Phil Lytle has dedicated his life to football.
He was a running back at Appalachian State, coached high school football, taught his sons to love the game, and has been affiliated with the Asheville Grizzlies semi-pro team, where he is now the head coach, since way back in the ’70s when they were the Asheville Bears.
Football is a rough occupation, even rougher in the traditionally under-funded, rough-and-tumble semi-pro world. Coach Lytle is a walking testimonial to that fact. His knees have the zipper-like scars that surgery leaves; he’s had one hip replaced, and will probably have the other done before long. Over the years, his body has absorbed so much damage that it can be difficult for him to simply rise from a seated position. Through it all, though, he’s maintained a level of enthusiasm for the game that has nothing to do with paychecks, multi-year contracts, endorsements, or any of the trimmings of big-time football.
Simply put, the coach just loves football.
And so, apparently, do the roughly 50 members of the Asheville Grizzlies. “The players do a tremendous job of recruiting among their old teammates,” Lytle says. About half of his team played some level of college ball, and, while they may not have the size or speed of their well-paid NFL counterparts, they have that same level of ferocity and dedication.
Remarkably, they sustain that enthusiasm even though they aren’t paid a dime for playing and some of them commute to their games from as far as Atlanta, Raleigh, and Knoxville. The more far-flung members aren’t able to make it to twice-weekly practices in Asheville. “They stay in shape on their own,” says the coach, “and show up for the games.” The team holds tryouts and a pre-season camp to familiarize all the players with the playbook. Many of them have played for the Grizzlies for many years and are well-acquainted with Lytle’s coaching style. This is elemental, hard-nosed gridiron but it is definitely not the high-dollar world of the NFL.
“We can’t pay anybody,” says Coach Lytle. “That would negate their college eligibility. We pride ourselves on getting them in front of college scouts. We’ve gotten players on college teams just about every year, sometimes with full-ride scholarships.”
If anyone knows the value of athletic scholarships, it’s the Lytle family. Phil’s sons Kelce and Lawrence both played college ball and both now work with their father as assistant coaches. They both grew up watching their father helm a wide variety of teams in many different situations.
Looking out over the Grizzlies’ home field — the old Asheville High School field behind McCormick Stadium where the Asheville Tourists play baseball, Lytle recalls the turf conditions back in the old days. The only real grass grew in the 20 yards on each end of the field, he says. In between was what he remembers as the dust bowl. “After each play,” he says, “we’d have to wait for the cloud of dust to settle before we could tell who made the tackle.”
The conditions and the circumstances at the field are a lot better now, he explains. The stands are adequate for the 500 to 1,700 fans who show up for home games, Bojangles restaurant is not only a sponsor but also operates a concession stand, and thirsty fans can buy Budweiser (another sponsor) at the games.
The team even has a marketing director, the extremely energetic Dawn Creasman. Ms. Creasman retains her day job with the Asheville Radio Group, but her heart belongs to The Grizzlies. Talking with her about her team is a little like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Statistics and promotional ideas come with high velocity. She’s very proud of the team’s history, which includes winning seasons and even conference championships. Formerly, the team played in the Greater Development Football League (GDFL), which had, according to team manager Rikk Dickson, more than 100 teams. They have since graduated to the 90-team National Football Association (NFA). The Grizzlies have consistently been ranked among the top teams no matter what league they joined. They racked up undefeated seasons and won impressive victories. Last year, Creasman says, the Grizzlies in the regular season beat the team that eventually went on to win the league championship.
A big part of her job is finding sponsors, Creasman says, as well as putting together promotions that will get the team the coverage they need. On tap for this year are an Armed Forces Day and a Mascot Madness Day. The mascot, including the Grizzlies’ beloved “Growler” and the Carolina Panthers mascot, will compete in a game of flag football during halftime. The Growler costume, she says, is a regulation NFL suit, complete with interior ice bags to ward off heat exhaustion.
But promotions and enthusiasms aside, the team is still all about winning. The Grizzlies lost six veteran defensive players this year. “We’re hoping that some of the rookies will step up,” says Lytle. Losing those veterans took a toll on the team. They lost their opening away game 32 to 12 to the Peach State Rattlers, a fact that did not sit well with Coach Lytle. “That,” he says, “was a long bus ride home.”