CTE

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…)

The Junior Seau Hall of Fame Speech

Junior Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL. He made 12 Pro Bowls, the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1990’s, recorded nearly 2,000 tackles, and – in a sport renowned for its passionate foot soldiers – impressed an entire league with near unmatched ferocity and spirit. Seau committed suicide in 2012, at only 43 years old, ending his fight against the onslaught of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When Seau died the cascading effects of repetitive collisions and brain trauma had altered his behavior. However, it had not changed the “passion” and “love” his family felt toward him.

The NFL inducted Seau into it’s Hall of Fame last Saturday evening. And though short-sighted ceremony rules prohibited Sydney Seau (Junior’s daughter) from speaking at the induction ceremony, she since recorded and shared the speech that she would have given.

Sydney Seau’s words are heartfelt, an eloquent remembering of a father gone too soon. On her father’s love for football, Sydney writes:

I think the point is, he could never fully retire from this game because that would indicate that he was quitting and you can’t quit something that is a part of who you are. Instead he graduates, and this is the diploma he has always dreamed of.

On missing her father and the hidden fragility of our super heroes:

But I think what we tend to forget about our favorite invincible, unstoppable, indestructible superhumans is the minor detail that they are also human. That is something that we all must endure today without his physical presence. We cannot celebrate his life and achievement without feeling the constant piece that’s missing.

And on her father’s greatest gift:

Dad, you gave us your time, your presence, your love, but most of all you gave us your heart. For that we honor you with this induction and this final graduation. I know at times it seemed as if everything you accomplished in life wasn’t enough, but today and every day since you held me in your arms for the first time, you weren’t just enough; you were more than enough. In fact, you were everything.

The full speech and video are provided in their entirety: The Hall of Fame Speech Junior Seau’s Daughter Couldn’t Give.

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…)

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.

Was it Worth It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it Worth it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** – Footnote

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

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

My Wish for Football

We learned recently that football icon and certain Hall of Famer Junior Seau suffered from conditions consistent with the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The legendary Seau sacrificed his whole body to the game of football over a career that spanned nearly three decades (including college and high school), and his family continues to cope with their tragic loss. In the wake of the National Institutes of Health’s findings, Mr. Seau’s children are left questioning if they could have done “something more” or had “the awareness to help him more.”

According to his family, Junior Seau suffered from bouts of depression, irrationality, mood swings, forgetfulness and insomnia. From the reports I’ve read, he hid these conditions well in public, but those family members and friends close to him saw the truths he struggled against on a daily basis. Like most professional football players, years spent grimacing through pain to survive through another play likely aided his ability to paste a smile on his face in public settings.

My heart aches for the Seau family, as it does for all the families of athletes, war veterans, and others who have suffered while a loved one deteriorates from CTE’s unrelenting assault. My heart breaks for them because I understand the pain, and I empathize with the remorse over wishing I had known or done more.

My father, former NFL running back Rob Lytle, suffered an unexpected heart attack and died eight days after his 56th birthday in November 2010. Our family donated his brain to the researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and learned in early 2011 that Dad’s brain demonstrated signs of moderate to advanced CTE. (more…)

My Complicated Football Life

I was born in a Denver, Colorado, hospital on September 12, 1982, the opening Sunday of that year’s NFL season. My dad, Rob Lytle, was a running back for the Denver Broncos and needed a police escort from the hospital to reach Mile High Stadium in time for the opening kickoff. The Broncos welcomed me into their family that afternoon with an announcement over the loudspeaker, and the Rocky Mountain News made a point to poke fun at the situation with a cartoon in the next day’s paper. Thus began my connection to the game of football.

Source: Rocky Mountain News; Cartoon by Drew Utah

Source: Rocky Mountain News; Cartoon by Drew Utah

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