To Dad: From Kelly

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…)

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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Lytleisms – Quotes from a Hall of Fame Smart A**

Dad suffered a heart attack and died five years ago today. Anyone that knew him understands this loss. Those that did not missed out on knowing a man who just got it. He understood when to comfort, like when he hugged my sister after she smashed her car into his while learning to drive and never said a word about the damage. And he knew when he needed to deliver a stern warning – in as few words as possible and with a sly smirk across his face – when I showed up for a workout hungover. It worked. We never needed to speak of the message again.

In To Dad, From Kelly, I described Dad as living “somewhere between the innocent and the instigator….he was a father, friend, mentor, and teacher. And he played these roles with a playful, often devious smile spread across his face.” A friend recently relayed with me a memory he has of Dad, and I think it beats at the heart of what made Dad special.

Like several examples in your book he was very good with timing. In tenth grade he pulled me aside after practice and gave me a talk telling me I had “it”. He even called my mom one day when I was skipping practice to tell me to get my ass there. Remember I was such a punk at this time most of school faculty hated me. Deservedly so. Huge in me (slightly) turning around to at least graduate and get it together. He could be very hard on me so when I was ruled ineligible for football in 96 I was mortified and scared to face him expecting him to be livid. When he finally spotted me at a bball game he was the opposite he was very tender because he could tell that’s what I needed. Can’t say enough about how big this was to me because he was so big in my eyes. To a man who grew up without a father these things are immeasurable. Many examples in your book of things I take going forward for my own family learned from great men like your dad.

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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

Lessons from Dad – A Father’s Day Challenge

My first memory of “quality time” with Dad ended with me in tears. The second left him wearing a protective eye patch for a week. In the former, I was four years old and Dad had taken me to see the Transformers movie in 1986. Optimus Prime’s death near the end of the movie pushed me to tears. In the second, I jabbed Dad’s eye with a toy Voltron as we battled robots on a lazy Saturday morning. Maybe this was early compensation for the angst the smart-ass man with the devil-sly grin would cause me later in life.

Thankfully, our relationship graduated from those early days of action figures and movie theater tears.

Dad was my best friend. He shaped me through his unique blend of humor, sarcasm, humility, and self-deprecation. In writing To Dad, From Kelly, I sought to capture the defining lessons I learned from my father through specific moments in our relationship. Big, small, expected, and unexpected, these memories illustrate the values I hold closest.

With Father’s Day on June 21, I want to celebrate the lasting influence that fathers have on our lives by hearing from all of you. To honor fathers everywhere, and in memory of my dad, I’m giving away three (3) signed copies of my memoir, To Dad, From Kelly, to anyone who answers this question:

What is the best or most memorable lesson you’ve learned from your father?

You can share your stories with me on:

1. My blog, by commenting on this post or by emailing me through the Contact link

2. Facebook, by sending me a message at Facebook.com/Kelly.Lytle.127

3. Twitter, by mentioning me (@kelly_lytle) and including #fromdad

4. LinkedIn, by mentioning or messaging me at LinkedIn.com/in/KellyLytle

5. Email, by emailing me at Kelly@kellylytle.com

Share as many stories as you want as many ways as you can. Nothing is out-of-bounds, just be open, honest, and willing to share the best or most memorable lesson you’ve learned from your father!

I’ll select three winners by Wednesday, June 17, so winners will receive their books by Father’s Day.

Happy storytelling!

What Chris Borland’s Retirement Means for Football

This Friday, I am participating in a symposium presented by Cleveland-Marshall College of Law on “The Social, Ethical, and Legal Consequences of Sports-Related Brain Injuries.” The discussion features a range of legal, academic, and athletic experts covering a diverse set of issues relating to this subject.

JLHMy father, College Football Hall of Fame running back Rob Lytle, died at 56-years old in November 2010. He suffered double-digit concussions during his career and was diagnosed posthumously with moderate to severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The doctors who conducted the autopsy stated they were shocked he could still work and manage on his own given the advanced state of CTE present in his brain. My talk will draw on my experiences with my father to present an intimate look at life after football, the ugly consequences of an all-consuming devotion to a violent sport, and CTE in real-life. Some stories I covered in To Dad, From Kelly while others are new.

This topic seems especially relevant this week after the bombshell announcement from San Francisco 49ers star linebacker Chris Borland, who retired from football after one professional season over concerns regarding football’s risks and the quality of life he might experience if he continued to play. “I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

Borland’s decision incites a terrifying thought. Football is the undisputed king of sports in America. It’s also a killer. So what?

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The Youth Football Question

Football is violent. Lethal. We play the game and put our future bodies and minds at risk. Still, we celebrate football. It’s the sport I’ve praised, though perhaps from some misguided longing to stay close to those who are gone. We scream, cheer, and cry for our combatants caught in its vicious throes. We hold our breath whenever our warriors wobble but always crave more. Football brutalizes its participants.

And somehow, our kids still play the game. (more…)

A Hall of Fame Worthy Smart-Ass

The National Football Foundation elected my Dad to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015 on January 9. The months to come will offer me the chance to reflect on the emotional significance of the moment. For now, though, I want to share a simple story about a man who loved high school football. And antagonizing others.

For most of my life, Dad would watch from the visitor’s stands whenever he attended a high school football game at Harmon Stadium in Fremont, Ohio. Before he joined Fremont’s “Chain Gang” crew and worked the sideline markers, Dad would park on the metal bleachers around the 25-yard line nearest to the scoreboard. He would sit about halfway up the stands and watch the game, mostly in silence but cheering whenever either team completed a good play. High school football was sacred for Dad—kids playing for the love of the sport and nothing else in his eyes—and he preferred to savor the purity of Friday night’s lights in solitude.

Dad speaking to the Fremont team in 2010. Courtesy of The News-Messenger.

Dad speaking to the Fremont team in 2010. Courtesy of The News-Messenger.

In 1999, a torn ACL, MCL, and cartilage cost me my junior football season. I watched each game from the sidelines, and although it’s been over 15 years I can still picture the clear September evening when the Findlay Trojans marched into Fremont as a high-powered wrecking ball of an offensive football machine led by future Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Findlay spread the field with four and five wide receivers and threw the football so often you might have thought they had never seen a toss sweep. Somewhere, this Findlay team missed the memo stipulating that Ohio high school football teams must run the ball from the I-formation to win. The spread offense is commonplace now, but in 1999 Findlay was the only team in Ohio running such a passing attack (Ohio’s state passing records confirm the offensive shift that occurred after teams began copying Findlay’s aerial assault).

Findlay’s then-coach, current Ohio State Senator Cliff Hite, happened to be a former high school rival and friends with my father. Since I was young, Dad had always enjoyed the Fremont vs. Findlay matchups because it gave him a chance to bullshit with his old friend. He and Coach Hite would banter with each other before, after, and as it turns out during the game whenever the Trojans and Little Giants played. The friendly rivalry captivated both men.

During the game in 1999, Findlay received the opening kickoff. Big Ben sliced the air with pinpoint passes until the Trojans had scored faster than I could count the number of receivers on the field. Findlay stopped Fremont on our first offensive series. When Findlay got the ball back inside our 20-yard line, Roethlisberger made the type of subtle play that separated him from every high school player I had watched besides Charles Woodson.

Standing in the shotgun, Roethlisberger had one running back on his right side and receivers littered across the field. Before the snap, Findlay ran a receiver across the formation from right to left. As Roethlisberger caught the snap, he faked a hand-off to the sprinting wide receiver. Then, with the graceful patience only superstars possess, Roethlisberger cupped the ball in his left hand and slid it behind his back while the offense, defense, and every eye from every fan followed the play action. Roethlisberger paused—a cat toying with a cornered mouse—scanned the field, and finally cocked his arm to launch another spiral into the waiting arms of a receiver standing alone in the far corner of the end zone. Touchdown.

The rest of the game progressed as it had started. Somewhere around Roethlisberger’s seventh touchdown pass (he finished with eight) an idea struck Dad and he started hollering at his friend Coach Hite on the Findlay sidelines about 20 yards away.

“Cliff!” Dad screamed. “Cliff, I think it’s time you established the run game. I got your running plays right here! Just drew ‘em up.” Dad held the program above his head and pointed at it as he shouted, pretending it to be a playbook. “You know you gotta run the ball to win.”

Findlay led the game by 30 points.

If you knew my father, you can imagine the shit-eating grin that undoubtedly spread across his face. Dad loved everything about this moment—from Findlay’s creativity on offense to his own antics and, especially, to the way Coach Hite returned the favor by laughing and jawing right back at my old man. I remember Dad being giddy after the game retelling the story.

Sometime later, I stumbled across a post concerning 1999’s Findlay vs. Fremont contest in a Little Giants’ sports forum online. I don’t recall specifics, but I do remember that an irate Fremont fan had voiced outrage over how the Findlay coach spent the fourth quarter gesturing between the field and the Findlay stands, grinning and celebrating wildly. In the eyes of this poster, these actions demonstrated sportsmanship at its worst.

Little did he or she know that the man actually at fault was a smart-ass former Fremont Ross star having fun immersed in the sport he loved.

To Dad, From Kelly

To Dad, From Kelly - Final Cover

When Rob Lytle died at age 56, three decades after his football stardom at the University of Michigan ended and his professional career with the Denver Broncos began, his son Kelly Lytle poured his mix of grief, adulation, regret, gratitude, and even criticism into a series of letters to the man he considered his best friend. What began as catharsis evolved into a memoir that starts strong and gains steam the way Rob Lytle did in his dashes down the football field.

To Dad, From Kelly adds dimensions as the author has the insight and candor to peel away the cachet of having a celebrity father and reveal the underside of an all-consuming devotion to a sport. Along the way, Kelly shares his difficulties with keeping sports competition in perspective.

This reflection on an unusually close and complicated father-son bond will be entertaining, poignant, and inspiring for readers who love sports and those who don’t because—although football provides a backdrop—the book is really about family, zeal, and character.

You can purchase your copy of To Dad, From Kelly at any of these locations:

Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo Apple

Life on the Sidelines for Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett

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.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Ohio State vs Alabama

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.

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The Most Important Letter I Ever Wrote

To Dad, From Kelly began with a single letter I wrote to my father in fall 2011, one year after he died. The words in that letter are the most important I’ve put on paper. With my memoir published, I decided to write another letter to reflect on my three-year writing journey. The twist: I’ve addressed this one to the 2011 version of me. As today is the 4th anniversary of Dad’s death, I’ve decided to share that letter.

Dear Kelly,

You’re pale. And plump in the midsection. You love writing because it makes you see the world more imaginatively. You think that writing makes you a more caring person.

Just wait. In three years, after hours spent writing in your basement, snow will have more color than your skin. And that slight bulge will become a noticeable belly. It’s OK, writing will have become more fun and important than exercising. Still, avoid the once-a-week 2,000-calorie Taco Bell orders when you can.

Soon, you won’t just love writing. You’ll need it. The creative release will sustain you. Writing will transform you into a deeper, more invested person. Writing will offer you an outlet for the emotions you cannot otherwise form.

Around a year after your dad’s death, a friend will ask you to write a letter to him. The decision to write it will launch the most harrowing, rewarding, and introspective journey of your life. Buckle up because the ride ain’t easy.

You think you can write well. You can’t. But you’ll improve.

You think you’ve cried before. You haven’t. Noah’s Ark might capsize in the torrent of tears you’re about to shed.

You think you understand hard work. You don’t. But you will.

On most mornings you’ll feel exhausted as you stare into a blank computer screen, its flashing cursor seeming like a giant middle finger flicking up and down—taunting—howling that you don’t have the heart to finish. Words will flee. Paragraphs will evaporate. “Why the fuck can’t I write?” You’ll wail. But fight. Listen to your dad’s voice and force yourself into the dark hurt of hearing him speak. Slice the scars protecting your deepest wounds and stitch yourself together by unleashing raw fury into the writing.

You’ll eviscerate you’re mind, body, and spirit. But you’ll survive. And heal.

Don’t fight your changing music tastes. From folk and bluegrass to soul, gospel, and even Negro Spirituals—all forms will carry a tune you need to hear.

And don’t fret when you spend the last 6 months of writing listening to only Jodeci and 2Pac. The journey, in all its forms, will be unexpected.

You’re impatient so you think you need to finish the manuscript now. When your bosses ask you to finish the work for which they are paying you, remember this: They are not sabotaging you’re writing career. Quit complaining and do the work.

That 3rd draft you finish and declare the publish-ready manuscript is shit. Friends and family will be supportive, but you can (and will) do better.

The open mic night you believe you’re attending on a random Tuesday evening in May 2013 isn’t actually an open mic night. The community theater hangout that you stumble into will cascade into a leading role in a play you are unqualified to act in, and the challenges of rehearsing and performing over the next 4 weeks will become some of the most rewarding moments of your adult life.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Most are better. Steal from them. Learn from them. Be as good as you can be.

Believe in the value of your story. It’s the only one that nobody can replicate.

A fall Friday will arrive when you are weary from work and writing. Get off your ass, grab The Power of One, stuff a notebook and pen into your pocket, and sit in the corner of an old world bar sipping IPAs and eating stuffed cabbage.

Your life is about to change.

When a spirited, dark-haired girl sits on the barstool to your left, announces (loudly) to the bartenders that she’s searching for a mid-century modern couch, and orders a glass of red wine, don’t wait 60 minutes to introduce yourself. She’s the one.

Love strikes unexpectedly – especially for those who spend their Fridays reading, writing, eating, and drinking by themselves at bars.

Never confuse being alone with being lonely.

You’ll read this quote from Neil Gaiman about writing: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”

Print the quote and stuff it in your pocket. You’ll need the words to persevere through the gut punches of honest emotion you are writing.

The stories you write will cause your family pain. The writing is too truthful. Appreciate their sorrow, but continue on your journey.

As you write, you’ll want more from your father. More time. More conversations. Answers. You’ll be frustrated, angry at missed opportunities. And that’s OK. Because when the final period is typed, you’ll be thankful for every crooked grin, bit of sarcasm, and wisdom he shared.

Three years from now everything will be worth it. The scribbled-in moleskins. The writer’s block. The smashed computer parts. The edits. The Red ink. The Revisions. The underlined books full of margin notes. The reflection, introspection, and desperation. When you finally hold To Dad, From Kelly in your hands, everything will be worth it.

Good luck my friend,

Kelly

Did the NFL Contribute to My Dad’s Death

I recently had the pleasure of joining Eddie Robinson’s radio show THE OUTFIELD on SiriusXM to discuss my memoir, To Dad, From Kelly. This was my second time participating on the show and Eddie once again posed insightful and thought-provoking questions (the first appearance was to discuss my experiences as a straight man running in the Gay Games).

We discussed the healing process of writing and the raw emotion that oozes from my stories. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is that Eddie asked me if I believed the NFL played a role in my dad’s unexpected death.

I don’t think the answer will surprise you.

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Want more? Good, because Eddie also asked about CTE and what I hope readers take from To Dad, From Kelly.

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Interested in even more? Purchase To Dad, From Kelly. The paperback is available online from Amazon and the eBook can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google, and Apple.

To Dad, From Kelly – Publishing October 28

My father, former University of Michigan All-American and Denver Broncos running back Rob Lytle, died on November 20, 2010. A year after he died, a friend encouraged me to write him a letter. That first letter became a series of letters to my father that I had nowhere to send but needed to write. Now, after three years of writing, those first letters are the emotional foundation of my memoir, To Dad, From Kelly.

To Dad, From Kelly details the lessons I learned from my dad and the questions in our relationship that went unasked or unanswered when he died. Three years of writing. Buckets of tears. Early mornings staring down grief and self-doubt. Late nights typing against hopelessness. I gave everything I could – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to this book. And it feels great to be finished.

I am excited to announce that the eBook for To Dad, From Kelly is currently available for pre-sale! And the paperback and eBook will both be published on October 28.

You can order the paperback on Amazon.com starting October 28.

You can order the eBook now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and Google. If you pre-order, it will automatically deliver to your device on October 28!

All comments are welcome and help drive online discovery. So, if after reading the book you feel compelled to write a review (good, bad, or ugly), please share your thoughts and feelings on one of these sites.

Every word I wrote is heartfelt. Writing these stories required an emotional vulnerability I had never experienced and forced from me truths I had never expressed. It is raw and it is honest.

As you read, I hope that you laugh (maybe), cry (likely), feel the significance of what my dad meant to my family and me, and finish with a lesson or story or moment that is meaningful to your life and in your relationships.

Dad always said, “It ain’t about what’s done, it’s about what’s done; it’s about what you do with what’s done that counts.” To Dad, From Kelly is my choice to do something that counts.

Questioning the NFL

I watched the NFL last Sunday. But I couldn’t enjoy it because I couldn’t focus on the game. Too many questions jingled my brain.

What if, I wondered, football mattered less to America? What if we didn’t care so much about this barbaric dance performed by athletic marvels under the watchful eyes of profit-minded owners?

A burning desire to do something different with my time besieged me while I sat in front of the TV. It made me curious, too.

The average attendance for a 2013 NFL home game was 68,339. Instead of gathering for a football game, could the same crowd ever congregate to perform one coordinated, charitable act for the host city? Would that make a difference?

Every Sunday, over 1 million people descend upon sixteen cities across America to attend NFL games. If everyone volunteered to read one book to one child on football Sundays, more than 17 million more books would be read to kids throughout the season.

I’m not condemning fanhood because I’ve been a football fanatic all my life. I’m just wondering if I need to think more critically about how I use my time and what I choose to support. (more…)

A Final Conversation on Football and Life

I recently started writing for a friend’s site, Rebel Storytellers. The stories are meant to spark hope and action for their readers. My first post, “A Final Conversation on Football and Life” details a heartfelt conversation I had with my father one year before his death. The perspective on football and life is striking.

A Final Conversation on Football and Life

The brisk October wind tickled the back of my neck as Dad and I strolled inside a small pizza restaurant located in downtown Sandusky, Ohio. A lone bartender nodded his head, sprayed Coke into a glass, and handed it to one of his few patrons. Dad and I followed a young hostess through a narrow front room full of neon signs and sports banners and into a larger room in the back. We reached our table and set our coats across the backs of wobbly stools. The hostess left, promising that our server would soon return with two Miller High Lifes.

I relaxed in my seat and listened to the room. Pool balls collided, an old jukebox sang a new tune, and—when I listened closely enough—the whispers of long ago football greatness wafted from the black and white memories framed and hung along the wall. Dad and I had been here before, maybe 15 years earlier. I was 27 now and much had changed, I thought, as I watched Dad drift through his own memories. His eyes, once vibrant, carried the soft sight of his slight sadness. Each breath seemed slower, more labored than it should. The once mighty NFL running back appeared to me defeated.

“Still a star,” I said in mocking reference to why we were sharing pizza in Sandusky. Earlier, the Great American Rivalry Series had honored him for his star play in the Fremont Ross vs. Sandusky High football rivalry from 1969-1971. Dad had received a plaque and acknowledgment on the field in a small ceremony just before kickoff.

“Still a smartass,” Dad said.

I tapped my High Life against his and beer bubbled to the top of the yellow-tinted bottle. I took my first sip, the beer a cool nightcap after a warm evening spent watching a football game with my father under Friday night’s brightest lights.

We sat together for maybe 90 minutes. Our words zigzagged but settled on football.

“I loved the game, Kelly. It didn’t matter to me if I was practicing in the hottest two-a-day in August or playing on a night like tonight, you know, when the air smells like fall and the grass feels cool, almost wet. Man!” Dad shook his head, then continued. “Even when I was on the operating table or getting my knees shot up so I could play—those were hard days, but I never wanted them to end.”

Silence stoked the bond between us until Dad spoke.

“And I don’t think I blinked and missed it or anything like that. It was a grind getting to the NFL. And I lived it all. I felt everything. Look at me, I still do.” Dad raised his hands to reveal 10 swollen fingers, all broken during his career and all now pointing in unnatural directions. “I guess I wonder if I appreciated it enough. Or did I take some moments for granted? Hell, I just miss the game.”

Dad died 13 months later. And although we spoke every week, this is one of our last heartfelt conversations. I know that Dad was right that night, not just about football but about life, too. Sometimes it isn’t until something (or someone) is lost that we finally think to ask ourselves, “Did I truly appreciate what I had or could I have appreciated it just a little more?”

 

 

Remembering Rob Lytle

Jim Saccomano has worked for the Denver Broncos since 1978. In the days following Dad’s death, Jim wrote the following tribute from one of his memories of the Broncos’ Orange Crush years in the late 70’s. Of all the kind words written then and since about Dad, I think this story is the one that best remembers Dad’s spontaneous, playful, and caring personality. I’m proud to say that I read it regularly when I want to remember my old man and smile.

Thank you, Jim, for your incredibly kind words.

Remembering Rob Lytle (Jim Saccomano)

I was in my first year with the Denver Broncos in 1978. It was the year following the Broncos’ first AFC Championship and the team’s appearance in Super Bowl XII.

One of the first guys I met that training camp was one I still remember well because he was a great guy beyond being a terrific football player.

Rob Lytle died yesterday of a heart attack in his hometown of Fremont, Ohio, at just 56 years of age.

There have already been a lot of tributes to Rob Lytle, and this is mine.

Courtesy of the Denver Broncos Blog (Jim Saccomano)

Courtesy of the Denver Broncos Blog (Jim Saccomano)

He was drafted in the second round by the Broncos out of the University of Michigan in 1977, having finished third in the 1976 Heisman Trophy balloting following a banner campaign for the Wolverines. He finished his Michigan career with 3,317 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns at Michigan, where he was an All-American running back.

He saw his pro career with the Broncos hampered by a variety of injuries. They might have slowed his play, but they never slowed his attitude.

Rob Lytle was one of those guys whose smile lit up every room, every time he entered. He was a coach’s dream. He only played and prepared one way: hard, all the time. Josh McDaniels would have loved Rob Lytle. He ran, he blocked, he caught passes, he played hard and sacrificed his body for the Broncos.

When he took the field, he was ready, he played hard, he did not want to ever leave the field, even though frequent injuries forced him to. He was a team guy, team first always, and he backed down from no one.

He had seven productive seasons for the Broncos, scoring 14 touchdowns and gaining over 2,000 yards rushing and receiving even though in his last two years he only played in 13 total games due to a myriad of injuries.

When he left, he privately told me that his only regret as a pro player was that the injuries kept him from reaching his full potential for the Broncos. “The fans never saw me run like I could before the injuries,” Rob confided.

He is remembered mostly for his time at Ann Arbor, where he was an all-time great at one of the country’s legendary football schools.

Football banged Rob up pretty hard. He had several orthopedic procedures over the years following his playing days. Evidently, he was not feeling well on Saturday and was taken to the hospital, where he passed away following his heart attack.

He was on the Broncos’ first championship team, that memorable 1977 team that played in the first of Denver’s six Super Bowls. Lytle started at running back for the Broncos in the 1977 AFC Championship Game, and ironically had a play in which he was tackled at the Oakland 1-yard line, a play highly disputed as a fumble by the Raiders. The Broncos scored on a 1-yard run by fullback Jon Keyworth on the next play. The debate about the nun-fumble festered for years, and it was one of the early plays that prompted the call for review and potential reversal of field calls in pro football.

On September 23, 1979 we were playing the Seahawks in Denver. Broncos Public Relations Director Bob Peck was dying of brain cancer and was watching the game from a wheelchair against the wall of the south stands at old Mile High Stadium. Seattle jumped out to a 34-10 lead when Red Miller took Norris Weese out and replaced him with Craig Morton at quarterback. Morton threw three touchdowns passes in the next two minutes and 34 seconds, bringing the Broncos to within three of Seattle. The next time the Broncos got the ball they drove down for the winning score, which came on a one-yard run by Rob Lytle. Spontaneously, as Rob later described it, he ran to the south stands wall and handed the ball to Bob Peck, seated in his wheelchair. It brought tears to the stadium’s eyes then, and it brings tears to my eyes when I type it now.

Rob Lytle did not have a great career, but he was a great one.

While his career ended in 1983 for Denver, film of Rob in a Bronco uniform lives on in the movies.

My dear friend Bob Smith of NFL Films confirmed this many years ago. When the great football film, “Everybody’s All-American,” was made in 1988, starring Dennis Quaid as the All-American who has a star crossed career and life, producers wanted to give it a realistic look and did so very successfully by integrating actual footage of NFL games as the game action to go along with the story. That’s why the Dennis Quaid character wears No. 41 for the Broncos — because the running back footage is of the Broncos’ own No. 41, Rob Lytle. Bob Smith and NFL Films provided the film, Rob Lytle did the running, and No. 41 of the Broncos was Dennis Quaid — and Rob Lytle — in that movie.

The injuries certainly hampered his career to the point that many fans and NFL people might not remember watching his play today.

But I saw him run, and I knew him as a humanitarian.

And I remember Rob Lytle.

When I Discovered Pornography

This Wednesday, November 20, marks the three-year anniversary of Dad’s death. As a tribute to his memory, I will share two stories this week – one that I wrote and another that a member of the Denver Bronco community penned after Dad passed. The tales, while different, highlight the unique, compassionate man I miss every day.

Dad operated with a mischievous look plastered on his face for most of my life. His wide,  “shit-eating” grin fit a personality trapped somewhere  between the innocent and the instigator. I imagine this smile existed on his face when he wrote the letter in the story that follows.

Now, on with the fun….

When I Discovered Pornography*

I discovered pornography in May 1996. I was in seventh grade and home alone after track practice while Mom and Dad attended one of my sister’s softball games. At 13 and burdened by lusty throes of curiosity, I entered Dad’s study determined to search every drawer in every file cabinet for the pages of nefarious nakedness my curious mix of instincts and hope told me he might be hiding. After all, I’d already checked every other possible hiding spot in our house and found only a few quarters and set of Rod Stewart records.

A large, imposing oak desk taunted me as I stood in the doorway to Dad’s office. “Come on punk. Don’t go snooping around where you shouldn’t. Your old man’s gonna be pissed when he sees his stuff out of place,” it seemed to call at me. I ignored the warning. I wanted to see boobs.

First, I hunted through the small, two-stack file cabinets on the right and left of Dad’s desk. “Shit!” I said as I found a wasteland of old home appraisals, bills, and ignorable financial statements. Undeterred, I yanked at the drawer inside the center of his desk. I found nothing except paper clips and a ball of rubber bands. I slammed the drawer and moved to the stand-alone cabinets underneath the computer table. Empty. Damnit. 

One set of three file cabinets remained for me to check. Three drawers separated my search from becoming another failure. My hand clutched the brass handle of the bottom cabinet and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. Neither did the middle drawer. Son of a bitch had me locked out. But why? I wondered what Dad might be hiding inside these protected walls.

I tried the handle of the top cabinet. Carnal hope fueled me. To my surprise, the cabinet opened. When I peered inside, a world of manila folders greeted me. I flipped meticulously into and between every folder, finding nothing. Until, I found everything. Sandwiched between the last two folders I saw a thin book with black binding. On its spine, white letters spelled Penthouse Forum. 

Bingo.

I admired the small, rectangle of sin in my hands as a believer might hold a new bible. The black lace underwear of the cover model jerked me to attention. Her brown eyes penetrated my young soul. She looked magical. And busty. God had created this goddess especially for me. Something inside me jumped. I snapped my head around and listened for footsteps. Silent as night. My coast was clear.

I braced my body against the hulking file cabinet and flipped to the first story. A small picture of a woman with bare breasts grinned at me from its perch in the page’s top right corner. Words like thrust, pleasure, and spasm sparked my imagination in an entirely new way. The characters rose to life with each unexpected word. They explored each other with their tongues in ways I thought both disgusting and intriguing. Bodies trembled from excitement. I wanted to tremble, too. Although I expected more pictures from my first porno magazine, this brave new world still captivated me.

Now, I will say here, that I didn’t go into business with myself right there in the study. Not on this day or any of the others that immediately followed. My experiments with self-amusement started two years later. On that first day, I simply read a second story, hating myself for the way I thirsted for each plot twist and salivated over each picture. After a few minutes, I placed the magazine back into the cabinet, careful to return it to the exact spot where I first spotted it. I left Dad’s study. My eyes felt dirty, but the rest of me felt good.

This pattern continued for several weeks. If home alone, I snuck into the study and slid into a few minutes of reading pleasure with the Penthouse Forum. With every repeat read, I discovered new phrases and sayings that stroked my already titillated imagination. God this stretch was a beautiful snipped of life. I knew, too, that my secret would remain safe as long as I returned the magazine to the same location in the drawer where I found it. 

Then, one afternoon not long after I made the initial discovery, my new friend disappeared. I checked everywhere in the study, but found no trace of anything resembling a porno. Exasperated, I returned to the file cabinet where the magazine previously lived and worked through the manila folder maze a second time. As I searched, a hint of panic formed inside me. If Dad had moved the dirty book, did he know about all the peeks I’d stolen?

The answer arrived faster than I expected.

When I reached the back of the cabinet, I noticed a folded piece of yellow legal paper that I somehow missed on my initial search. I opened it and found a note scribbled in Dad’s exaggerated handwriting. The note read:

“Hi Kelly,

Better luck next time.

Dad.”

***********

*When I Discovered Pornography is a draft from To Dad: From Kelly. I expect to make minor revisions to the story before the final version is published.

Walk Before You Run

I watched the Robert Griffin III documentary Will to Win last night. The film details his recovery from off-season knee surgery and documents the arduous task he faces to return to the field for opening week of the NFL season. RGIII is candid, introspective, and dedicated. He is a player that all fans can root for and hope to see succeed.

Watching scenes of his rehab conjured memories of the frustration-filled, lonely hours of endless exercises I experienced in high school. Listening to the way his trainer spoke about the process reminded me of conversations I had with my dad during my own recovery. Words and comments such as perfection, training the body to work the right way once more, and endurance made me feel like a 16-year old learning lessons about sacrifice and work ethic all over again.

The story to follow is an excerpt from To Dad: From Kelly. It occurred in late August 1999, six weeks after the first of my high school knee reconstructions. Although my dad’s teaching style veered from the traditional playbook, he still taught some damn fine lessons.

Enjoy.

Walk Before You Run

“Mother…fucking.. asshole,” I mumbled loud enough for Dad to hear but not loud enough for him to feel threatened by it.

“Slow down and get the damn crutches the right way. Now.” Dad’s don’t cross me boy stare buried me below the rubber padding floor in my high school’s weight room. His cocked, half grin infuriated me.

“Yes,” I relented and hobbled to my starting point. From there, I took real steps for the first time in six weeks.

*** (more…)