Den­nis Byrd killed in car ac­ci­dent

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Den­nis Waszak Jr.

Den­nis Byrd was an in­spi­ra­tion for far more than any­thing he ever ac­com­plished on a foot­ball field.

Den­nis Byrd was an in­spi­ra­tion for far more than any­thing he ever ac­com­plished on a foot­ball field. He was able to walk again. And with each step he took to­ward re­cov­ery from paral­y­sis while guided by his al­ways-present faith, Byrd de­fied doc­tors’ grim pre­dic­tions and be­came a sym­bol of per­se­ver­ance and hope.

On Satur­day, the former NFL de­fen­sive line­man whose ca­reer was ended by a neck in­jury was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. He was 50.

The Ok­la­homa High­way Pa­trol said Byrd died in a two-ve­hi­cle col­li­sion on Ok­la­homa 88 north of Clare­more.

The Tulsa World first re­ported Byrd’s death. He starred at Mus­tang High School out­side Ok­la­homa City and then at the Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa be­fore play­ing for the New York Jets.

“We ex­tend our sin­cere con­do­lences to Den­nis’ wife, An­gela, their chil­dren and the en­tire Byrd fam­ily,” said Dr. Der­rick Gragg, Tulsa’s ath­letic di­rec­tor. “Den­nis ex­em­pli­fied true de­ter­mi­na­tion, tremen­dous heart and hu­mil­ity through­out his life. He had a tremen­dous play­ing ca­reer at TU and pro­fes­sion­ally with the New York Jets. He over­came great per­sonal ad­ver­sity af­ter a life-al­ter­ing in­jury on the foot­ball field.

“We know that Den­nis touched nu­mer­ous lives and will be missed by many.”

The Oolo­gah-Talala Emer­gency Med­i­cal Ser­vices said the crash hap­pened at about 11 a.m. be­tween Oolo­gah and Clare­more. It said a 17-year-old Clare­more youth driv­ing a 2000 Ford Ex­plorer north­bound on Ok­la­homa 88 veered into the on­com­ing lane, strik­ing the 2004 Hum­mer H2 that Byrd was driv­ing.

Byrd, who had re­turned to his home in Talala in re­cent years, was pro­nounced dead at the scene, and the 17-year-old driver and a 12-year-old pas­sen­ger in Byrd’s ve­hi­cle were taken in crit­i­cal con­di­tion to Saint Fran­cis Hos­pi­tal in Tulsa.

The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Byrd was a sec­ond-round draft pick of the Jets in 1989 and quickly be­came a fan fa­vorite for his in­ten­sity on the field as much as his hum­ble, soft-spo­ken ap­proach off it.

He was con­sid­ered one of the NFL’s promis­ing young de­fen­sive ends dur­ing his first three

sea­sons, rack­ing up 27 sacks — a mark that only two play­ers in fran­chise his­tory sur­passed: Mark Gastineau with 33 1/2 from 1979-81 and John Abra­ham with 27 1/2 from 2000-02.

Byrd had one sack mid­way through his fourth sea­son when his life was changed dur­ing a game on Nov. 29, 1992, against Kansas City.

He broke his neck af­ter slam­ming head­first into the chest of team­mate Scott Mersereau as Chiefs quar­ter­back David Krieg stepped for­ward to avoid a sack. The im­pact broke the C-5 ver­te­bra in Byrd’s neck, leav­ing him briefly par­a­lyzed, al­though doc­tors were uncer­tain if Byrd would ever be able to walk again.

Af­ter a vig­or­ous re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion over the next several months, Byrd re­turned to the Mead­ow­lands for the Jets’ open­ing game the fol­low­ing sea­son and walked — gingerly but un­aided — to mid­field as an hon­orary cap­tain.

He never fully re­cov­ered from the in­jury, walk­ing with some dif­fi­culty and go­ing through con­tin­u­ous re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion dur­ing the years since. But Byrd, a de­vout Chris­tian, wrote a book in 1993 called “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Tri­umph of Den­nis Byrd,” which de­tailed how he re­lied on his faith and fam­ily to push through his in­jury to re­cover and serve an in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers who went through sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

Byrd’s story was later made into a made-for-TV movie, with ac­tor-di­rec­tor Peter Berg play­ing him.

Dur­ing the 2010 sea­son, Byrd sent then-Jets coach Rex Ryan the No. 90 jersey that had been torn from his torso on the field af­ter the col­li­sion as an in­spi­ra­tional gift.

As a guest of the team, Byrd de­liv­ered a mov­ing speech to the Jets at their ho­tel the night be­fore a 2821 play­off victory over the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots — dur­ing which the Jets had hung Byrd’s jersey in their locker room.

Run­ning back LaDainian Tom­lin­son and safety James Ihedigbo also car­ried out a green and white No. 90 jersey to mid­field for the coin toss be­fore the game. Many Jets play­ers cred­ited Byrd’s speech for help­ing mo­ti­vate them to the victory.

“Hear­ing about his story for the first time re­ally makes you un­der­stand how for­tu­nate we are and how frag­ile your ca­reer is,” quar­ter­back Mark Sanchez said at the time. “Th­ese mo­ments you have on the plane, hang­ing around in the locker room, hav­ing fun with guys, go­ing to eat, play­ing on the field, it’s pretty spe­cial. It can end at any mo­ment. That was just a good re­minder for us of how for­tu­nate we are.”

No Jets player has worn No. 90 since Byrd, and on Oct. 28, 2012, the team hon­ored him at half­time of its game against Mi­ami by mak­ing him the fifth player in fran­chise his­tory to have his num­ber re­tired.

Mersereau in­tro­duced Byrd to the crowd, say­ing the most touch­ing mo­ment of his life came when he vis­ited Byrd in the hos­pi­tal and his team­mate — un­able to walk at that time — told him: “Angie and I have been wor­ried about you.”

Flanked by wife An­gela and their four chil­dren, along with several of his former team­mates, Byrd fought back tears while he was given a stand­ing ova­tion by the fans at MetLife Sta­dium.

“I learned to be a man in Ok­la­homa,” Byrd said, “and I grew to be a man in New York.”

Ev­ery year, a Jets player is se­lected by his team­mates to re­ceive the Den­nis Byrd Most In­spi­ra­tional Player award.

“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,” Byrd said in 2012. “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.”

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