Legacy lives on for Michigan’s Rob Lytle

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Rob Lytle lived and breathed football. He played the game with abandon and with a selflessness teammates and coaches admired.

Kids who watched him compete for Michigan from 1974-76 remember the image of the man, the distinctive elbow pads and the No. 41 jersey as it plunged forward for extra yards.

Those who knew him best understood his all-out approach to playing the game he loved.

But in 2010, more than 30 years after playing for the Wolverines, Lytle died of a heart attack. He was 56.

In December, he will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

But on Saturday, before Michigan hosts BYU, Hall officials will honor Lytle on the field where he was then the school’s career rushing leader with 3,317 yards. His wife, Tracy, and children, Erin and Kelly, will represent him.

“It would be one of those things in private, he’d sit back and relax, and everyone who knew him knew he always had that devilish smirk on his face ... nodding his head yes, this is pretty amazing and remarkable,” Kelly Lytle said of how his father would react to the honor. “It would mean an incredible amount to him, how hard he worked, how much he sacrificed.

“But he cared only about the success of the team. The notion of, ‘the team, the team, the team’ ... those weren’t just words for him. They represented everything football embodied for dad.”

This is the common theme for those who knew Lytle.

He participated on two Big Ten championship teams and played in a Rose Bowl. He was a tri-captain of the 1976 team and was the Big Ten player of the year that season. Also that year, he finished third in Heisman Trophy voting behind Tony Dorsett and Ricky Bell.

“He was one of a kind,” said former Michigan assistant Jerry Hanlon, on the staff when Lytle played. “Let’s face it, if you say who was the greatest back that ever played at Michigan, his name would certainly have to be right there with any of them.

“It was not just how he ran the football, the speed he had, but the toughness he had. ... He was one of those kids who never, ever (complained). He did what you asked him to do. It was, ‘What’s the best for the team?’ and, ‘I’ll make out wherever you put me.’ ”

LSU coach Les Miles grew up in Elyria, Ohio, and knew of Lytle, who played football for Fremont Ross, about 30 miles southeast of Toledo.

The two eventually became teammates at Michigan.

“He was just a tremendous teammate and friend,” Miles said. “A guy that really did all the things that Michigan would stand for. He played hard, played special teams, loved his school.

“I think about him often. A very special man.”

Lytle eventually returned to his hometown and raised his family after injuries forced him to retire after seven seasons with the Broncos.

‘A real running back’

Lytle was a favorite of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, in part because of his tenacity.

“Bo loved a guy who would fight you from the first minute to the last,” Miles said. “And that was Rob Lytle.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh grew up watching Michigan football and his father, Jack, was on Schembechler’s staff when Lytle played.

“Just a hard runner,” Harbaugh said. “If I think about backs going through the line of scrimmage and lowering their pads, the way he would run low off the ground, helmet like an arrow going through snow. That’s what I visualize a running back looking like, with that number and those elbow pads he used to wear.

“Yeah, he was a real running back.”

On Michigan’s career rushing list, Jamie Morris surpassed Lytle with 4,392 yards, but the numbers mean little.

Schembechler would tell Morris about Lytle and his toughness and selflessness over and over.

“You’d hear about how he brought Rob in and asked him to be the fullback,” Morris said. “He said, ‘All Lytle asked me, ‘Is it going to win us the Big Ten championship?’ I’ll be damned. We won the Big Ten championship.’ ”

Making peace

Kelly, his sister and mother will hear countless stories about Lytle this weekend in Ann Arbor. Kelly, as he details in his book, “To Dad, From Kelly,” has struggled with what football did to his father physically.

“That was one of the big questions I had to come to grips with while writing,” Kelly said. “Growing up, you saw the physical toll the game brought on dad — the 20-plus operations, the 10-plus concussions. His fingers were legendary because they were pointing all directions and were swollen and arthritic. It was painful to see him move.

“What you didn’t see was how hard it was for him to leave the game. He would get a look in mid-August, even when he was no longer playing, you could see that intensity in his eyes when football would start. He wanted to be out there.”

His father said he would play the game all over again, even knowing the physical risks.

“When he was alive, I always accepted it,” Kelly said. “When he passed away was when I questioned, ‘Was it worth it?’ ”

After Lytle’s death, his family donated his brain and spinal column to the Sports Legacy Institute for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His widow is part of a class-action lawsuit against the NFL.

Kelly, though, has made peace through writing.

He started with a letter he wrote to his late father, and then the emotions flowed. He didn’t intend to write a book, but it evolved into a memoir.

“As somebody who grew up going to Michigan games as a fan and knowing my dad was an important part of the history of this team I love so much, I can now be there to cement his legacy,” Kelly said. “When you couple it with him not being there, it will be impossible to not be overwhelmed by emotions, and that’s OK. I welcome that.

“Michigan always held special importance to him. He always had a great loyalty to Fremont Ross, but those years at Michigan, the football he played, the life lessons, that’s what always stuck with him more than any part of his career.”