'We leave football, football never leaves us': Dad was right. It took him to his grave.
As a kid, I marveled at my dad’s hands. Broken and arthritic, his fingers twisted and curled in curious directions. They were a gateway to his suffering, the swollen and mangled truth tellers of a life lived in football.
On the night I last saw him, Dad lay on a hospital bed. The hands that once carried a football into NFL end zones rested cold and lifeless at his side.
He was dead at 56, a heart attack the final blow to a body chewed up and spit out by football.
Dad gave himself to the game. He craved it – the snap of chin straps and the pop of pads, the way late summer’s prickly grass would poke him each August and how by October he longed for the cold sensation of a morning dew seeping through his cleats before a Saturday kickoff. Football left him battered, beaten, broken – and yet, victorious.
Ironically, the thing that would kill him made him feel the most alive.
Scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XII
Football took Dad to great heights: All-American at Michigan, touchdown in Super Bowl XII, induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
And it dragged him to great lows – cut open on the operating table dozens of times and concussed about the same. Scars decorated his body and migraines assaulted his head. He suffered a stroke in his mid-50s.
Near the end, he started moving through life confused, so unsure of himself it frightened him to hold his granddaughter. We’d learn later about his chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Dad liked to say, “We leave football, football never leaves us.” He was right. Football took him to his grave.
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I was born into loving football
There’s growing up with football. Then there’s growing up in football. In 1982, Dad was a rarely used running back for the Denver Broncos. The season started on Sept. 12, and he needed a police escort from the hospital where I had just been born to reach the stadium by kickoff. Later that day, they announced my birth over the loudspeaker at Mile High. Dad blocked a punt, and the Broncos won.
I was born into loving the game, have come to hate it, and somehow still watch it. Football is a violent, family-destroying killer, but one that’s been in my life forever.
NFL commissioner should know better: Goodell's flippant reaction to concussion quip stings Lytle family
Even now, watching football connects me to moments in my past, honey-dipped memories threaded through the game and blessed by nostalgia’s sweetening stroke. I turn on a game and feel like a kid playing catch, a son just having fun with his father.
Dad used to tell me he’d never live to 60. He had seen the statistics and read the articles. He knew how his own body resisted even the simplest tasks.
I think about his words now when I picture our last meaningful conversation. It’s October 2009, and we’re reminiscing over Miller High Lifes and pizza in a small joint 30 miles from home. Our talk, as it always did, turned to football. “Kelly, all I ever wanted was one more play. Then, one more after that.”
Dad sipped his beer and grinned, maybe knowing something I did not. He’d be dead 13 months later, his body and brain a junkyard of used parts sacrificed to football’s gods.
Football is a deadly game, but it's hard to resist
Football is evil, but evil can be a devil to resist. The game pulls at me with its nostalgia and family ties, two bonds hard for me to break. But football is a deadly game, and I try to remember that.
I remember it by thinking about my wedding day, Sept. 7, 2019. We left an empty seat for Dad. "There in spirit," the best we could do.
And I remember it whenever I see my niece and nephew. They’re growing up fast, two grandkids to make anyone proud. Sadly, their grandfather can never know them, and they can never know him.
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Football is a great teacher of life lessons, I always learned. Practices in summer’s heat teach endurance. Collisions and bloodshed show how we handle pain. Eleven men must pull together to win. And togetherness requires teamwork, self-sacrifice and dedication to causes bigger than the individual.
We need these lessons, so we need football. Right?
I believed this, and even used it to justify my own warped reverence for the game that turned my mom into a widow at 55 and left grandkids with no grandfather.
I wrote a book about fathers, sons and life lessons pulled mostly from the gridiron. Now, I often question that perspective.
Damar Hamlin reminded us of football's dangers
To watch football is to hold your breath waiting to witness tragedy, as we did on Jan. 2 when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed and went into cardiac arrest on the field. Thankfully, Hamlin will survive.
What's important in life: Americans came together for Hamlin. Let's not lose that moment of empathy.
Want to honor Damar Hamlin?: Learn CPR. It made all the difference for him.
In an instant, Hamlin brought football’s dangers to the forefront. Football was vulnerable and exposed, unable to hide behind the veneer of player safety or fans’ cognitive dissonance.
But time passes and now the Super Bowl is here. The ills of the game can return to the shadows, free to continue their assault on the athletic warriors we lionize.
The reality for football is that it is killing people today. When it does, it does so slowly and silently, through repeated hits and the violence of a game that could never be made safe for its players – only its fans.
The reality is that it has already killed Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Demaryius Thomas, Rob Lytle and so many more.
Whenever I think about football, I want to scream “Stop!”
Stop playing, stop watching and stop cheering. Stop praying for wins, stop caring about losses and stop letting our hearts justify a game that leaves the bodies, brains and families of its players as collateral damage.
Doing so, though, would be too simple – and too unfair – especially while I sit here disappointed in myself, a sad son who grew up loving his father and football, still trapped trying to separate the two.
Instead, I’ll ask the question about football I always ask: Why is this game worth it?
I know the answer. It’s not.
Kelly Lytle is the author of "To Dad, From Kelly." Follow Kelly on Substack and Twitter: @kelly_lytle
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My dad played in the Super Bowl. Then football claimed his life.