While NFL birds crashed and burned in spectacular fashion in this past weekend’s divisional playoff games, one “Byrd” helped his former team soar into a stratosphere that few believed they were capable of reaching.
One by one they fell from their playoff perches.
For all of the trash talking that went on during the week, the words that may very well have made the difference in this game happened behind closed doors between the Jets and former defensive lineman Dennis Byrd.
On Nov. 29, 1992, Byrd suffered a neck injury in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. While attempting to sack Chiefs’ quarterback Dave Kreig, Byrd’s head collided with teammate Scott Merserau’s chest and resulted in a broken C-5 vertebra.
Byrd was left paralyzed. No one knew if he would ever walk again, but he was determined to do so.
After extensive physical therapy, Byrd was able to walk again.
On Sept. 5, 1993, with the aid of canes, Byrd walked on his own to the 50-yard line of the Meadowlands as honorary captain for the coin toss. It is a moment that will never be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it.
At halftime of that 1993 home-opening game, Byrd was presented with a trophy for the “Most Inspirational Player Award.” From that moment on, the award was renamed the “Dennis Byrd Award.”
Byrd has never stopped rooting for the only team that he ever played for and still considers himself a Jet to this day.
This week Rex Ryan received a gift-the actual jersey that was cut from Byrd’s body on that life-changing day in 1992.
Later in the week, Byrd spoke to the Jets.
In a week filled with brash words and sarcasm being delivered through the media between the Jets and Patriots, the words that rose above the din were the ones delivered in private by Byrd to his former team.
Most people didn’t give the Jets much of a chance against the Patriots, especially given the fact that they lost 45-3 in Foxboro in December.
Most people didn’t believe that Byrd would ever walk again, but he did. If anyone knows what it takes to overcome long odds, it is Dennis Byrd. So, when he spoke, the Jets listened.
Byrd told the team, “There is a moment for men to put that stamp on who they are supposed to be, who everybody thought they could be.”
The Jets came into this season with high hopes after reaching the AFC championship game last season. Many predicted that this would be the year that they finally get back to the Super Bowl. Their regular season didn’t live up to their lofty expectations, but making it to the playoffs gave them the chance to turn Byrd’s words into a reality.
In his speech, Byrd said to the team “This is that time.” He continued by saying “There comes those moments where you’ve got to rise to that challenge. This is the one. This is the present game, the one that counts the most.”
Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards called Byrd’s speech “the most inspirational message of my life.”
Fullback Tony Richardson said, “it was nothing short of amazing.”
Because the room was eerily quiet as Byrd spoke, he wasn’t sure that his message was getting through. It wasn’t until after the speech, when he spoke to the players individually, that he realized his message had served its intended purpose.
If any doubts lingered in Byrd’s mind, they had to have been removed as he watched James Ihedigbo and LaDainian Tomlinson (this season’s Dennis Byrd Award winner) walk to the middle of Gillette Field for the coin toss with a No. 90 Jets jersey stretched between them.
The actual jersey that was gifted to Ryan by Byrd still hung in the Jets’ locker room.
Byrd said that it has been on his mind to send the jersey back for the last 18 years. Although his number has never been officially retired, the Jets have honored Byrd by never reissuing it to any other player.
The timing of Byrd’s gesture and speech could not have been more appropriate, as evidenced by the Jets performance in their 28-21 victory over the Patriots.
They seemed to have that something extra that inspired them to push a little harder and run a little faster. This happened on a number of plays, but one play in particular stands out above all the rest.
With just over a minute left in the first half, the Jets lead 7-3 and were threatening to score again. It was 3rd and 4 at the Patriots 15-yard line. Mark Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards near the 5-yard line, but Edwards wanted more than just the first down. He kept driving his legs all the way into the end zone, dragging Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather with him.
When asked about the play that gave the Jets a 14-3 lead heading into halftime, Edwards replied, “I just felt Dennis Byrd as I was going into the end zone.”
Bart Scott’s post-game interview with ESPN’s Sal Palantonio is an instant classic and proof-positive that the Jets were even more fired up than usual for the game against the Patriots.
A more subdued Scott was interviewed the following morning on ESPN First Take, and offered further insight into just how much he was motivated by Dennis Byrd’s speech.
“We had a tremendous speech from Dennis Byrd. It was very inspirational. He brought back that jersey that he had when got paralyzed, and it was his first time speaking to anybody. It was such an emotional atmosphere. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he chose to come in and inspire us.”
Byrd’s speech definitely factored into the outstanding performance by the Jets, but will the inspiration carry over in the AFC championship game against the Steelers? Scott thinks that it will.
“I think that we’ll be inspired and guys in that room will be changed forever by hearing him speak,” concluded Scott.
After the emotional upset victory against their bitter rivals, the Jets will need whatever inspiration they can find to earn their first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years.
With Dennis Byrd’s words still ringing in their ears, come Sunday night, the Jets may very well be packing their bags for Dallas.