It's been more than two decades since Dennis Byrd got off to a rip-roaring start to his career as a versatile defensive lineman and top young sackmaster for the New York Jets.
It's a month shy of 20 years that Byrd's career ended with his devastating paralyzing injury in the Meadowlands against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, 1992.
But the soft-spoken, salt-of-the-earth Oklahoman has annually been an inspirational presence for the Green & White ever since those days. And the Jets will recognize that inspiration and provide more of the same for players, coaches and fans now and in the future when they retire his No. 90 uniform at ceremonies during halftime of Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium.
"It's just a tremendous honor to be recognized by the Jets, to have that number retired," Byrd told reporters on a conference call this week. "It's meant a lot to me as a player and it means a great deal to me as I've been retired. And it's been an honor the way it's been done. I'm very excited, I'm looking forward to coming back to New York and spending the weekend there and to the ceremony."
There was an excitement for Jets fans of the late Eighties and early Nineties watching Byrd, the understated, country-strong second-round draft pick out of Tulsa in 1989, coming roaring out of the blocks as a perhaps unexpected heir to the sacking legacy of Mark Gastineau, who retired in '88.
He had no starts as a rookie backup in 1989, yet still racked up seven sacks, an impressive debut. Then, lining up as the starter at the Eagle tackle spot and at end in then-coordinator Pete Carroll's defensive schemes, Byrd burst on the scene with 13 sacks in 1990 and seven more in '91.
In Jets history, Byrd's 27-sack first three seasons has been bettered by only two players regardless of position. Gastineau had 33.5 sacks from 1979-81, all unofficial because all came before 1982, and DE John Abraham had 27.5 sacks from 2000-02.
"Things Become Special to a Guy"
Byrd said there was a specific reason he picked No. 90 to build his short career in the pros.
"When I was in high school, my older brother, Dan, wore No. 90, and he has always been a significant, important part of my life as a young man and as an athlete," he recalled. "That was not a number I wore in college or in high school, but it was available with the Jets and it was a number that I wanted to wear originally as an acknowledgement to my older brother.
"Then as I wore that number and made it mine for four years playing there in New York, those things become special to a guy. They're your colors, your stripes, your number. It grows with you."
However, Byrd's on-field exploits came to a sudden end in 1992. On the second play of the third quarter against the Chiefs, Byrd and D-line mate Scott Mersereau came free from opposite sides of the line to try to hit QB Dave Krieg in the pocket. Krieg stepped up at the last split-second to avoid a crushing hit. Byrd crashed into Mersereau's chest, breaking a vertebra and suffering spinal damage.
Doctors, trainers and EMTs cut Byrd's uniform off his body to save his life and get him to the hospital. The ambulance left the field, the game resumed (a 23-7 Jets loss), the season went on, but the Jets had been hit hard by the crushing injury suffered by one of their young leaders.
In the ensuing days, weeks and months, Byrd gained newfound respect for the fans and friends he'd made in the New York area as a player and who never left his side during his recovery.
"With the backdrop of the thousands of letters I received when I was in the hospital, I saw that curtain pull back a little bit and it showed the spirit of the people that are tough and hard-nosed but whenever it's needed they're just as giving and wonderful as anybody on the face of the earth," he said during a phone conversation in July shortly after owner Woody Johnson called to tell of the plans to retire his jersey.
"I learned a lot about New Yorkers from being a football player. And I learned a lot about life and how to live from New Yorkers when I was injured."
"Living a Blessed Life"
Byrd's playing career was over, but his road toward inspiration had just begun. On Sept. 5, 1993, he walked unsteadily but unaided onto the Meadowlands turf to be honored and to thank the fans at the Jets-Broncos opening-day game.
He wrote his autobiography, "Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd," which was made into a 1994 TV movie. His story remains a living chapter in Jets history as each December the current crop of Jets present the Dennis Byrd Most Inspirational Player award to a teammate.
And over the years he has had numerous speaking and ministering engagements.
"I'm a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none," he said with a laugh. "I do enjoy doing that, and I really have loved coaching football and working with kids, talking about the lessons I've learned as an athlete and the journey as someone with a disability. Football has always been, for me, a cornerpost of strength and a way to accomplish things in life, whether it's on the field or just in maintaining a quality of life. All those lessons — dedication, perseverance, teamwork — they all dovetail nicely into living a blessed life."
Byrd, who turned 46 earlier this month, said he's in good health these days, although "it's still a process for me. With a spinal-cord injury there are times that it's very frustrating and progress can seem to be painfully slow. But as time goes on, I continue to get better and better with sensations, strength, stamina and all those things. With an injury I had 20 years ago, there's still encouraging signs of recovery, so it's a good thing."
He remains a devoted family man. He and Angela, his wife of 27 years, live "in the middle of nowhere" in Talala, Okla., and have four children. Ashtin, the oldest, and her husband are expecting to give birth to a son a week after Sunday's game. "Worst-case scenario," he said, "is that we'll have a little grandson born in New York, which would be ironic, oddly appropriate."
"It's a Humbling Gesture"
The rest of the family includes Haley, 19, Lauren, 11, and 8-year-old Zach. And Byrd said he won't push his son into the game that injured him so grievously two decades ago, but ...
"I have no fears of injuries and so on. You have to live life, go as hard as you can with as much passion as you can, and let the chips fall where they may," Byrd said. "He's a little young but he certainly has the size for it. If he finds himself tossing around a football and wants to know about the game, sure, I'll always encourage that."
As Byrd has said, he's not defined as a man by his injury, so no one should feel sorry. But he was honored to be asked to speak to the 2010 Jets the night before they went out and defeated the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC playoffs. And he's honored again to be remembered one more time on Sunday. Among the guests at the game will be former teammates Mersereau, Marvin Washington, Paul Frase and Bill Pickel, and special messages from Jeff Lageman and Carroll will be aired
"It's a humbling gesture," Byrd said of the plans for his latest return to the area where his football career and his life took a turn in a completely new direction. "There are so many people who really deserve attention and thanks, and I want that to be felt if possible. There are so many things in life bigger than each individual. The kindness and generosity shown to me by so many people, from the team, ownership, people in the New York area, they're all just priceless to me."