I was in my first year with the Denver Broncos in 1978. It was the year following the Broncos’ first AFC Championship and the team’s appearance in Super Bowl XII.
One of the first guys I met that training camp was one I still remember well because he was a great guy beyond being a terrific football player.
Rob Lytle died yesterday of a heart attack in his hometown of Fremont, Ohio, at just 56 years of age.
There have already been a lot of tributes to Rob Lytle, and this is mine.
He was drafted in the second round by the Broncos out of the University of Michigan in 1977, having finished third in the 1976 Heisman Trophy balloting following a banner campaign for the Wolverines. He finished his Michigan career with 3,317 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns at Michigan, where he was an All-American running back.
He saw his pro career with the Broncos hampered by a variety of injuries. They might have slowed his play, but they never slowed his attitude.
Rob Lytle was one of those guys whose smile lit up every room, every time he entered. He was a coach’s dream. He only played and prepared one way: hard, all the time. Josh McDaniels would have loved Rob Lytle. He ran, he blocked, he caught passes, he played hard and sacrificed his body for the Broncos.
When he took the field, he was ready, he played hard, he did not want to ever leave the field, even though frequent injuries forced him to. He was a team guy, team first always, and he backed down from no one.
He had seven productive seasons for the Broncos, scoring 14 touchdowns and gaining over 2,000 yards rushing and receiving even though in his last two years he only played in 13 total games due to a myriad of injuries.
When he left, he privately told me that his only regret as a pro player was that the injuries kept him from reaching his full potential for the Broncos. “The fans never saw me run like I could before the injuries,” Rob confided.
He is remembered mostly for his time at Ann Arbor, where he was an all-time great at one of the country’s legendary football schools.
Football banged Rob up pretty hard. He had several orthopedic procedures over the years following his playing days. Evidently, he was not feeling well on Saturday and was taken to the hospital, where he passed away following his heart attack.
He was on the Broncos’ first championship team, that memorable 1977 team that played in the first of Denver’s six Super Bowls. Lytle started at running back for the Broncos in the 1977 AFC Championship Game, and ironically had a play in which he was tackled at the Oakland 1-yard line, a play highly disputed as a fumble by the Raiders. The Broncos scored on a 1-yard run by fullback Jon Keyworth on the next play. The debate about the nun-fumble festered for years, and it was one of the early plays that prompted the call for review and potential reversal of field calls in pro football.
On September 23, 1979 we were playing the Seahawks in Denver. Broncos Public Relations Director Bob Peck was dying of brain cancer and was watching the game from a wheelchair against the wall of the south stands at old Mile High Stadium. Seattle jumped out to a 34-10 lead when Red Miller took Norris Weese out and replaced him with Craig Morton at quarterback. Morton threw three touchdowns passes in the next two minutes and 34 seconds, bringing the Broncos to within three of Seattle. The next time the Broncos got the ball they drove down for the winning score, which came on a one-yard run by Rob Lytle. Spontaneously, as Rob later described it, he ran to the south stands wall and handed the ball to Bob Peck, seated in his wheelchair. It brought tears to the stadium’s eyes then, and it brings tears to my eyes when I type it now.
Rob Lytle did not have a great career, but he was a great one.
While his career ended in 1983 for Denver, film of Rob in a Bronco uniform lives on in the movies.
My dear friend Bob Smith of NFL Films confirmed this many years ago. When the great football film, “Everybody’s All-American,” was made in 1988, starring Dennis Quaid as the All-American who has a star crossed career and life, producers wanted to give it a realistic look and did so very successfully by integrating actual footage of NFL games as the game action to go along with the story. That’s why the Dennis Quaid character wears No. 41 for the Broncos — because the running back footage is of the Broncos’ own No. 41, Rob Lytle. Bob Smith and NFL Films provided the film, Rob Lytle did the running, and No. 41 of the Broncos was Dennis Quaid — and Rob Lytle — in that movie.
The injuries certainly hampered his career to the point that many fans and NFL people might not remember watching his play today.
But I saw him run, and I knew him as a humanitarian.
And I remember Rob Lytle.