Later this month, hundreds of NFL draft hopefuls will gather in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine. Despite an incredibly productive college career and an impressive performance during Senior Bowl week, Middle Tennessee State safety Kevin Byard will not be among them.
It makes sense, though. At this point, Byard and overcoming adversity go together like workout wonders and draft disappointment.
Life has given Byard more than his share of lemons over his 22 years, but forget your everyday lemonade; he's made a one-of-a-kind blend that continues to prove he's willing to face any challenge head-on, and overcome it.
After playing his first season of organized football in eighth grade, Byard's parents split up, with all seven children—four boys and three girls—moving with their mother to the Atlanta area. With their mom working long hours as a waitress to pay the bills, Kevin and his older brother took on new responsibilities at home.
"Me and my oldest brother, while we were training and doing things with the football team, we'd have to come home and basically take care of the kids, make sure everything was good at home until my mom got home from work around 9 or 10 o'clock at night," Byard says. "So, once we got home from school, we pretty much had another job at home. That transition was definitely tough, but I feel like having those responsibilities at 15, 16 years old helped me become more mature as a person, and it definitely brought my family closer together, so I wouldn't want to have it any other way."
Byard's recruiting process in high school had its valleys as well. After getting some interest as a junior, the coaching staff at Byard's school departed, somewhat resetting Byard's momentum as a recruit heading into his all-important senior season.
But his on-field performance as senior slowly brought college programs back into the fold. First came a scholarship offer from FCS program Western Carolina, then FBS offers from Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Then came an SEC offer from Kentucky.
The Wildcats had also offered a scholarship to one of Byard's teammates. Byard said that a day after his teammate committed to to Kentucky, he decided to follow suit. But after leaving a message with the coaching staff in Lexington, the callback informed him things had changed and their recruiting list was full. Byard also said the Wildcats continued recruiting him in case something fell through with one their other targets, and didn't find out until national signing day that Kentucky had locked up the other players they were after.
With the rug pulled out from under him, Byard set his sights on Murfreesboro.
Just as he had in high school, Byard simply put his head down and got to work. After redshirting in 2011, Byard started all 12 games for the Blue Raiders, leading the team with four interceptions and returning two of them for touchdowns. He earned Freshman All-America honors that season, setting high expectations for the 2013 season.
He delivered, again.
As a sophomore, Byard started all 13 games, leading MTSU in interceptions again with five, returning two more for scores. In his junior year, his upward trend continued. Another year of starting every game, leading the team—and Conference USA—with six interceptions.
As a senior this past season, Byard set a new school record with his 19th career interception. He also proved he could hang with the top competition in the country, tallying eight tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception against eventual national champion Alabama.
After four productive seasons for the Blue Raiders, Byard earned an invite to this year's Senior Bowl. Just like he did at Middle Tennessee, Byard wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity once he hit the field.
But despite his strong showing in Mobile, Byard will miss out on the chance to show NFL teams what he can do at the combine later this month.
Has all this adversity built a chip on Byard's shoulder?
"I feel like I always play with a chip on my shoulder," Byard said. "But at the end of the day, as long as I get in there and a team definitely gives me a shot, I'm gonna shine. I'm gonna take the necessary steps, I'm gonna work hard, I'm gonna dedicate myself to the game. It's all about what you make of it. Once all the smoke clears, I know I'll be good to go."
Byard's on-field performance clearly speaks for itself. But if forced to use words, what would Byard tell NFL teams they're getting if they draft him?
"You're getting an accountable person," he said. "I'm accountable to myself, to my teammates, my coaches, to everything that I'm doing. I'm never gonna be a guy you have to run up behind and see what he's doing and worry what kind of character he has, what kind of people he's hanging out with. You can always depend on me. That's been evident throughout my entire life."
"I'm just a professional,", Byard continued. "I feel like a lot of guys have the talent, but are you willing to put in the necessary work to be successful? I feel like I've done that my whole career, in high school and college."
After everything he's overcome—both on and off the field—Byard knows all he needs to do is take care of what he can control, and the rest will take care of itself.
"At the end of the day, when the smoke clears, the cream will rise to the top," he said. "No matter how much I've been underestimated throughout my whole life, I'm just gonna keep me head down and keep grinding, and things will work themselves out."
Bet against Kevin Byard? At your own risk.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.