Sunday, October 16, 2016

Dennis Byrd, 1966-2016

2016 is being a real bastard of a year. It's taken a lot of heroes. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Glenn Frey. Maurice White. Moonwalker Edgar Mitchell. Harper Lee. George Kennedy. Beatles producer George Martin. Patty Duke. Merle Haggard. Prince. Scotty Moore. Elie Wiesel. Garry Marshall. Marni Nixon. R2-D2 portrayer Kenny Baker. Gene Wilder. Hugh O'Brian. Edward Albee. Shimon Peres. King Rama IX of Thailand.

From sports alone: John Cruijff. Muhammad Ali. Gordie Howe. Pat Summitt. Arnold Palmer. Each, arguably, the best ever at what they did. Nate Thurmond. Věra Čáslavská. And, sort of a sports figure, Ken "White Shadow" Howard.  Also legends.

I know, a lot of these people were old, and some were known to be sick. But that's no excuse.

Now, Dennis Byrd.


Dennis DeWayne Byrd was born on October 5, 1966 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He grew up in Mustang, Oklahoma, played defensive end at the University of Tulsa (the Golden Hurricane), and was drafted by the New York Jets in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft.

On November 29, 1992, he was enjoying a modest, not particularly noteworthy career when he took the field against the Kansas City Chiefs at Giants Stadium. The Jets would lose the game, 23-7, but that ended up not mattering much, especially after the Jets finished the season 4-12, which probably would have happened anyway if this hadn't happened.

Byrd and teammate Scott Mersereau attempted to sack Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg, but Krieg got away, resulting in a collision between the Jet defenders. Byrd's helmet hit Mersereau straight in the chest, compressing Byrd's neck and breaking a bone in his neck the C-5 veretbra.

This was 1 year and 1 day after Detroit Lions guard Mike Utley had broken his neck in a game, and just 3 days after an emotional Thanksgiving game in which Utley guided his wheelchair out to midfield and served as the Lions' honorary captain.

Like Utley, Byrd was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of his injury. Utley took years before he could even take a few steps unaided, and, essentially, remains in a wheelchair, although he hasn't let that stop him from getting around and raising money for spinal cord research.

Byrd was considerably luckier: With intense physical therapy, he was able to walk to midfield for the Jets' season opener on September 5, 1993, and serve as honorary captain. In the meantime, every Jet helmet had a sticker with his uniform number, 90 over an ichthys -- a "Jesus fish," indicative of Byrd's faith. The 1st game after his injury was against the Buffalo Bills, and some of their players wore the logo on their helmets as well.

The Jets announced an annual Most Inspirational Player Award, to be named for him. They also announced that his Number 90 would never be reissued, and on October 28, 2012, it was formally retired.

Byrd was married to Angela Hales, and they had 4 children. He wrote Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd. It was made into a TV-movie starring Peter Berg. He coached on high school football staffs in Oklahoma, at Owasso High School and Lincoln Christian School in Tulsa, the latter naming its football stadium for him.

He made a living as a motivational speaker, and had he been paid for it, he certainly would have earned it on January 16, 2011. He had sent Jet coach Rex Ryan a letter, and the jersey that was cut off from him as a result of his accident, to motivate the players before their Playoff against the arch-rival New England Patriots.

Ryan saw Byrd's bet, and raised it by asking him to come and give the team's pregame pep talk. He did. The Jets won, beating the Patriots 28-21 in Foxboro. It remains the team's greatest moment since Super Bowl III.

Yesterday, at around 11:15 AM, Byrd was driving his 2004 Hummer H2 southbound on Oklahoma State Route 88, between Claremore and Oologah. A 17-year-old kid (whose name, legally, cannot be released) from Claremore was driving a 2000 Ford Explorer, and it veered into the oncoming lane, and hit Byrd's Hummer head-on. He was dead on the scene, just past his 50th birthday.

There was a 12-year-old passenger in Byrd's car. I cannot determine whether it was one of his children. Both this child than the driver of the other car were taken to a hospital in Tulsa, and at last check, both were listed in critical condition.

It doesn't seem fair that Dennis Byrd overcame so much, only to have it end so soon.

UPDATE: His final resting place is not publicly known.

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