Football is a beautiful, but brutal game in which 22 of the strongest, fastest and most finely tuned athletes on the planet grind each other to dust for 60 minutes, 16 times a year. In the NFL, strength is a precious commodity to acquire and something that every team strives to gain leaving little time for reflection or “what if” scenarios about pain, injuries and mortality.
During a rough 1992 season in which Jets fans already said a tearful goodbye to Al Toon, Dennis Byrd began a journey that would show some of the toughest men in the world what real strength was and for that reason is why Dennis Byrd is being inducted into the TJB Hall of Fame.
On November 29, in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Meadowlands, Byrd rushed in an attempt to sack Chiefs QB Dave Krieg, but Krieg stepped up to avoid the tackle, and Byrd collided with fellow Jets teammate Scott Mersereau who was coming for the sack on the opposite side. Byrd ducked his head at the last moment before he collided with Mersereau’s chest. The head-first collision resulted in a broken vertebra and left Byrd paralyzed.
“The hit was deafaning,” remembered Byrd. “I remember the feeling of slowly falling to the ground … I tried to take my helmet off, to unsnap the snaps with my hand, and it … it just wouldn’t work right … At that point, I began to realize that there wasn’t any feeling.”
Even though there was no feeling, after some experimental drugs to reduce swelling, an exhaustive seven hour surgery and intensive physical therapy, Byrd walked just ten weeks later to announce that he was going home during a press conference at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York — it was a modern day miracle.
But Byrd’s strength during the worst times came from somewhere else, somewhere beyond his large 270 pound frame. As he lay in his hospital bed at Lenox Hill waiting for a surgery to remove pieces of broken bone from his spine, Byrd and his wife Angela sent word via Jet kicker and friend Cary Blanchard to the press contingent. “Tell [the press] Dennis says he’s glad God chose him for this, because he has the strength to handle it, and tell them I’m glad God chose me as Dennis’s partner.” In the face of enormous doubt Blanchard dutifully relayed the Byrds’ hopeful message to the waiting press through his own tears.
But it wasn’t the injury that formed this amazing character in Dennis, he had it long before November 29, 1992. Dennis Byrd was one of the busiest players in the NFL in terms of volunteering his time and donating to charities, often lending help to any worthy cause that would ask. There are countless stories of Dennis outbidding himself to raise money for charities, spending time with the children of fallen police officers, even being 45 minutes late to training camp meetings because he was determined to sign autographs for every kid who wanted one. In other words, while with the Jets and even today, Dennis Byrd gives all he has for those around him and especially to those less fortunate than himself.
Where does courage, compassion and care for others like that come from? Those are rare gifts indeed. For Dennis, it’s clear it comes from his faith. It’s this source of strength that Dennis has which puts to shame how many times an athlete can lift a 225 pound bar or how many times he tackles a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.
I was at the game — my first Jets game ever — with my father and godfather and I remember sitting there, wondering what was happening. No one knew anything, and the longer we waited the more the audience got nervous. There were players on the field praying … there were even people in the stands started doing the same. Those moments were teachable for me. Although I was just a teenager, I saw how precious life is and following his recovery, I learned more about Dennis’ inner strength and knew that was something I admired and wanted. If Dennis was to know that, I’m guessing that he’d say that if his story was inspiration to me, then it made all his trials worth it.
And that’s why Dennis Byrd is in the TJB Hall of Fame.