I have been a Jets fan my entire life and one of the best moments for me as a fan was watching Ladainian Tomlinson walk on to the field with the rest of the team captains carrying Dennis Byrd’s jersey on to the field at Foxborough. I go back and watch YouTube highlights of that game and the highlights always start with that image. The number 90 blowing in the wind with LT looking straight ahead like a soldier going to war. The Jets players would speak the game finished about how motivated they were after hearing Byrd speak to the team the night before the game. They spoke as if they felt Byrd was out there with them. I know that I felt like Byrd was pushing Braylon Edwards through arm tackles on his way to the end zone. It felt like Byrd led that Tom Brady pass into the arms of David Harris. It felt like Shaun Ellis played with the spirit of Byrd inside of him with how he was beating the Patriots offensive linemen repeatedly. As a Jets fan, we don’t have many good memories. I really believe Dennis Byrd gave us one that night.
When I was 7 years old, my grandpa and I were watching the Jets against the Chiefs. Byrd was coming off a very good season and expectations were high entering his 4th year as a pro. On one specific play Byrd was about to sack Chiefs QB Dave Krieg when his helmet collided with teammate Scott Mesereau’s chest. Byrd fell and, we would later find out, couldn’t feel his legs. I remember not really understanding what was happening because football players to a 7 year old were like gods who always got up. In hindsight a 3rd year defensive tackle into his 4th year with 28 sacks in this day age is All-Pro like but here in this moment he was not moving. My mom had this Brown old school television in the living room and I remember leaning forward to the screen and my grandpa saying “he’ll be okay.” I wasn’t so sure.
In 1994, I was watching a Yankee game on a Saturday on Channel 11 when during a commercial break they showed a commercial for the Saturday Movie of the Day. It was the Dennis Byrd story, and I ran to call my grandpa to see if he remembered the game we watched together a couple of years ago. My grandpa told me he would watch the movie too, but that he had read that Byrd ended up paralyzed. I couldn’t believe it! I kept telling my grandpa that football players didn’t get paralyzed. Dennis Byrd taught me that these players are human too. The one sound byte that stood out from the film was Peter Berg saying “I can’t feel my legs.”
I remember the images of the Jets teammates coming around the hospital to hug Byrd and thought “wow, they must’ve really loved Dennis.” There’s something to be said about that, about a man whose impact is accurately measured by how many people he has touched. When people speak about Dennis Byrd, they don’t mention his 28 sacks and 110 tackles or how he played 3 different positions his first 3 years and still produced. No, they talk about how he fought back from paralysis so he could walk again. They talk about how he embodied the spirit of courage when most people just roll over and let their troubles consume them. Dennis Byrd didn’t do that, and the world now has one less person in it to show us how important it is to be strong.
Dennis Byrd passed away tonight at the age of 50 years old. The defensive lineman from Oklahoma who said that “man has a body, a mind and a spirit. There are times in a man’s life when his body tells him 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 this! It will make the mind and the body follow along” left us before he could give us another memory.
He passed away at 50 years old and the memory I will remember is his jersey swaying as LT and the Jets walked to the 50 yard line. There is something hauntingly beautiful about that for me as a Jets fan, but I am also sad. I’m sad because newer Jets fans won’t understand why no one wears the number 90, or why January 2011 is so important to this team, or why Dennis Byrd is one of ours like how Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, David Harris, and D’Brickashaw Ferguson is to the newer fans. I am sad because 50 years is for too young to pass away when you fought How Dennis fought. You remember the good players, but you remember them more when they’re great people. We will miss you Dennis. Sleep in peace.