Fitting that while the current crop of NY Jets were imploding on and off the field, I found Dennis Byrd's biography on sale at the used book store. It is a quick but great read and offers stark contrast between a selfless man young man devastated playing the game he loved and that of say, Santonio Holmes, who basically quit on the team mid-game last week.
Byrd must have lived in at least ten different places before high school, bouncing around between Oklahoma and California. But his family stuck together bound by the strong Christian values of his parents. Dennis excelled on the football field for his small high school in Mustang, OK. He was good enough to play for the mighty OU or even OSU but due to some typical recruiting shenanigans ended up at the less fancied University of Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricanes (what a name!) hardly set the world of college football alight but again, Byrd was a standout and come draft day in 1989, he was taken as a second pick by the NY Jets - their first was Jeff Lageman. I sort of vaguely remember Jets fans grousing about the draft - but then again Jets fans always complain on draft day. Byrd and Lageman became fast friends and more importantly, very solid NFL linemen. Dennis Byrd was strong, fast, smart and loved nothing better than sacking the opposing QB and by his third year in the pro's, was one of the premier defensive tackles in the league.
In Nov 1992, Byrd suffered a catastrophic neck injury when he collided with team-mate Scott Merserau, both pursuing the Chiefs QB. The force of the impact shattered Byrds C4 vertebrae and left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was told he would never walk again. I remember this well and there was such sadness among the Jets faithful. Byrd was too young and too good to have suffered a career ending injury.
What follows is several gut-wrenching chapters detailing the excruciating fitting of the awful halo vest, total lack of control over basic bodily functions, marathon surgery, tiny inklings of hope as nerve endings begin to fire and respond, and ultimately movement in limbs that were medically diagnosed as useless.
Byrd was determined to recover: he flat out refused to quit and every day like a man possessed fought through exhausting physical therapy. He had wonderful medical help but what shines through is Byrd's faith in the Lord, self-belief and love for his wife, family and Jets team mates. Leon Hess deserves no small praise. As Jets team owner he was often at Dennis's bedside and made sure he got the best medical care. His friends Jeff Lageman and Marvin Washington were never far away, giving great support. While in hospital, Byrd was inundated with best wishes and cards, the funniest coming from a kid who wrote "Even though I am a Giants fan, I hope you get well".
Within months, Dennis Byrd walked again, beating incredible odds. As he left the hospital in Manhattan, he reminded fans that he would always by an NY Jet. The batch that lost feebly to Miami last week do not deserve to have # 90 give them play-off pep talks.
Great man, great story, great book.