Former Michigan running back Rob Lytle, the Broncos' second-round 1977 draft choice who played seven seasons for the team before injuries forced his retirement, died of a massive heart attack at age 56 in 2010.
His son, Kelly, has written a book, "To Dad, From Kelly" about their relationship. He noted this week that the family's donation of his father's brain and spinal column to the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute came early in the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Doctors told the family four years ago that Rob had "moderate to severe" CTE.
"Knowing that, a lot of the struggles he had later in his life started to make a lot more sense," Kelly Lytle said. "We didn't attach the two because we didn't know that much, but as you look back on it now you start to see where those warning signs were in existence."
When he died, Rob Lytle was working as a bank vice president in his hometown of Fremont, Ohio. Lytle's widow, Tracy, is part of the class-action lawsuit against the NFL, with a settlement recently approved by federal judge Anita Brody. Tracy, Kelly and the Lytles' daughter, Erin Tober, are on the SLI family advisory board.
Rob Lytle was involved in one of the most famous plays in Broncos history, against the Oakland Raiders in the 1978 AFC championship game. He revealed in an April 2007 interview that he had suffered a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous week. He said he briefly blacked out when Raiders safety Jack Tatum hit him on his carry from the Oakland 2-yard line.
Lytle lost control of the ball and the Raiders recovered, but officials ruled his forward motion was stopped before the fumble. (Jon Keyworth scored for Denver on the next play, and the Broncos won 20-17 to advance to their first Super Bowl.)
"Honest to God, I don't even remember the play," Lytle said, laughing in 2007. "I told you what happened the week before. So I must have had a bad concussion. I had headaches and stuff, but those were the days that you didn't ... well, it was a different era. I went over the top and Tatum hit me. I can't tell you (anything) other than what I see on film, because I was out."
After his retirement, Lytle worked in the family business in Fremont, for a trucking company and for a construction company involved in the building of Sports Authority Field, before going into banking. Kelly, 32, lives in Cleveland and works for Findaway, a digital content company. Kelly said that in the time before increased focus was placed on CTE, the family didn't make the connection, but that his father started to display uncharacteristic behavior.
"The one that stands out the most to me was in November 2008 ... he was honorary captain at the University of Michigan-Northwestern game," Kelly said. "We were talking to a few alumni, former players and school administrators. ... The way he was speaking wasn't being offensive, but I would say he was very much socially awkward, bordering on the offensive. It was one of those things where you're trying to nudge somebody or get their attention with your eyes, and get them to stop talking on that subject because it's just not right. He looked at me, and I'll never forget how he looked at me. I could tell there was no recognition behind his eyes — no recognition of the social context and how he was, I guess, inappropriate."
Lytle suffered a stroke two months later, Kelly said.
"I kind of attributed what I saw that day to, 'Oh, his body was wearing down, he had this stroke coming up,' " Kelly said. "But, really, I look back on it now, and it was just one of many signs of how his brain was struggling."
Kelly said his father, who loved children, also started around that time to shy away from holding his granddaughter, Audrey.
Still, he was working as a bank executive when he died. Kelly Lytle said SLI officials contacted the family in the aftermath of Lytle's death, explained their study and asked for the donations, and that the CTE diagnosis came back several months later.
"(Doctors) said to us, 'Your dad must have been a hyper-intelligent individual,' " Kelly said. "They said the reason for that was because of what we told them and the fact that he still was able to hold down a day-to-day job without any negative reports from it. He had been able to mask it. They were shocked that with as far along as the CTE was, that he was more or less able to compensate and mask it with the normalcy of his day-to-day life.
"The implication from that, though, was that at some point, whether a year later, six months later, or five years later, there was a cliff moment that would have occurred, at what point Dad might not have been able to tie his shoes or might not have known his way around his hometown anymore, things like that."
Lytle also suffered multiple injuries and underwent many surgeries in his playing days, but his son emphasized Lytle loved the game, and wasn't bitter about being on the field when Tatum hit him on the famous play.
"He understood that football was such a violent game and that by playing it he was putting his body and his mind and everything at risk," Kelly Lytle said. "For him that was kind of the acceptable collateral damage because he loved the game so much that he wanted to be part of it."
In his book, which started as a cathartic series of letters to his late father, Kelly said he regretted not being able to sit down with Rob and ask: Was it worth it?
"While he was alive, the answer undoubtedly for Dad was, 'Yes, it absolutely was worth it,' " Kelly said. "He loved every second of every practice of every game. ... I wanted to picture my dad saying, 'You know what, Kelly, if I could do it over again, I'd do things differently.' But I don't think that would be the case. I think so much of his makeup and who he was, was tied into his love of football and how much that game meant to him."
Terry Frei: email@example.com or twitter.com/TFrei