Football’s Problem is Football

Football has problems.


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



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.


We Can Do More Than Watch the NFL This Weekend

Syria’s civil war has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced over 11 million people since 2011. Better descriptions than I could ever write exist detailing the war’s timeline, its origins and terror, and the ideologies of its factions. I encourage doing so.


America’s favorite distraction kicks off Thursday. Right now, the start of another NFL season seems secondary, as sports should when measured with the same tape as the real crises afflicting us. I fear, though, that sometimes this perspective is lost.

I’m not here to condemn sports. I love them, especially football, and believe sports instill values of teamwork, sacrifice, loyalty, and commitment through moments that reverberate our hearts and instruct our minds after the act of instruction itself has passed. They have for me. And I know that without them I would lack the same capacity to care.

Which is why I’m considering numbers on the eve of a new season.

Did you know, the combined seating capacity for the 16 home teams during the NFL’s opening weekend is 1.1 million? And that more than 100 million more will watch on TV?

Imagine if each NFL team gave $1.00 of every ticket to a relief organization aiding Syrian refugees. That equals $1.1 million donated.

Imagine if only 50% of us watching football at home offered that same $1.00. That donation would equal more than $50 million. The precedent is not crazy. The world’s other prominent football teams have already donated millions.

Look, I understand that checkbook philanthropy – especially four years into this horrific crisis – can be condemned as the simplest and least impactful way to assist. In many ways, it’s an easy-out meant to appease one’s guilt. Besides, the U.S. has already donated more than $4 billion to Syria only to witness the need necessary to support the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era swell.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to question the worth of any single dollar. Why continue giving when the crisis only worsens? What good will it do anyways?

Well, here are more numbers on Syria to help answer those questions.

Every day more than 2,000 people place their lives at risk to flee the war-ravaged nation now too deadly to call home.

$140 provides a cash lifeline for a family of three to five for one month. $1,500 can support a family for one year.

$5,500 can refurbish a classroom and pay a teacher’s annual salary. $17,000 refurbishes an entire hospital.

Imagine what $1 million could do? Or $50 million. I lack answers and a better way to help. Doing something, though, seems better than doing nothing.

I love sports. Practicing and committing to the work to excel at them helped shape my outlook on work ethic, compassion, and sacrifice for others. Sports can congregate masses like nothing else. Sometimes, then, we need to take the platform that sports afford and use it for something much bigger than the games themselves.

I will watch the NFL on opening weekend. I have also made a small donation. It isn’t much. But it’s something.

Whether this organization or another, I hope if you’re watching the NFL this weekend that you follow suit. And if you do, please share with me over email at or twitter @kelly_lytle.

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.

Saying Thank You to Mom on Father’s Day

I watched Mom stand, rest her hands on the top ridge of the wood pew in front of her, exhale, and move toward the front of the church where I stood. My words of remembrance for my father had just filled the air, and now Mom would speak. The sun pierced the stained glass windows, shining into the hushed crowd, which spilled into the balcony, aisleways, and crevices behind pillars. Grandpa, Mom’s dad, pressed a tissue to his eyes.

Mom moved with purpose. Red eyes singed by grief resisted an onslaught of tears. She would cry them later, in private. We hugged. A storm lurched inside me, a faucet dripped from my eyes. Mom ascended three slight steps until she stood behind the lectern ready to speak.

With her head high and voice steady as to betray the inner misery only those who’ve lost a spouse can understand, Mom read two passages from her books of daily inspiration, both from four days earlier—November 20—the day Dad had died.

The first came from the book of James: How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow. For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog.

The second from Ralph Waldo Emerson: The greatest gift is a portion of yourself.


Each day is nothing if not a series of choices—big and small, simple and difficult. Every morning I ask myself a series of questions: What type of person will I be today? Will I be someone who teaches? Will I give of myself to help others? I fall short (often) in my mission because life is too hard. Still, my answer never wavers, and my intentions are always the same. Yes, I will be that person, I say, and the reason is due to Mom’s example.

Mom exemplifies kindness, patience, and selflessness. She is a servant who acts in the service of others. And does so not for reward or recognition, but because the authenticity of her spirit demands no other path. Mom is that rare person who is wholly genuine in how she cares for others—day in, day out—in every patient question and every extra minute spent listening. Small acts magnified by thousands of changed lives.

I see school papers spread across our kitchen table, some decorated with stickers and others splashed with red ink. Mom is awake, working, before the sun has lifted its head from its pillow and not in bed until long after the Moon has spent its goodnight wishes. This is the example of Mom as a teacher, and thirty years of students are lucky to have had their essays on photosynthesis graded by someone who will never stop challenging—and encouraging—them to dream bigger and care deeper.IMG950914

There is the example of Mom as a patient listener. Students visit our house long after they’ve left Mom’s 5th grade class. They want to stay connected and close to the woman who will listen to them without limitation. Friends and family need her ear, too. Protected, guarded souls lay bare—exposed, yet comfortable as they seek counsel. When empathy always trumps judgment, every conversation is a chance to make a difference.

In 4th grade, I was in my basement playing video games on my Sega Genesis. Mom pounded down the stairs toward me, a fast and furious tornado whipping destruction from every blonde curl atop her head. My report card—and the C- I had received in reading—hung like a sickle waiting to slice at her side as she stood above where I sat on the floor. She backhanded the control from my hand, picked up the console, and smashed the Sega into the ground.

“This is the reason your grades stink,” she pointed at the Sega’s battered corpse. “Get your act together!”

This moment kickstarted my appreciation for how words and stories can transform our hearts. It also reminds me that for anyone who believed that Dad, with his football hero past, ruled our house is mistaken. Mom set the example for toughness.

I see Mom today as a grandmother, asking questions of and conversing with her granddaughter. Their interactions are blessed with laughter, smiles, and love. I watch these exchanges and I remember the mother who immersed herself in Erin’s life and mine. I remember Mom always helping with homework, probing us with questions, listening as we talked, and holding our hands as we cried. She’s with me in our driveway rebounding my missed jump shots, and she’s there on the track for every childhood sprint workout. Always positive; always caring; always present.

Mom made the best nachos, mixed the best Kool-Aid, and offered the best conversation for my friends and me. There exists a group of kids who grew up in Fremont, Ohio, near Birchard and Park or just off Buckland Avenue, who will always associate the Lytle home with Mom’s inviting spirit.

In This is Water, David Foster Wallace says: The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

If the greatest gift we can give is a portion of ourselves, than I know of no greater example of sacrifice than Mom.

On this Father’s Day, as I reflect on the time I spent with my father, I find myself feeling grateful for Mom. Mom inspires me each day that she faces with courage, strength, and the willingness to rebuild from her heartbreak. She has inspired me with a lifetime of compassion, consideration, selflessness, and caring.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

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?

*** (more…)

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.


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 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?”



Teachings from the Trenches, on Football and Decisions

I watched football ‘game film’ for the first time in third grade. A local high school coach brought tape of a recent game over to our house to dissect and critique the team’s offensive line play with my dad. I remember being excited for the night. All day at school, my brain drifted to scenes of football plays and imagined coaching conversations. I thought the coach and my dad were members of some elite, football secret society that I would join if only for a few hours. Juice from chewing tobacco would be spit into Styrofoam cups, and I could casually toss a football in the air to myself while listening to their analyses. It would feel as if heaven descended to earth. Pigskin perfection.

Except, after 30 minutes spent seeing only two plays somewhere around 27 times each and enduring enough rewinds and slow motions to spin me dizzy, I bolted the room—bored, drained, and disinterested in their offensive line jargon. Give me touchdowns and interceptions, not 3-foot splits, reach steps, backside seals, and kick-out blocks.

As I’ve grown older and continued watching football, I find that I actually spend most of my time observing the offensive line play and not watching the path of the ball. I suppose this is natural after two decades watching games with Dad, who always said he should have been born an offensive lineman and obsessed over the ‘big uglies’ up front. I’m not surprised, then, that when I recently visited the website Smart Football I couldn’t pull my eyes from former Denver Broncos assistant coach Alex Gibbs’s discussion of offensive line mechanics.

I drifted away from the game while listening and focused on the content of his words. Maybe my ears are less trained on the particulars of football now and more accustomed to gleaning lessons from unexpected places. Perhaps it’s merely that I’m older and can back pedal from the minutiae of each play to see the larger game unfold. Coach Gibbs’s analysis resonated in unexpected ways. I heard its relevance not just for football but for life, especially as it relates to achieving goals.

Look, sports are not life. At their heart, they are a collection of games played for fun. Sports do not define our values. Parents, families, educators, and school systems must accomplish this important, life-shaping task. Instead, the wonder of sports is that they can solidify and enhance our guiding principles.

I found that I gained more from this video because I took a different perspective while watching. As I outline below, several themes emerge that represent helpful lessons: Attention to detail, informed decision-making, and decisiveness. While these lessons are important in football, they also matter in other aspects of our lives, and that is why I’ve shared them (as a word of warning, there are some swears and phrases in this video that are not suitable for work).


Lessons from a Coaching Legend: The Team


As a brash nine-year old, I attended an end-of-the-season soccer banquet with my teammates, their parents, the coaches, and mounds of cake, ice cream, hamburgers, and hot dogs. Before the party commenced, I noticed that the cake decorators wrote each player’s name on the cake in icing, and my name had landed at the top of the list. I found this to be the perfect opportunity to announce my soccer superiority so I shouted that my name belonged first because I was the best player on the team.


Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Be Prepared to Work

“Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

From Michiganensian/Wikimedia Commons

If you played for Bo Schembechler, you grasped the meaning of work. Bo’s first winter at Michigan consisted of running, running, and more running. Players ran everywhere, inside the football stadium, around the basketball gym, and through the chilly halls of the hockey arena. As Bo said when describing the efforts of his initial Michigan football team: “No one else in the Big Ten knew we were doing crazy drills in the bowels of dark, cold gyms, and running the world’s ugliest laps in the morning fog, but we knew what we were doing. We were getting somewhere” (Schembechler/Bacon, 41).

For those players who survived winter conditioning, Bo had a treasure waiting for them in spring practice: hitting. The practices, so grueling that they exhausted the team physically and mentally, caused many players to quit and spawned Coach Schembechler’s famous quote, “Those who stay will be champions” (Schembechler/Bacon, 38). Bo promised the team that he would reward them if they toughed it out.

That reward arrived on November 22, 1969, when Michigan upset Ohio and ended their run towards a second consecutive national championship. This game kick-started The Ten Year War between Bo and Ohio coach Woody Hayes.

I didn’t grow up listening to any fatherly talks advocating the importance of one’s work ethic. It was just a fact of life, the price of admission paid for setting a goal. The work (especially when it came to school, playing sports, or my knee rehabs in high school) started early and ended late. Get better or get worse because you aren’t staying the same.

Talent means nothing without the desire to work, and having a goal is useless without the willingness to sacrifice. The price of success is desperation, the moments when it seems as if one more repetition (or edit or draft) will suck all your remaining energy and leave you wasted on the sidelines, unable to return to the game. “Getting somewhere” only happens if you have the guts to spend your early mornings and late evenings conquering frustrations and spilling sweat onto a gym floor or into the development of an idea. Inspiration isn’t possible without effort.

If you want to improve then work your ass off when your eyes are the only ones watching.

I didn’t always listen to this advice. Lord knows I took my share of shortcuts along the way. But I knew the choice to work belonged to me and nobody else. And I’ll take having learned that lesson any day.

Prior Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Introduction, Respect and Equality, Do Your Job.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Respect and Equality

It’s evident from some of the stories I heard growing up and those I read in Bo’s Lasting Lessons, that Coach Schembechler believed in treating everyone equally. When describing his players, Bo said, “I’m going to treat you all the same. Like dogs!” (Schembechler/Bacon, 31). Behind that comment, though, breathed a coach who respected his players and required that they in turn respect the trainers, managers, secretaries, and building professionals that made the Wolverines success possible. As Bo stated, “they’re all important or they wouldn’t be working for Michigan football…they owe you nothing. You owe them your gratitude” (Schembechler/Bacon, 73).

Bo motivated and offered others a sense of belonging.

I asked my mom recently if Dad’s preference for inclusion over exclusion stemmed from Bo, or if the old coach merely sharpened it. We failed at reaching a consensus. Regardless, these quotes from Bo remind me of many moments from my youth, particularly the softball games that Dad organized for the neighborhood kids.

We played on a weathered field at the elementary school across the street from my grandparent’s house. A paint splattered blue-gray slide and rusting merry-go-round loomed in the not too distant outfield. We had no fence, so a home run meant the ball rolled to the wood chip area near the black and metal swing set or the splintering jungle gym. Our games had all the organization of an unattended cattle drive, but everyone had the chance to play. We had players with emotional handicaps, minor intellectual disabilities, and other physical shortcomings that we could have easily kept on the game’s fringes. Not in these contests, though.

Everyone bat, everyone played the field, and everyone took their shots at smacking a home run off a Levi-Garrett spitting ex-NFL running back playing all-time pitcher. At the risk of sounding cliché, I can say that winning and losing didn’t matter. The only score that counted was the fun had as part of the game.

As I compared what I read to the memories of these games, I felt a simple message shared by Bo and my dad develop inside my head: respect each person you meet, care about their well-being, and elevate nobody while appreciating everyone.

Sounds pretty good to me.

The introduction to Lessons from a Coaching Legend can be found here.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend: Introduction


Photo courtesy of Missy Caulk and Flickr.

“Rob, at the University of Michigan we have six halfbacks. If you come here, you’ll be number seven. Whatever you do with that is up to you.”

So went Bo Schembechler’s recruiting pitch to my dad. Bo made no promises of yards or possible awards. He offered only a chance to compete, and his words enticed my football-junkie father. For a 17-year old kid who played every snap trying to prove his worth, this challenge was too daunting to refuse.

Dad and Bo grew close from these beginnings, much closer than even I realized. Their relationship began during Bo’s recruiting jaunts to Fremont, Ohio, when he would join my grandparents and my dad for dinner and spend his meal complaining about the slivery bone pieces lurking in every bite of his perch sandwich. “Deal with it,” my formidable German grandmother liked to respond. “That’s how it’s made.”

During Dad’s four years in Ann Arbor in the early to mid-1970’s, he and Bo strengthened their bond. Bo asked Dad to move from tailback to fullback to bolster the team’s offense. This move likely cost Dad carries and yards, but he obliged without question—anything to help the team win football games. Years later, Bo would remark that Dad was the toughest player he ever coached.


Did Rob Lytle Invent the Zone Read?

It has taken twenty years, but the NFL appears poised to finally realize the offensive revolution that my 4th grade flag football team experienced when my dad assumed the coaching whistle for our team.

Debate currently rages throughout football circles over whether spread offenses (particularly “spread option” offenses) will ever flourish in the NFL the way they have in high schools and colleges across the country. As I write this post, spread offense maverick Chip Kelly is playing hardball with several NFL teams to become their next head coach. In football circles, Kelly’s name, along with individuals such as Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, and Chris Ault, is synonymous with an offensive system that uses option principles in a spread setting to score points in bunches. If (and when) Chip Kelly is hired to run an NFL team, we might have a definitive answer to whether this type of offense can succeed at football’s highest level, or if it will only exist as one package incorporated into a more diverse offensive setting (see the Redskins, Seahawks, and Panthers).

The spread option craze ignited when Northwestern upset mighty Michigan 54 to 51 in 2000. Schools raced to replicate Northwestern’s approach and soon names such as those mentioned above rose to prominence by competing for conference and national championships using spread-based running schemes. But the success of the spread option offense doesn’t begin here. In fact, it dates back to 1992, when my dad decided to coach my flag football team.


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