CORRECTS AGE TO 50 – SUNDAY, OCT. 28, 2012, FILE PHOTO
Dennis Byrd died in a car crash Saturday at 50 years old. (John Minchillo/AP)
Finally there was a collision from which Dennis Byrd, one of the toughest New York Jets who ever lived, could not survive. He was driving in his Hummer north of Claremore, Okla. and suddenly there was a car veering into his lane, and now Byrd is dead. He broke his neck once playing for the Jets. There was the thought that he would never walk again. But he did, and made people cheer him even more than he ever did when he was No. 90 for the Jets. He never did play football again, just went on to live a full and wonderful life. Now it ends, much too soon.
This time the collision is with another car, not Scott Mersereau, a teammate. Byrd was coming hard for the quarterback of the Kansas City Chief, Dave Krieg, in November of 1992. Krieg stepped up in the pocket, which is what quarterbacks do when somebody like Byrd is coming for them. Byrd put his head down at the last second when Mersereau was in front of him. He broke his C-5 vertebra, and was paralyzed for a time. He always believed he would walk again, even when the doctors weren’t so sure; even knowing he would never play football. You better believe he walked. If you knew him at all, you weren’t remotely surprised. Dennis Byrd was always one of those guys who never needed to tell you how tough he was.
Now he is gone, 10 days after his 50th birthday, because of an accident on Oklahoma State Highway 88, between Claremore and Oologah, near Lowry Road. He leaves a wife and four children and a legacy that is a permanent part of Jets history, such an important part that before the Jets played the Patriots in a big playoff game in January of 2011, before Rex Ryan and the Jets went into Foxborough and beat the 14-2 Patriots, it was Dennis Byrd who addressed the team.
“I just heard the most inspirational message of my life,” Braylon Edwards would say of what he heard from Byrd that night.
Dennis Byrd lived a tragic life, but he leaves a huge mark
Of course it was. It was Dennis Byrd. He came out of Tulsa and played four years with the Jets and there was a two-year stretch when he had 20 sacks. He was No. 90, and he was that good, until he collided with Scott Mersereau and his teammates heard him say this:
“Am I going to be paralyzed? I can’t move my legs.”
There was surgery. And rehab. Then you started to see headlines and stories about how he could lift his right leg again, and how he could stand again. And how, by God, he was going to walk again. There was a story, in January of 1993, the Associated Press, when Byrd said: “The physical therapy is difficult. If it hurt this much to play football, I probably would have quit a long time ago.”
He was a good, strong, quiet man of faith, an even better man than he’d been a football player. There was a time, not too terribly long after he got hurt, when I took Mike Utley, the old Detroit Lion who was also paralyzed in a football game, who would never again walk the way Dennis Byrd would walk, to Mount Sinai to meet Dennis Byrd when Utley was about to be honored by Special Olympics Connecticut. There were these two big young guys, these two tough guys, in wheelchairs that day, smiling and joking and laughing and becoming instant friends, joined by the bond and by the knowledge of how quickly things can change. We talk constantly about how the next moment in sports is the one that can change everything. Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd found out the hard way.
“I look at him,” Byrd said, meaning Utley, whose injury was far more serious and far more permanent, “and there’s no way I could ever feel sorry for myself.”
He was like that. He was all that. I remember talking to Arthur Ashe once, after he contracted the AIDS virus that would eventually kill him because of a tainted blood transfusion. And Arthur said that he never once asked himself, “Why me?”
“If I ask myself why this happened to me,” Arthur said, “then I also have to ask why all the good in my life happened to me, why I was able to win our national championship and win Wimbledon when nobody thought I could. I never said ‘why me?’ then. I can’t start now.”
That was Dennis Byrd. That was Dennis Byrd exactly, even if he would never again play pro football after the age of 26. He went around the country and inspired people with his story, and courage. He later did some coaching at Owasso High School in Owasso, Okla., working with the defensive line. The field at Lincoln Christian School in Tulsa, where he also coached, is named after him.
The Jets will always remember the way he played for them until he got hurt that day. Ryan and his coaches and the players in the room that night will never forget the speech he gave before that game in Foxborough against the Patriots, before the Jets got one of the biggest victories they’ve had in their history.
Now No. 90 is gone, at 50. Everybody around here remembers all the times and all the ways the Jets have gotten knocked down in their history. Nobody ever got up the way Dennis Byrd did. He will always be remembered for that.
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Posted: October 16, 2o16