rob lytle

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.

***

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

What Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler Thought About Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I said, a different era.

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.

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?

*** (more…)

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:

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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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2014: A Year in Words

I entered 2014 believing that stories were my catalyst for creating, capturing, and cultivating life’s changing moments. It’s stories – those make you burst with laughter on an airplane or cry in a coffee shop stories – that make others wish they could feel just what has ignited such an emotional firestorm. Writing stories, I believed, was my life raft when I needed rescued from drowning in grief.

As I reflect on 2014, I realize that this year I probed deeper, past the heart of stories and into the soul of words. Stories are great, but as John Keating said, “words (and ideas) can change the world.” What is a story anyway without the right words? It’s the right words, spoken at the right time, and heard by the right audience that can inspire masses to change the world. Change a life.

Anyone who has ever listened to a story told by my grandfather, father, or me knows our rambling tendencies. But consider the most powerful phrases we know: Thank you; I’m sorry; I love you.

Strong, simple, and meaningful words.

Words don’t tug heartstrings they quench our souls. And 2014, for me, was a year in words.

34,100 words in To Dad, From Kelly. And consider this, my first draft had 45,000 words and second had 38,000. This is why you edit.

25,000 words and ideas scribbled in moleskin notebooks with handwriting so bad only my eyes can decipher.

2 words – It’s Finished – announcing the completion of To Dad, From Kelly to my mom and sister.

7 words – I can’t believe I fucking did it – that immediately followed.

3 words – I love you – shared in the small numbered hours of a March evening with a love the Gods have blessed me with knowing.

12 words – Goodbye my friend, I’ll see you when I see you. Love, Kelly – that let me say goodbye to my father.

2014 was a year for words. What will 2015 bring?

Some Things Are Better Than Christmas Morning

Christmas morning. 1992. I woke frantic. A commotion rang from our basement. I popped from bed, snatched a sweatshirt from the floor, and dashed toward the noise. Wild strands of bedhead stood upright like blonde fingers sprouting from my head. My heart thumped as I chugged toward my parent’s cackles and the zinging sound of a scoreboard whistling higher. I skidded across the slick basement floor when I reached my destination, my eyes bulging and my arms flailing. Christmas had arrived. And so had my gift: a 10-feet long arcade style hot shot basketball system that rose from the ground like a monument made of metal tubing and mesh and adorned with rubber basketballs, a scoreboard, and countdown clock.

I was happy.20141214_123609

For a new author, I suspect that seeing your book in a bookstore is like waking on Christmas morning and finding that long-awaited present under the tree. At least it was for me.

Indies First is a national grassroots movement started in 2013 by author Sherman Alexie (if you haven’t read Mr. Alexie you must) to support local, independent bookstores during small business Saturday. And I am grateful to Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry Road in Cleveland for allowing me the chance to participate in their Indies First event last month.

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Standing among words I’ve long admired and wished I could have written reminded me how far I’ve come as a writer in three years – and how far I still have to go. Seeing To Dad, From Kelly propped in a bookcase and armed with a price tag was like waking up and finding the perfect present under the Christmas tree – if that present had taken three years of begging and pleading to receive. I watched customers thumb its pages. Some turned it down but for others I autographed their new copy. I felt proud, honored, and grateful. I was happy.

Writing To Dad, From Kelly exhausted me. But I finished. And seeing my stories next to so many others on a bookshelf is a sweet reward.

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.

Why a Gay Games Silver Medal Matters to Me

“Runners to your marks,” the man with the pistol dangling from his right hand called.

I stared at the finish line 100 meters in the distance. My hands twitched, and my legs quaked. Searing pain ignited in my left heel and burst through my leg. Nervousness had replaced oxygen in the air, and anxiety filled my lungs with each breath. I pictured the race’s end—myself versus my opponents—and thought: I’m 31 years old, haven’t sprinted in over 10 years, my stomach is rolling over my running shorts, and I’m not gay. What am I doing in the finals of the 100-meter dash at the Gay Games?

Four days later, I stood with athletes from around the world and celebrated the closing ceremonies of Gay Games 9 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland had transformed itself into the world capital for the LGBT community as the Games’ host city, and thousands of athletes and supporters from around the world came to Cleveland to promote equality through an inclusive celebration of sport. During the closing ceremonies, I joined other participants as we held our hands over our hearts and sang along with a gospel rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Good vibrations rattled through the crowd, which held a carnival-like energy. A smile creased my lips and tears slipped from my eyes. The silver medal I had won hung from around my neck. I was proud of the Games, proud of Cleveland, and proud of myself for participating.

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