Kelly Lytle is the author of To Dad, From Kelly, a memoir about the lessons he learned from his late father, Rob Lytle, and the questions unasked and unanswered in their relationship. Rob Lytle starred for Michigan at running back from 1973-1976 and was recently elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. For more information on the author, please visit him at www.kellylytle.com.
I finished the original version of this reflection in early December, before the National Football Foundation elected my father to the College Football Hall of Fame. Here, I ask whether Michigan football (and football in general) should still matter in my life. On one hand, the timing of this question is odd given my dad’s Hall of Fame election. On the other hand, though, the timing fits because football—and the recognition Dad continues to receive for his accomplishments—exists for me at the intersection of bitter and sweet.
Football shaped my dad. It made him more humble and dedicated, and it has brought praise and recognition to his name. But Football has caused suffering, too. Playing (and leaving) the game he loved triggered raw, emotional pain that my dad could only express in his darkest, most private moments. Worse, football’s devastation contributed to the heart attack that killed him at age 56.
So how do I reconcile the positives of my dad’s devotion to football with the negatives? The truth is, I don’t yet know.
A Bittersweet History
One of the worst moments of my childhood happened outside Michigan Stadium, near the corner of South Main Street and Stadium Boulevard. It was Saturday, September 24, 1994, and I was twelve. Michigan owned a 5-point lead over the Colorado Buffaloes, and I had just exited the Big House alongside my father, former Michigan All-American running back Rob Lytle. As we navigated the crowd, Dad remarked, "You know, we didn’t play great today, but sometimes it’s nice to win a game playing ugly." I smiled my agreement.
Then, my world collapsed.
"Colorado won! Colorado won! Hail Mary! Colorado won!" The jubilation exploded from a hysterical Colorado fan who danced a jig among the Michigan faithful. Somehow, Michigan had lost. I collapsed, sobbed, and hurled my Michigan cap into the street.
Ninety minutes later, I sat with my dad, grandpa, and one of my grandpa’s friends in a sports bar near Toledo, Ohio. The bar had more televisions than customers and specialized in rubbery cheeseburgers and limp French fries.
"This food is stupid," I grumbled. "This restaurant is dumb. Just take me home." A few minutes into my pout-fest, Dad stood and clasped his hands around my shoulders. The pressure forced me deeper into my seat. When I looked up, I saw that a scowl that screamed for me to get my ass up and follow him as he directed me outside.
"Grow up," Dad said when we had reached the exit. "Quit being a brat and fix your attitude. Besides, these games aren’t that important and don’t matter anyways. Got it?"
"Yes," I mumbled and trudged inside, though I doubted that Dad believed his own words.
Twelve years later, in November 2006, I remember staring at my computer screen at work in disbelief. Bo Schembechler—Dad’s mentor, coach, and friend—had died. My phone rang, and Dad’s voice broke as he tried to speak. "Kelly, I just lost a father," he said.
Michigan played Ohio State the next day. Dad watched in his hometown of Fremont, Ohio, while I watched from my apartment in Manhattan. We spent most of the second half together on the phone, refusing to part though we exchanged few words. Through the prolonged silences, I could hear Dad’s longing to play, his need to wear his battered winged helmet alongside Bo Schembechler and clash one more time against the Scarlet and Gray. Finally, after Ohio State prevailed, Dad said, "We’ll never see anything like that again. That was special. Today mattered."
Dad was right. That game was special. It did matter. And he had been wrong twelve years earlier when he had said otherwise.
My dad played running back for Michigan from 1973-1976. He graduated as the school’s all-time leader in career rushing yards with 3,307 and scored 29 total touchdowns. Following his senior season in 1976, Big Ten coaches voted him Conference MVP, and he finished third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy behind Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh and Ricky Bell of USC. On January 9, 2015, the National Football Foundation elected Dad as a member of the 2015 College Football Hall of Fame Class.
More lasting than any win or honor, though, is the reverence Dad held for the integrity of Bo Schembechler and the influence of Michigan football. Michigan needed Dad to play fullback in his junior and senior seasons, and he willingly sacrificed yards and touchdowns. In his eyes, stats and individual glories accumulated secondary to the sanctity of the team. The team trumped its individual parts. The team required sacrifices. The team defined Michigan.
Growing up, I immersed myself in everything maize and blue. Two 4-feet tall framed storyboards portraying Michigan’s football history hung in my bedroom. In 1989, Mom, Dad, and I held hands in our kitchen and watched on an 8-inch black and white television as J.D. Carlson booted Michigan past UCLA. In 1996, Mom, Dad, and I held hands in that same kitchen. This time, we huddled around a 12-inch color television as Tai Streets sprinted Michigan past Ohio State.
I can still picture the tailgates outside Michigan Stadium. Grandpa’s blue card table with its yellow block "M" is stacked with hot dogs, potato chips, cheese spreads, chili, and the coconut bars nobody but him ate. An October chill stirs the air. A November frost coats the grass. WJR plays from car speakers as my friends and I thread a football through the crowd. Chants of the The Victors rumble like waves through the ocean. Michigan wins. And they win often.
Time clips forward, though, and nothing stays the same. Dad, the most important of my football idols, is gone. His body—after suffering double digit concussions and enduring nearly thirty operations on his knees, shoulders, and ankles—failed at 56 years old in November 2010. Before he passed, two decades dedicated to playing football had rendered him confused and unaware. A former Saturday idol, Dad once needed rescued at the grocery store when he couldn’t manage home by himself. CTE’s onslaught is debilitating, and football’s role in Dad’s demise is obvious. Football is violent. It’s brutal. And Dad’s death eviscerated the romanticism I once associated with the game.
Michigan football is different, too. The Wolverines now seem less imposing. Forty-two losses in seven seasons—once impossible—is reality. A new coach has arrived, and with him a promise for renewed greatness. Still, as I followed the coaching search, I realized that I felt confused as to whether Michigan football should still matter to me.
Since my dad’s death, I’ve struggled to put football’s place in my life into context. How do I continue supporting a game that contributed to my father’s demise? How do I not appreciate the sport that keeps his name and legacy alive? I often ask myself if I should still care about football and about Michigan.
The answer is yes, I believe, and not simply because I can still hear Bob Ufer’s horn boom from the tapes I listened to as a kid trying to experience Meechigan through his voice. Or because I have a childhood full of memories pretending to be John Kolesar and Leroy Hoard running Michigan to a win versus USC.
The reason reaches deeper than any nostalgic longing for a rose-colored past. The answer is yes because Michigan football is about my connection to my father and the way the values demanded of him in Ann Arbor shaped us.
I remember as a brash ten year old bragging to my soccer team and their parents that I was the best player on the team. Dad demanded that I apologize to the group for my boast but not before he lectured me never to elevate myself above the team again. "Leave your ego at the door," Dad barked in a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
On September 26, 2000, several hours after my second reconstructive knee surgery in fifteen months, I languished in a hospital bed wondering if I would ever play competitive sports again. I was a senior in high school, and playing sports had consumed my life to that point. I planned to continue in college, but my injuries had thrown everything into question. I asked Dad if I would ever recover from my torn knee ligaments to play anything again. He smiled through his tears and said, "Every day we get better or we get worse. We never stay the same. Don’t worry, tomorrow, we’ll start getting better. We just need to put in the work." Eight months later I won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the Ohio High School State Track and Field Meet.
Teamwork, modesty, self-sacrifice, the passion to improve through hard work. I learned these values from my father, and they’re virtues burned into him by his experiences playing football for the University of Michigan. Football, Michigan, and Michigan football mean more than wins and losses. They intertwine for me with my father, the experiences and leaders who shaped him, and the lessons he taught me.
For this, I know that Michigan football will always matter. Go Blue.