James Kyle stands out among Loyola Academy’s football coaches.
His hooded sweatshirt and gym shorts stand in stark contrast to the khaki shorts and tucked-in polos of his counterparts. His thick curls burst from his backward ballcap and surround his headset. And then there’s the sharp look in his eyes — part violence, part heartbreak — as he watches his teammates.
Kyle is 17 years old, and a medical condition has forced his coaching career to begin about a decade too early.
The high school senior was one of the state’s fastest-rising prospects a few short months ago. A 6-foot-5, 230-pound tight end, Kyle had just begun collecting collegiate offers — he had 12 by the spring — when his football dreams disappeared in a doctor’s office.
“I was just really sad,” he said. “It sucks. Your dreams of playing college football and maybe the next level, crushed right in front of you. It was a rough, rough day.”
In the eight months since that day, Kyle has not given up on those dreams.
There may be a path back to the field, but whether it is safe for him to travel is still unknown. Reoccurring blood clots in Kyle’s lungs have mystified doctors, he said, and the risk for their return is ever present. An innovative treatment that is effective for other athletes with similar conditions is promising, But right now, nothing more.
“It’s a shot in the dark, but at least it’s a shot,” Kyle said. “There is some hope.”
Bridgid Kyle said her son, James, was “born with a ball in his hands.”
James Kyle’s passion for athletics quickly developed — and his physical gifts weren’t far behind.
On youth football fields on the North Side of Chicago, he was initially a running back and linebacker, but league weight limitations pushed him to the offensive and defensive lines.
As a seventh-grader at St. Mary of the Woods, Kyle was already 6-2. The next year, he was 6-5.
Kyle moved on to Loyola Academy and hoped to play linebacker and tight end for the Ramblers. But a Loyola wide receivers coach only needed to see Kyle’s debut at tight end to make a determination.
“After the first day of tight end, he was like, ‘You’re not going back to defense,” Kyle said.
That coach was not the only one to notice Kyle. After the freshman season, he was pulled up to the varsity unit under coach John Holecek.
Kyle was a varsity player through the postseason and even played a couple of snaps in the state championship game, a 13-3 victory over Brother Rice, Holecek said.
“To play (at that level) as a freshman is pretty good,” he said. “By sophomore year, he was already getting the offers. He’s a big-time athlete.”
“He’s all of 6-5, long arms, great feet, athletic and a competitor,” Holecek added.
The next season, Kyle showed out as the team’s starting tight end, even scoring a critical 30-yard touchdown in Loyola’s 14-6 playoff win over Maine South.
Recruiting specialists placed Kyle atop their tight-end ranks, and college coaches started reaching out to the teenager.
COVID-19 began to disrupt American life in early 2020 and led to the early end of the 2019-20 school year in Illinois.
Even though the pandemic threatened and delayed the 2020-21 athletics season, Kyle racked up collegiate offers.
The Big Ten’s University of Nebraska was first, and on Sept. 1, three more Division-I programs — Cincinnati, Kentucky, Bowling Green — came calling. The next day, West Virginia offered.
The offers kept coming — Central Michigan, Toledo, Virginia and more — all without Kyle playing a snap his junior season.
Just 18 months prior, Kyle never expected such an onslaught of attention.
“Going into freshman year, I didn’t think I was good enough to play college football,” he said. “Then I had a lot of coaches texting me after sophomore year.”
Even more offers were sure to come in 2021, but instead, on April 15, Kyle announced on Twitter that his football career was over.
Rewind a year.
At the end of his sophomore football season, Kyle injured his shoulder, costing him a couple weeks of the Ramblers basketball season.
When he returned to practice, Kyle was getting tired quickly. At first, he just thought it was a lack conditioning, but within a week, he was having chest pains so severe he couldn’t breathe without sharp pain.
A CT scan revealed two blood clots in Kyle’s lungs that doctors told him were “unprovoked.” He was prescribed a year of blood thinners before reevaluation.
Oddly enough, COVID-19 precautions delayed the fall football season, giving Kyle an opportunity to play his junior year starting in March of 2021.
Around Thanksgiving 2020, Kyle was allowed to come off his treatment, but in January, a smaller blood clot appeared in his lung, he said.
To play football, Kyle would have to stop the blood thinners. Doctors explained the risk of playing football with mysterious blood clotting, but gave the decision to Kyle and his family.
“When James wanted to play, his father (Mike) and I did not want him to,” Bridgid Kyle said. “It’s very hard when you have a persistent 16-year-old who thought the sport defined him, even though it didn’t.”
James Kyle worried that his offers would be rescinded and hoped that medical professionals could figure out his curious condition.
“I thought if I don’t play this season, college coaches may find out and probably wouldn’t want me,” he said. “Junior year is important for recruiting. Why not just let me play. And since they didn’t know about the blood clots, I felt like it might have been a fluke. My story got spread out to doctors across the country and no one knows how it happened. I thought maybe I got unlucky and nothing will come back and I’ll be fine. I just wanted to play.”
Kyle suited up.
In the second game, the tight end fractured his elbow. He played with the injury in the third week of the season, but after that game, something was not right.
“My elbow was so swollen, like more swollen than usual, like in normal people that wouldn’t happen,” he said.
The Loyola medical staff reviewed Kyle’s case and delivered the news: He could not play football anymore. The risk was too great. He’d be on blood thinners for the rest of his life.
Trey Smith is a rookie in the National Football League and a starting offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith played every snap (116) in the first two weeks of this season.
Smith has a history of reoccurring blood clots in his lungs and takes blood thinners regularly.
His story is the nexus for Kyle’s “shot in the dark.”
In 2018, blood clots sidelined Smith for five games of his sophomore season with the University of Tennessee football program. He returned the next season and played his final two seasons on a strategic treatment plan. He played 22 games the next two seasons, earning All-Conference honors both years.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Smith said of his story, “Hopefully it will be a way to pioneer ground for people with my issues, that have blood-clotting issues and things of that nature.”
With help from his Loyola Academy family, specifically Ramblers parent and former Chicago Bear Olin Kreutz, Kyle has spoken with Smith about his blood-thinner regimen and the nature of playing with his condition.
“When James had pretty much given up, Olin had not given up,” Bridgid Kyle said. “I really don’t know him at all. His son James and my James played together. He didn’t have to do that.”
The treatment is called intermittent anticoagulation and involves taking blood thinners in strict intervals and constantly recording medical information, making special note of bruising, swelling and bleeding.
The treatment takes a commitment, not only from Kyle but also from his family and a school’s medical professionals, whether that school is Loyola or a prospective college.
Kyle said once a treatment plan is finalized, he will reach out to coaches at the schools that showed interest in him, with the understanding that “it’s a huge risk for colleges.”
He and his family believe the treatment can work but also know it is not up to them, even at Loyola, where Kyle hopes to play basketball or baseball this school year.
“It’s out there. You just have to get a team and a coach to want you enough to take that extra step,” Bridgid Kyle said.
“His father and I have done so much research with this plan. We know it could work,” she added. “But Loyola has to say yes. We can’t do anything about that. We can present the plan and whether they say yes is up to them. … It’s giving (James) a glimmer of hope and I hope he doesn’t get let down again.”
Instead of a helmet and pads, James Kyle now sports a headset and iPad on game days.
A team captain, he also leads the Ramblers onto the field each game with a boombox raised over his head to help hype his teammates.
On the sidelines, he works with the team’s pass catchers, including the talented junior tight ends, and in practice, he often acts as the opposition’s quarterback for Loyola’s scout team.
“We’re thankful he is around,” Holecek said. “He’s still a positive, vocal guy and a great leader.”
“Obviously it’s tragic to lose your career before you start, but his health is more important,” Holecek added. “ … We didn’t close the door yet. There’s a little hope he can come back.”
Through it all, Kyle’s connection to his teammates and Loyola Academy has provided stability amid the disappointment. Last season, after he was informed his career may be over, Kyle took the field in street clothes and was embraced over and over again by his teammates.
Whether he takes the field — or court or diamond — again as a Rambler is yet to be seen, but through the agonizing uncertainty of his future, Kyle has been well taken care of by his Loyola family and is well set up for his future, Bridgid said.
“As a mother, you never want your son to play football, never want him to get injured,” she said through tears. “But he loved it. It was his passion. We loved it as parents. There is nothing like football. … It is an amazing and exceptional family. What these guys have done to include James when he can’t play is everything.”