Hall of Fame

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…)

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

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.

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.