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Published: Friday, 5/4/2001

On the fast track

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Not many high school sprinters can break 11 seconds in the 100-meter dash. Fewer still can do it on surgically repaired knees. And, just how many valedictorians are that fast? Not many high school sprinters can break 11 seconds in the 100-meter dash. Fewer still can do it on surgically repaired knees. And, just how many valedictorians are that fast?
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A low percentage of high school sprinters manage to break the 11-second barrier in the 100-meter dash. Fewer still do it on two surgically reconstructed knees.

Barring ties, there's only one class valedictorian graduating from any high school each year, and not many of those are three-sport athletes destined for the Ivy League.

But, then again, Kelly Lytle of Fremont Ross is a rare breed, a young man who takes dedication and discipline in stride.

Lytle - who bounced back from major surgical repair on his right knee in July of 1999 to place seventh in both the 100 and 200-meter finals in last year's Division I state track meet - had to repeat the rehabilitation process this school year when he sustained a similar injury to his left knee.

Now he is back and approaching the career-best sprint times he posted as a junior in 2000.

He ran a hand-timed 10.7 in the 100 last Friday in a meet at Sandusky, the same day he also matched his career-best hand-timed 21.7 in the 200. His best hand-timed 100 (10.5) came in last year's Fremont Invitational, and his best electronically timed showing was the 10.64 he ran in the preliminary heat at the 2000 state meet.

No doctor will make the claim that a surgically altered joint can improve on the collective structure of ligaments, tendons, cartilage and muscle surrounding an athlete's knees, so the lasting question is how fast would Kelly Lytle be with his two legs in their original, God-given state?

The only son of Ross graduate Rob Lytle - who starred in the backfield as a first-team All-American for the Michigan Wolverines (1974-76) before an injury-plagued seven-year journey in the NFL with the Denver Broncos - Kelly Lytle doesn't waste time wondering about what-ifs.

That's because this 18-year-old senior is consumed with taking care of his academic business and working to make the most of what he has left, physically.

“He's a pretty special kid,” said Rob Lytle, who with wife, Tracy, also has a daughter, Erin, 21, a junior at Miami (O.) University. “His schoolwork has always been a priority. He works hard, has a good attitude, likes to have fun, and enjoys whatever he does. In a day when sports are so far out of perspective, he seems to understand what the perspective should be. It's fleeting. You're here one day and gone the next.”

After graduation Lytle will attend Princeton University, the Ivy League institution which won him over with its academic reputation and availed him the opportunity to compete in track. The Tiger football staff was also interested in Lytle's services, but the Ross standout decided to decline their offer.

“Having done both knees and looking at the long run, I just thought it would be smarter for me if I didn't pursue football,” Kelly Lytle said. “Track's always been my favorite sport anyway, and football's pretty time-consuming in college. I wasn't sure I wanted to make that kind of commitment to it.”

Young Lytle was accepted by Princeton on the strength of his 4.1 grade-point average and his ACT (college entrance exam) score of 29 out of a possible 36.

The fact that Kelly sustained his injuries in competition - the first while playing summer basketball and the second while carrying the football in the first quarter of an 18-17 loss to St. Francis last fall - isn't all that unusual.

But the way his knees buckled and the reason they failed him is extraordinary.

The right knee “exploded,” in Kelly Lytle's terms, while he was performing a simple maneuver in the June basketball game in Lima, Ohio, nearly two years ago.

Subsequent surgery brought to light an abnormality in Lytle's right knee in the area surrounding his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). A narrow intercondylar notch impinged the ACL and slowly frayed it, fiber by fiber, until it snapped.

The ACL was reconstructed, and damage to the medial collateral ligament and medial meniscus was also corrected.

Lytle's left knee gave way in the St. Francis game while he was making a seemingly ordinary cut with no contact from a defender.

The ACL was torn, as were the medial and lateral meniscii.

When surgery was performed, the narrow notch was again the culprit. The bone surface was ground down and smoothed out in both surgeries, as is standard procedure, to try to prevent future fraying of the ACLs.

Lytle was told that the ACL tear was inevitable and might've happened 10 years from now just walking down the street.

“It was extremely difficult to watch the football games after that,” Kelly Lytle said. “We got off to a real good start and were playing well together. But seeing things start to go downhill and not being able to help them and just be with the guys was a tough pill to swallow. When you see the game unfold, and know the things you can do, you just wish you could be out there.”

Although both father and son wish they could have shared more memories on the football front, neither Rob nor Kelly focus on the past. And what little there was for the younger Lytle, both seem to cherish.

Kelly, who started at defensive back for the Little Giants as a sophomore, missed the entire 1999 season following the surgery that July. Also considered a strong candidate to start at guard on a talented Ross basketball team the past two seasons, Lytle's varsity time was limited to a few games in a junior-year comeback bid in January of 2000 before tendinitis spoiled things. Because of the football injury, he missed the entire 2000-2001 basketball season.

Thus, Kelly Lytle's athletic legacy at Fremont Ross, aside from his school-record efforts on the track, is limited to just a handful of varsity basketball and football contests in his final two years.

But, at least on the football field, the brief exploits of this slightly-built 6-0, 150-pound running back were flashes of brilliance.

He opened the season with a 236-yard, three-touchdown effort on 19 carries in a 41-0 Ross victory over St. John's Jesuit. The next week he ran 24 times for 186 yards and two TDs in a 20-6 triumph over Central Catholic. He had 10 carries for 36 yards against St. Francis before the injury forced him out. In 10 quarters of football, he totaled 53 attempts for 458 yards (8.6 average) and five TDs.

“He got a lot done in two games,” said Rob Lytle, now 46, who is no stranger to the operating room. “It would've been fun to see what he could've done over a whole season.”

After setting single-season and career rushing records at Michigan en route to finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Tony Dorsett in 1976, Rob Lytle was taken in the second round of the 1977 NFL draft by the Broncos.

Denver reached the Super Bowl in Lytle's rookie season, but much of his career was riddled with injuries. To date, he has undergone 22 surgeries, most to his knees and shoulders. This history enabled him to identify with his son's setbacks and admire Kelly's comebacks.

“Of course I'm proud of him,” Rob said, “but around this house that's what we believe in. You make the best of what's there.

“It's frustrating because your hopes and dreams are dashed so quickly, and by some little non-contact thing. What happened to him was freak, and you feel bad for him. But he's taken it very well, worked very hard and made the best of it. I can't believe he's running already, and he's doing pretty darn good.”

What advice did father give son?

“I told him, `I'm sorry, but when an injury comes along, you're by yourself.' It's kind of like the mourning process. You go through some tough times and build yourself up from there. Don't ever feel bad about it. If you're ticked off, that's OK. If you feel sorry for yourself, that's natural.

“But you make a decision to come back and you go to work. It's a long road and you do by yourself. Nobody has any idea what you're going through but you.”

Kelly welcomed Rob's honest approach.

“He was sad for me both times and he just made sure I stayed positive and upbeat,” Kelly said. “He told me not to dwell on it and that you've got to look to the future. That's kind of how we approached it.

“I'm glad he got to see me play at least a few games. He was actually impressed, I think, and he was excited for me. I'm not the biggest guy in the world and a lot of people were leery about making me a running back. But I finally got a shot and it was exciting for me.”

Returning from the injuries, however, was no cup of tea for Kelly, who put in three to four hours of rehab and cardiovascular work six times a week after the first injury, and took that routine up a notch in intensity after the second.

“I figured, `Hey, I made it back from the first one and had success, and there's nothing I can do about it now, so I might as well give it a shot,'” Kelly said. “Yes, it was a letdown, because when you get older you'll think back on high school and say, `Well, maybe I could've done this or that.' But I'll never actually know for sure how my football career would've turned out.

“I try not to think about it in that way a whole lot though. I've had an opportunity to persevere through something that's probably made me a stronger person. Struggling through something not once, but twice, and battling back from it. It's probably helped improve my work ethic and find out that all things are possible if you put your mind to it and work hard.”

An important portion of Lytle's rehabilitation was done in Toledo at Sports Care, the Northwest Ohio Center for Sports Medicine at the Wildwood Health Pavilion on Reynolds Road. Art Squires served as his physical therapist and Todd Baden designed and monitored Lytle's performance-enhancement program.

“My goals are to better the 10.5 school record in the 100 and to get back to the state meet and hopefully get up to the podium (top six finishers) this year,” Kelly said. “Hopefully I'm on the right track.”

Lytle hopes to defend his 100 and 200-meter titles in eight days at the Great Lakes League championship meet at Ross.



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