Distinguished American Award winners. Condoleezza Rice sat waiting her turn to speak as the recipient of the NFF’s Gold Medal award. My eyes swept past these faces and zeroed in on my mother. As the crowd’s laughter faded, hers was the reaction I sought. (more…)

What Comes Next for Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant announced he will retire at the end of this NBA season. Twenty years, more than 1,300 games, 45,000-plus minutes, 33,000 points on over 11,000 buckets, five titles, one MVP, seventeen-times an All-Star, and the man who delivered thousands of scowls on the court. One heart in demand of greatness; one competitor craving competition.

But now Kobe readies for the greatest challenge of his life: leaving the game of basketball.

Kobe PPT

Source: Flickr, creative commons

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College Football Hall of Fame

On Tuesday, December 8, the National Football Foundation will induct its class of 2015. The list of inductees impresses for the body of its accomplishments and depth of character. That Dad will be enshrined with – and the recipient of – such an incredible honor is humbling, meaningful, and a testament to how Rob Lytle played football – with his whole heart.

Leading into the event, Rich McGowan of the Fremont News-Messenger has written several pieces that highlight Dad’s character, enduring legacy, and how bittersweet these celebrations are for our family.

Character led Fremont native Rob Lytle to Hall of Fame

Lytle Family stand in for Rob, rather than with him

Is Hall of Fame career worth price of admission

The events on Tuesday will include a press conference for all inductees (and yours truly) in the morning and the ceremony in the evening.  Live streams of both the Annual Awards Dinner (link here), starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the morning press conference (link here), starting at 9 a.m. ET, will be available on ESPN3. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET, the American Sports Network will produce and nationally televise a live Red Carpet Show leading up to the dinner ceremonies. Visit americansportsnet.com for a full list of stations and times throughout the country.

Full information on viewing all events is available on the National Football Foundation site: Hall of Fame Ceremonies.

And for those interested in more on my bond with my father, To Dad, From Kelly offers an honest, heartfelt look into our relationship.

A real Ohio State – Michigan story

Rob Lytle made his final commitment to the University of Michigan and Bo Schembechler while staring into the angry eyes of famed Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. During Dad’s recruitment, he and Woody bonded while dissecting battles from the Civil War as if they were defenses from a future opponent. But now that Dad had made his decision to attend Michigan, Woody sat in the living room at my grandparents demanding to know why. That day, Dad summoned the courage to tell Coach Hayes that he thought Michigan “was a better fit” for him. The two men never spoke again, their relationship another casualty of being on opposite sides of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.

Except things weren’t that simple. And, as my dad learned a decade later, Woody Hayes was too good a man with too much character for the story to end there.

The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is one of the most fierce in sports. However, as the following story from Jim Brandstatter’s Tales From Michigan Stadium shows, the respect between the competitors on each side is what allows it to persist as the greatest rivalry in sports (photos courtesy of Lytle family and not part of original story).

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Celebrating Rob Lytle with the University of Michigan

On September 25 and 26, the University of Michigan honored my father, the late Rob Lytle, for his election to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. Friends, family, former teammates, and school administrators celebrated on Friday evening at Michigan’s Towsley Museum inside Schembechler Hall. We heard from Jim Hackett (Michigan’s Interim Athletic Director), Calvin O’Neal (co-captain with Dad on Michigan’s 1976 Big 10 championship team), directors from program sponsor Fidelity, and the National Football Foundation. Former Wolverine linebacker Steve Strinko read an “Ode to Rob Lytle.” The words shared this evening inspired laughs, tears, smiles, and warm reflections of a well-loved Wolverine.

The special moments continued on Saturday with an on-field tribute. The lasting image of Mom holding a plaque that recognized Dad’s accomplishments above her head while more than 100,000 fans roared is a moment to hold close forever. The fact that a foul, 1970s-era mustache covers Dad’s face in the image on the plaque somehow also seems fitting.

Michigan AD Jim Hackett, Michigan-Great Calvin O’Neal, and our Family at Halftime

Michigan AD Jim Hackett, Michigan-Great Calvin O’Neal, and our Family at Halftime

Our entire family is grateful for Michigan’s celebration, and our debt of gratitude to everyone involved in coordinating the weekend is steep. I’ll do my best to honor the entirety of the weekend in a future post that I hope captures the specialness – and emotions – of the celebration.

For now, though, I want to share the unofficial transcript of the speech I gave remembering Dad at the Towsley Museum.

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So, before I start I need to warn everyone if I seem a little nervous. My fiancée and I were engaged three weeks ago and tonight is actually the first time our families have met. Please bear with me.

First, I want to say thank you. Thank you to the University of Michigan and Mr. Jim Hackett for this celebration; I cannot begin to express how thankful we are; thank you to the National Football Foundation and Fidelity for your support; thank you to all our friends and family who are here tonight. Last, Dad always said that football is the greatest team game there is. So it’s unbelievable – and humbling – to see this many former teammates. Thank you – this weekend is a celebration of everything the team accomplished.

In the early 70’s, Bo Schembechler traveled to Fremont, Ohio. “Rob,” Bo said in his traditionally gruff style, “at Michigan we have 6 halfbacks. If you come here, you’ll be number 7. Whatever happens after that is up to you.”

Not your typical recruiting pitch. But SNAP!….Dad was hooked.

Hooked on this fiery coach whose integrity oozed from him.

Hooked on the chance to compete with the best team in the country and against the best players every day in practice.

Hooked on the Victors – the greatest fight song in college football – and on those maize wings that make Michigan’s helmet so iconic.

And once Dad visited campus – hooked on Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

So it is with deep pride that we are here to celebrate this moment and the specialness of the school, the sport of football, and the team for Dad.

Rob Lytle Memorabilia, Courtesy of Michigan Photography, Copyright

God – Dad loved Michigan football.

I remember November 1996 – during the Ohio State – Michigan game. Mom and I huddled in our kitchen watching the game on a TV smaller than most computer monitors are now. Dad paced outside – raking leaves, mowing the grass, gardening. Anything to stay busy. Every few minutes he’d rush up to the window, intensity burning through his eyes. He’d look for the score then dart back into the yard. He was so proud when Michigan won that day.

Dad bled maize and blue.

When I think about Dad and Michigan football, the games never come to mind. It wasn’t in his nature to discuss yards or touchdown or any individual plays. In fact, the only one he ever talked about was the Purdue game from 1976, when he claimed he lost the game and a shot at a national championship for Michigan because of his 4th quarter fumble – always ignoring that he gained 150 yards and averaged more than 7 yards per carry that day.

Michigan football meant so much to Dad not only because of the games but because of what surrounded it…because of what happened outside the white lines on the field.

Michigan football mattered because of what it required of him. The sacrifice…the work ethic…the toughness…the commitment to a team – to being part of something greater than himself.

It was about standing on the sideline inside Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and looking up at a scoreboard that read Michigan 22 – Ohio State 0. Dad always said that his favorite football memory was being able to “hear a pin drop” inside the Horseshoe that afternoon.

It was about standing in the dark in the tunnel inside Michigan stadium. Hearing the snap of chin straps… knowing the M-Club banner was stretched across midfield… and exploding into the gameday sun while more than 100,000 fans cheered.

It was about learning not just how to play a game but about life.

How deeply do you care? Will you sacrifice for others? Put their needs ahead of your own? All to be part of the team?

Will you accept the challenge of not being satisfied every morning when you wake? Of getting better every day?

These words aren’t just a cliché meant to motivate a football team. They’re values that show how to be a good person. And they can last forever… I know they did for Dad.

Kelly Lytle Remembering his Late Father, Courtesy of Michigan Photography, Copyright

The more I think about Michigan – and football – and Dad, I can’t avoid thinking about my own childhood. I remember being 10 years old again. And it’s Sunday afternoon and my friends and I are gearing up for our afternoon football game. The anticipation is accelerating. We’ve waited all week for these games and for Dad to play all-time quarterback.

We pile into Dad’s jeep and chug toward the park. We spill out onto the field and the cool October air chills our skin. Red and orange and yellow leaves blow along the ground. The grass is wet and cold and seeps into our shoes and against our hands. Maybe we can see the smoke from our breaths.

As kids, we’re carefree, having the time of our lives.

I remember Dad against this backdrop. He’s wearing ill-fitting, short shorts. He has a wad of tobacco bulging from his cheek and a pouch of Levi Garrett dangling from his pocket. He’s talking smack…Coaching…Teaching.

And of course his face wears that big shit-eating grin that everyone remembers.

Dad’s at home here. He’s a part of the team, playing the game he loved.

I think that tonight is such a tremendous honor because it lets us remember what is special, right?

We get a chance to laugh, as Mom and I did remembering the story of Dad passing out face down in a Whopper at Burger King after celebrating the Ohio State victory a little too much.

We get to cry as we remember those who aren’t here. And I think these are good tears…because they remind us of those we’ve loved and lost.

And we get to smile because of this game that is in our blood. For what it meant to be part of the team at the University of Michigan. And for how special that is.

Thank you and go blue.

Rose Bowl touchdown celebration, Photo courtesy of Curt Stephenson

Rose Bowl touchdown celebration, Photo courtesy of Curt Stephenson

What Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler Thought About Water

On day one of camp, nearly 100 football players pressed their cleats into hard dirt that refused to yield. Sharp rocks gashed their bodies; cacti pierced their skin; crunched noses spilled blood onto ragged jerseys. During the day, players suffocated in the 110-degree heat, fluids exhausted from their worn bodies. At night, they bunked in metal huts “hotter than a breakfast griddle,” sweat running off foreheads and eyelids and dripping from behind knees. By day ten, the team numbered less than 40. This was 1954 in Junction, Texas, a sparse cow town wasted by a years-long drought. This was Coach Paul Bryant’s first training camp at Texas A&M. This was hell at the hands of a man remembered simply as “Bear.”

Bear BryantThis was a different era for football. Toughness mattered more than talent. “Sacrifice. Work. Self-discipline,” as Coach Bryant said, “I teach these things, and my boys don’t forget when they leave.” During this camp, one player cracked multiple ribs at morning practice. He returned in the afternoon – wheezing, wobbling, and vomiting – but still practiced. Injuries needed dirt rubbed on them, not medical attention. Missing practice to heal was not smart it was weakness. And water, well in Coach Bryant’s mind, water was something wasted on the weak.

Bryant believed the fastest way to whip a team into shape was to deny the boys water, even in the brutal heat. He had withheld water during practices at Kentucky and Maryland, and those teams seemed to grow stronger in the fourth quarter. The team doctor even agreed with Bryant’s harsh methods. Back in College Station, Dr. R.H. Harrison had told him, ‘A stomach that is full of water can cause the blood flow to increase to the spleen. That, in turn, could cause a ruptured spleen.’ Smokey Harper (the A&M trainer) summed it up in a manner that pleased Bryant: ‘Hell, you never pour ice water into a car’s hot radiator. So why pour ice water into a hot boy?’

Jim Dent’s Junction Boys offers a glimpse into the harsh sacrifices made to appease the tyrant most players grew to love (or at least respect). Junction Boys is a football book about hard men built by an even harder man. Its stories are hard-nosed and without bullshit, as if also shaped in Coach Bryant’s image. I appreciated the entire read, but loved the point about water because it reminded me of one I heard as a kid.JB

At Michigan, Dad played for an equally determined and driven coach in Bo Schembechler. Though Dad’s nature was not to share many stories about his days playing, he did tell one about a particularly memorable practice. I’ve done my best to paraphrase him:

I don’t know who it was. The NCAA maybe, or the University. But someone mandated to Bo that we needed a certain amount of water at practice. So Bo agreed. ‘Fine, they’ll have their water.’ Next thing, we’re at practice and right at midfield is an oasis of long folding tables stocked with water jugs, cups of cold water, relief from misery. So we’re out smashing into one another for hours, wonderin’ when Bo was gonna let us taste that water. We’re whispering, angling to figure how we could sneak a sip and soothe our damn sandpaper tongues. Finally, one of the guys asked Bo when we’d get a water break. So Bo stopped practice and gave the poor kid an all day stare. Then he said, ‘they told me we needed to have water at practice. Nobody said I had to let you drink it.’

As I said, a different era.

Harlem Lax: A Profound Example of Why Sports Matter

Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and, when it comes to youth sports, someone who has “been publicly outspoken about the winning-at-all cost mentality in which lip service is paid to academics and personal growth when it should be the other way around,” recently called Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership the “single best school-based co-curricular program I have ever seen” in an article for Dick’s Sporting Goods “Sports Matter” series.

As a sport, lacrosse historically is associated with white, upper class participants. That dynamic is changing, and lacrosse is the fastest growing high school sport in the country. In Harlem, though, lacrosse is being used as a vehicle to change lives, as,

the carrot to get kids to stay in school and become motivated far beyond the playing field. It is using the power of sports to unleash the potential of kids, many of whom…live in single parent households, some of who come from lower middle class backgrounds and some of whom live in shelters. It causes them to see a world they never knew existed but also to become a part of it.

Harlem Lax fascinated me for this reason. Sports, at their purest, can help participants experience not simply a world they never knew existed, but to challenge their minds and bodies to reach heights never believed possible. Sports can exist outside the confines of wins and losses, in a realm where the lessons are more tangible than the final score. As Bissinger writes:

Winning is exciting, molding a team into even greater cohesion. But it’s the level of effort that is important, the constant pounding away at the concept that what you put into anything in life is the exact same amount you get out of it. So is learning to overcome adversity and the twin companions of frustration and humiliation.

And the value stretches far beyond capitalizing on mere talent, to one of the most important virtues sports can teach – dedication:

It isn’t talent that defines a person but passion for something and love for something and dedication to something. Once you figure that out, which many kids first learn playing sports, the sky of possibility has no clouds. Talent can be squandered. Too many times it is squandered. But hard work and discipline are never squandered. They are never wasted.

When sports are kept in the right perspective and the idolization at all costs mentality is sacrificed, they offer a forum that unleashes an individual’s passion while instilling a framework that rewards discipline, dedication, work ethic, and the team. This is why sports matter. And why programs such as Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership are vital to the personal development of their participants.