I cannot claim credible objectivity in writing about Kyle Rote. I knew him, professionally and personally, for many years. I ate at his generous table and he graced mine. I confess: I greatly admired Kyle Rote and he honored me with his friendship.
In this era of unmuzzled public vulgarity it is tempting to think that professional football players are all alike; avariciously motivated, contract-breaking, grandiose diamond-earring wearing, lecherous, feckless and narcissistic brutes whose major concerns are obscene amounts of money and the immediate fulfillment of ‘I want it, I want it now.’
Kyle (whose first name was actually William) was a throwback, an extraordinary human being, civilized, courteous, intelligent and witty; in fact, he was so admired by his fellow professionals that many, including his teammate, Frank Gifford, named their sons after him. His demeanor always suggested that of a patrician, inner directed figure, an example of probity and wisdom. He was actually a life-enjoying guy who loved to laugh. Nor did Kyle just laugh. He cackled and so infectiously, it invariably made those in his presence laugh as well. He was one of those people who seem to carry their own personal spotlight; as if they are part of a special personal minority.
Kyle, from San Antonio, Texas, graduated from Southern Methodist University where he was a serious student as well as a running back on its’ nationally recognized football team. He “backed up” Texas football legend, Doak Walker, a high school teammate. In Kyle’s junior year, 1949, SMU was scheduled to play college football’s powerful national favorite, Notre Dame, he was called on to start in place of an injured Walker. And, on that brisk October afternoon Kyle Rote played his way into our national consciousness and the College Football Hall of Fame. He ran, passed and kicked SMU to near victory over an overwhelming (30 point(!) favorite. Kyle threw three touchdown passes, ran for more than one hundred yards and did all the kicking for SMU; the absolute definition of an expression that is no longer employed to describe any football player; Kyle was a true Triple Threat! The final score was Notre Dame 27, SMU 20. The sports world had watched Genghis Khan brought to judgment in traffic court! The following day one San Antonio newspaper ran the following headline: “SMU wins, 20-27” (Some years later, that same Notre Dame football team, the subsequent undefeated winner of the 1949 College Football Championship, made Kyle an honorary member, the first and only time that Notre Dame honored a football opponent in that way.)
Kyle, a Heisman award runner-up in 1950, was the single “bonus” pick of the 1951 National Football League college draft. The pick belonged to the NY Giants and was made by the Giants’ long time coach at the time, the three hundred pound defense-oriented Steve Owen.
Thus began an eleven year era during which the Giants were Eastern Division champions four times, National Football League Champions in 1956 when they defeated the Chicago Bears, then losing to the Baltimore Colts in the memorable 1958 overtime game still called the Greatest Game Ever Played (Frank Gifford believes to this moment that he made that first down that would have extended the Giants possession which would more than likely have allowed the Giants to score and win that remarkable game,) and again in 1959 and to the Green Bay Packers in 1961. He was the Giants’ captain, a four-time all-pro choice and the eventual spouse of extraordinarily beautiful women whose face belonged on an Etruscan coin, a former Miss America.
WNEW’s inspirational General Manager, John Van Buren (Jack) Sullivan was so impressed with Rote that he offered him a position at the world’s greatest radio station. Kyle began his broadcast career with WNEW in 1960, fitting in his broadcast schedule around his football schedule. He retired in 1961 and became the Giants backfield coach under Allie Sherman,a ‘marriage’ not quite heaven-made.
After two years, Kyle resigned his coaching job and became a full time WNEW sports broadcaster/personality. He broadcast the sports segments during the half hourly newscasts during the morning Klavan and Finch programs, thereby “suffering” the slings, arrows and wit of New York’s favorite morning show hosts. As a result he became more popular than ever.
Certain moments sear the mind creating tableaus that remain forever, often becoming the stuff of repeated dream sequences. Kyle Rote, a brilliant triple threat football player, a graceful, powerful runner anticipating a career in the NFL that very likely would eventuate in the football Hall of Fame, tore up a knee during the exhibition game period(now referred to as pre-season) in 1951.
The mind etching? Kyle Rote rehabilitating his knee by running up and down the seemingly endless stairs in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Up and down the five-tier stadium for hours. The result of the injury meant the loss of his speed forcing his conversion from running back to receiver, a position at which he immediately excelled.
Years later, in Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium, Kyle, now the Giants “color” man broadcasting their games with Marty Glickman and another former Giant, Al DeRogatis, and a serious cigarette smoker, is climbing the last fifteen stairs to the visitor’s broadcast booth atop the old stadium. As he reaches the top step, breathing so heavily one would have thought he had just run the last mile of a marathon, I, at this time the broadcast producer, said to him, “Kyle, you’ve just gotta stop smoking.” After a long minute of deep gasps while regaining his breath, he responded, “Nat, you don’t understand. I love smoking…I hate climbing stairs!” The saddest follow-up: his smoking finally killed my friend. He died of pneumonia in August of 2002, He was, thanks to his smoking, an ‘old’ 73.
Kyle was a founder of the National Football League’s Players Association and its first elected president. He was an accomplished musician who wrote the Giants’ Marching Song, still played to this day at their games. And he was a poet—well, we are all poets—he, however, was a PUBLISHED one. This from the book called, FORTY FOUR:
The sea makes a mockery of the greatness of man
As he stands in resurging tides,
A prey to the magnet that washes below him
That grasps…and then, LAUGHING, subsides.