By Peter Schwartz
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“I’m very proud to say that I’m a New York Jet … and I will be forever.” – Dennis Byrd before he walked out of Lenox Hill Hospital and went home to Oklahoma in 1993
I covered that press conference, and I will fully admit that I welled up when a courageous Byrd uttered those words. It was a year before that — on November 29th, 1992 — when I was in my seats with my brother at Giants Stadium. From section 339, Row 12, Seat 25, I witnessed the saddest moment that I had ever experienced at a sporting event.
And it had nothing to do with the final score, a 23-9 Jets loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Byrd’s triumph over tragedy will take center stage this Sunday when his No. 90 jersey is retired at halftime of the Jets-Dolphins game at MetLife Stadium. The painful memories of that fateful December Sunday from 20 years ago will surely come to mind, but as many of you know, there is more to Byrd’s story than a career-ending injury.
The official box score from that game shows that Byrd was credited with a sack of Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg. But it was on that play that Byrd collided with teammate Scott Mersereau, causing the defensive lineman to suffer a broken C-5 vertebra that left him paralyzed.
As he was taken off the field, you knew that it wasn’t good. But it wasn’t until the car ride home that we learned about the extent of the injury. Doctors feared that Byrd would never walk again, but that was far from the end of the story. The former star at the University of Tulsa underwent extensive physical therapy and would eventually walk again.
In the weeks and months after the injury, Byrd received plenty of support from the Jets and his family and friends, as well as the people in the New York metropolitan area. Byrd received “hundreds and hundreds” of pounds of get-well letters which were shipped back home to Oklahoma after he left the hospital.
It was overwhelming to say the least.
“There is no way to put that into words,” said Byrd. “It was an impossible amount to ever respond to.”
Byrd would get his chance to respond to many of the fans, about 76,000 of them all at once.
At the 1993 Jets home opener against the Broncos, Byrd walked onto the very field that he was carted off from the season before. There was a thunderous ovation from the crowd in attendance, including the Schwartz brothers in section 339. I don’t think I had ever clapped or cheered any harder at a sporting event before. Byrd led the Jets to the middle of the field before the game and took part in the coin toss as the Jets’ honorary captain.
“There was an enormous amount of emotion on that day,” recalled Byrd.
This was more than just a fallen athlete getting a standing ovation. This was about a man who showed courage and continues to be an inspiration. His journey was so touching that the Jets named an annual award after him that goes to the team’s most inspirational player. The first “Dennis Byrd Most Inspirational Player Award” appropriately went to Byrd.
You can relive the moment here.
This Sunday, the Jets will make official what has been their unofficial policy since 1992. No Jets player will ever wear No. 90 again. It will join Joe Namath’s No. 12, Don Maynard’s No. 13, Joe Klecko’s No. 73 and Curtis Martin’s No. 28 as the fifth number in franchise history to be retired.
“It’s just a tremendous honor to be recognized by the Jets and to have that number retired,” said Byrd. “It meant a lot to me. I’m very excited about the weekend and I’m looking forward to coming back to New York.”
There is a story behind why Byrd wore No. 90 with the Jets. It’s a number that he wanted in high school and college, but it wasn’t available. After getting drafted by the Jets he was finally able to wear No. 90 as a tribute to his older brother, Dan, who wore that number when he played football. Dan meant a lot to Dennis, and so did that number.
In retiring No. 90, Byrd is receiving the highest honor that a team can give to a player.
“I wore that number and made that number mine for the four years that I played in New York,” said Byrd. “Those things become special. They’re your colors, your stripes and your number.”
After the injury, Byrd’s journey to this honor took him down a long and winding road. He dabbled in broadcasting for a bit and then basically went into seclusion at his home on a ranch in Tulsa. He did not have any connection to the Jets for many years but admits that he always followed the team on television. It wasn’t until just before the Jets’ divisional playoff game against the Patriots in January of 2011 that he re-connected with the team that drafted him in 1989.
Byrd connected with a Jets scout on Facebook, who is the son of a Jets scout from Byrd’s playing days. One thing led to another, and Byrd decided it was time to reach out to his team. He had held onto the jersey that he was wearing at the time of the injury but decided to send it to Jets head coach Rex Ryan the week of the playoff game against the Pats.
Why was it the right time to re-connect and return the jersey?
“There were a number of things that came together that just made it the right time,” said Byrd. “So I made the decision to send a letter and send that jersey back. It was that and the fact that I just hate the Patriots.”
Well done Dennis! Once a Jet … always a Jet!
Ryan was so touched by the gesture that he invited Byrd to speak to the team the night before the game. Several of the players were so moved by Byrd’s words that night that they tweeted their feelings for the world to see and read. Byrd attended the Jets’ big win over the Patriots and addressed reporters during a pregame press conference.
The following week, Byrd was the Jets’ honorary captain for the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
On the day that he was hurt, I was wearing a Byrd jersey while watching from my seats. I still have that jersey today. It hasn’t fit me for a long time, but it’s something that I will always cherish.
It may sound a bit unprofessional as I cover the Jets these days, but I think I’m going to bring it with me on Sunday. It’s just my way of honoring a great man, player, father and husband. It will be awesome to see him get the ovation that I know Jets fans will deliver.
I might just have to step out of the press box with that jersey and help with the cheering!
Congratulations, Dennis, on a great honor! You deserve it!
What an inspiration Dennis Byrd was and still is today. It should be a touching ceremony on Sunday. Share your thoughts and comments in the section below…