Dennis Byrd lived a tragic life, but he leaves a huge mark

It was Thanksgiving Day nearly a year after Dennis Byrd slammed headfirst into teammate Scott Mersereau’s chest as they converged on Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg, dropped to the turf at Giants Stadium and couldn’t move. He was paralyzed with a broken neck and there were fears he could die.

Three months later, after a miracle recovery and incredible work by the team of doctors the Jets assembled, a partially paralyzed Byrd, with the aid of crutches, limped into a news conference at Mount Sinai Hospital to say goodbye. He was on his way back to his beloved Owasso, Okla.

“I’m very proud to say I’m a New York Jet and I will be forever,” Byrd said as the tears flowed.

So, the next Thanksgiving, the phone rings in the Long Island home of Jets beat writer Paul Needell. They had a special bond. Needell had an illness that he fought so hard for more than 25 years that would take his life in early 2015.

Byrd’s speech motivated Green: Edwards

They had children about the same age. Byrd was heartbroken over Needell’s health issues. When Byrd was injured on Nov. 29, 1992, it hit Needell hard, even more so when teammate Marvin Washington revealed in the locker room after the game that Byrd’s wife Angela was pregnant with their second child.

So, when Byrd called Needell on Thanksgiving in 1993, they were so happy to be reunited. “Who woulda thunk it?” Byrd bragged to Needell. “Me standing at the head of the table carving the turkey.”

Dennis Byrd was the most the genuine and nicest player I’ve met in my 38 years covering the NFL. He was deeply religious and never once felt sorry for himself. It was impossible not to admire his courage after his career-ending and life-threatening injury.

The news Saturday was crushing. Devastating. After all he had been through, fighting his way back from being paralyzed, Byrd was killed when the car he was driving was struck head-on by a 17-year-old who lost control of his car on an Oklahoma highway.

Dennis Byrd was and always will be an inspiration to all

Life can be awfully cruel. Byrd lived a tragic life.

The Jets honored him at halftime of their season opener in 1993. He limped onto the field by himself. “I must say that I miss the lights, adrenaline and most of all the cheers,” he said. “But God has given me many things to be thankful for. I miss you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thanks for your prayers.”

Byrd did some television work and then high school coaching, but was living a quiet life back in Oklahoma. Before the Jets played the Patriots in the 2010 divisional round of the playoffs, Byrd sent the Jets the No. 90 green jersey he was wearing in the game in which he was injured, the jersey that had to be cut off him, hoping to provide inspiration.

“The symbolism to me is priceless,” Byrd said. “That jersey was an essential part of my recovery. It helped me get my life back.”

Former Jets DL Dennis Byrd killed in car accident at age 50

Rex Ryan was so moved by Byrd’s gesture that he invited him to address the players at the team meeting at their hotel the night before the game. Ryan showed a highlight film of Byrd’s career, there was a clip of him working to regain strength by exercising in the pool and it ended with him walking to the news conference at Mount Sinai.

The players didn’t know Byrd was in the hotel and was going to speak until Ryan introduced him. He stood in front of the packed ballroom, with his ripped No. 90 jersey in his hand, his voice cracking.

“A man has a body, a mind and a spirit,” Byrd recounted in an interview the next week with ESPN. “There are times in a man’s life when his body will tell them it can’t continue on, where his mind will tell him that the task set for him is too hard for him to accomplish. Those two don’t matter. It’s a man’s will, a man’s spirit, that will tell him you can do it and will make the mind and the body follow along.”

The room was quiet except for players crying. There was no chatter. No whispering. They were mesmerized by Byrd. “I broke it down to them that every physical possession that I have, were I to have the genuine opportunity to trade them in for one more game, one more play, I would do it,” Byrd said.

The Jets hung his tattered jersey outside their locker room at Gillette Stadium. The team captains, led by LaDainian Tomlinson, carried a fresh white road jersey with Byrd’s name and number on the back, out to midfield for the coin toss. The jersey remained on the Jets bench during the game. The Jets beat the Patriots 28-21 for the second biggest victory in team history.

No player has ever worn Byrd’s No. 90 since the day he was injured. It was officially retired in a ceremony he attended at MetLife Stadium in 2012. That was the last time Byrd made a public appearance around the Jets.

Following the injury, Byrd spent two weeks in Lenox Hill followed by two months in Mount Sinai. Every night, he would get the same visitor: Jets owner Leon Hess. Every night Hess walked into his hospital room and made him feel better. Some nights, Hess would spend just a few minutes. Sometimes they would talk for a long time. Byrd never told Hess that it was OK if he didn’t have the time to visit anymore. “I loved him coming,” he said at Hess’ funeral in Manhattan in 1999. “I needed him to show up.”

Hess made sure Byrd got the best medical care, took care of the medical bills, paid off the final two years of his contract, worth more than $1 million. He made a sizable contribution to Byrd’s foundation, which helps children and people with disabilities.

“It would have taken the rest of my life to thank him for what he has done for me and my family,” Byrd said.

Byrd was only 26 when his career ended. He was only 50 when his life ended. The sadness will never end.

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dennis byrd
new york jets
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