Anchor Intro: For competitive athletes, the sport becomes a focus throughout life, a primary passion. When life pulls them away from the game, they often lose a part of themselves that is difficult to replace. KBIA’s Lee Zucker catches up with one former MU wide receiver who is experiencing this for the second time in his life.
This story is the first installment in a joint project of KBIA, KOMU-TV8 and the Columbia Missourian that explores how several former University of Missouri athletes are adjusting to life after college sports.
After three years on the University of Missouri football team, Ben Lyles sat down his then-girlfriend Beth in his dorm room. It was almost the end of the 2000 season and Lyles explained that he was thinking about leaving the team to focus on academics, his job and the couple’s three-year-old son.
"I remembered him, you know, just the look on his face, he just looked torn," Beth Lyles said.
Within a couple of weeks, the junior wide-receiver ended his college football career. He had devoted himself to the sport since he first put on a set of pads in sixth grade. In deciding to quit, he struggled with the thought of losing his friends and disappointing his parents. It took him a week to go home and admit he had left the team.
"Really the biggest thing that went through my head was that I’m not going to be part of this anymore, and do I want to do that? I wasn’t going to be part of the brotherhood," Ben Lyles said.
Calling it quits is not just a matter of moving onto a new chapter of life, it’s a process. And although the sport may have a physical toll on an athlete, retirement can take an even bigger emotional toll.
MU sports psychology professor Matthew Martens says the challenge Lyles faced is common among athletes who play at a competitive level for most of their lives.
"An athletic team is such a unique experience both in terms of the relationships you have with others, the collegiality you have with teammates, the working toward a common goal, the competitiveness, all that kind of stuff. It’s hard to mirror that in other areas of your life," Matthew Martens said.
After Lyles gave up college football, his academic load and family obligations filled the void left by not playing football. He moved back to Sedalia to spend more time with Beth and their son…and he commuted daily to Columbia for classes.
Lyles graduated two years later. He stayed in Sedalia, got a job and immersed himself in a new sport: golf.
Psychologist Martens says that, too, is not uncommon. Former athletes often seek out new passions to fill the void. But Martens says some passions are healthier than others. He says there are athletes who get involved in gambling after they retire.
"Because that’s a way to kind of experience the rush as they did as an athlete. A lot of college athletes probably try to figure out ways to continue to be active and try to still have those experiences to some degree," Martens said.
When Lyles’ son Chase was old enough to play football in a youth league, Lyles saw that as opportunity to get close to the game again and started coaching. It was a chance to regain some of what he gave up when he stopped playing himself.
"It’s kind of that drug that fills that void," Lyles said.
Coaching his son's team made Lyles feel the fire of the sport again. So when Lyles heard in 2007 that some guys in town were starting a football team, he signed up as a wide receiver.
"I had that same passion that I had when I first came to Mizzou and walked on, I finally had it again," Lyles said.
Beth, now his wife, could see how excited Lyles was to get back on the football field.
"He was gone all the time to practices or always helping them set up, or whatever it was. He was very involved. You could just see, you could see it on his face how much he liked it, and you could just tell how exciting it was for him to get back into it," Beth Lyles said.
Four years later, he’s being pulled away again — partly by life, and partly because physical ailments are slowing him down. It’s something all competitive athletes go through at some point.
His son, Chase Lyles, can see his dad is nearing the end of his career.
"He’ll talk about how old he’s gettin’ if I go by him and stuff like that. He sits down on the couch and watches TV a lot it seems like because after practice he’s so tired," Chase Lyles said.
The elder Lyles is now shifting his priorities from playing to spending more time coaching.
"When I go to bed at night I’m not dreaming about catching touchdowns anymore, I’m not. The only thing I want to do now in three is years is see my son as the starting varsity quarterback at Smith Cotton, that’s my goal," Lyles said.
Lyles has three other children and a fifth child on the way. The second son plays basketball on a team that Lyles helped start in Sedalia. He now travels all over the state to help both sons compete. His wife Beth says it has become his passion.
"He lives for it pretty much. He lives for the boys playing, but he’s made them what they are," Beth Lyles said.
Although Lyles is thrilled about coaching his sons, he says he’ll miss the legacy he has built as the Outlaws star wide receiver.
Psychology professor Martens says many athletes in Lyles’s position tend to feel a similar way.
"In some ways it’s like when people are dealing with a loss or they’re giving up on something that they’re never going to get back," Martens said.
"I’m gonna miss last night streaking through the end zone scoring that last touchdown. I mean those things, yea, you’re gonna miss, you’re gonna kid yourself if you’re not," Lyles said.
Lyles knows that when he finishes his last game, he’ll feel a sense of relief. But he already knows the date and time of next season’s first practice. He says it’ll hit him then. The reality of leading a life without a team, without a brotherhood, without football.
Anchor out cue:
Ben Lyles is one several athletes profiled in this series “Grasping a New Game.” Part two appears in Sunday’s Columbia Missourian. It profiles one man who’s still trying to go pro a year after leaving MU. The final installment looks at the graduating seniors from MU’s gymnastics team. That piece airs Sunday night at 10:30 on KOMU.