Even After $70.5 Million Payday, Titans DB Kevin Byard Is Still in Survival Mode

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterJuly 29, 2019


AUSTIN, Texas — Sitting poolside, he relives eviction No. 8, a memory that, like so many others, is permanently seared in Kevin Byard's mind.

Leaning forward in a soft white chair, elbows resting on his knees with his fingers clasped, Byard is coolly positioned underneath a lip of shade. Ripples slowly sway on the pool. There's no other voices, no other visitors, only the hum of dragonflies. Byard, in no rush, methodically goes back in time. It happened the Monday before he hoped to be drafted into the NFL. Byard received a chilling call from Mom. She was getting kicked out of her house. Again. She didn't want to stress him out, so she waited as long as she possibly could to tell him, but she was worried. And so was Byard.

He didn't know what to think, what to do. He couldn't make an empty promise—his agent told him he could go anywhere from the second round to the sixth.

What if he couldn't help Mom? he worried. What if all of this was for nothing?

That Friday, Byard was drafted by the Titans 64th overall. That Saturday, he told his mom he'd find her a new place. And with 72 hours to go before Mom was going to get kicked to the curb, he was able to find her a home right down the street in Lithonia, Georgia.

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He's been paying Mom's rent for three years.

He bought Mom a car.

And now he can buy Mom a home anywhere her heart desires.

Heck, he could even buy himself a new offseason home if he wanted—this is Kenny Vaccaro's pad in Texas where he's sitting poolside, after all—because Byard is rich. Last week, he became the highest-paid safety in NFL history with a five-year, $70.5 million contract, a deal that probably had fans everywhere asking "Who?" amid furious Googling. Indeed, this is the ultimate validation for the best player hardly anybody knows anything about.      

The guy Deion Sanders once mistook for a fan.

Deion Sanders @DeionSanders

You're looking at who writers tell u who's the best I know who players and former players feel is the best. I rest my case. You continue to be a fan and i will continue being the man. #Truth https://t.co/gnpwJHjxEK

The guy who once held a pose on the sacred Dallas Cowboys star because, dammit, a little attention wouldn't hurt.

The guy who on this day says repeatedly that he'll never, ever shout "I'm the best! I'm the best!" from the rooftops, even if he's paid like it, because he's too grounded.

One moment, he claims "greatness speaks for itself" and that you'll never see him rev up an "I'm the best! I'm the best! I'm the best!"campaign because, hey, you never hear Tom Brady yelling that he's the GOAT. The next, Byard assures he knows the truth and that if he's not No. 1, he's top-two for sure.

This contract should supply Byard the perfect opportunity to spike a football for good, to change who he is—but he won't. He can't. The 25-year-old is in too deep.

Kevin Byard is forever stuck in what he calls "survival mode."

The evictions, the food stamps, the flickering electricity, the fact that he had to be a man of the house at 14. These are memories Byard refuses to forget, because these are memories he knows make him different. Byard had every reason to paint himself the victim, but he never did. So, now, there's something beautifully dangerous about still thinking like he could be evicted at any moment. Byard is terrified of ever pumping brakes—of ever thinking for a millisecond that he can relax—because such an exhale could lead to failure, and failure could lead to him crashing back to rock bottom.

"I always have a mentality—and my wife would say this—I still can't get out of my mind: If I go a little bit to the left and start enjoying it too much, it's going to be my downfall and I'll be right back down to it," Byard says. "I don't want to go back to where I was. Like, for sure, for sure. That's not something I want to do ever again.

"I'm not going to turn around. I'm not going to look to the left, look to the right, I'm going to just keep it down this tunnel and keep going."

The last two seasons, no defensive back has been around the ball more than him. His 177 tackles, 12 interceptions and 24 passes defensed in 2017 and '18 struck from all contours of the field. He believes no other safety juggles what he juggles, from covering wideouts one-on-one to blitzing to knifing into 300-pounders to stop the run to instructing everyone in the secondary. Now, he's the Titans' antidote, the one who gives them a chance to shock the world this season.

After three straight 9-7 seasons, he believes this Titans defense is Super Bowl-caliber.

And if folks dismiss such belief, fine. If folks are still sleeping on him after this contract, all the better. "I enjoy being slept on," he says. His plan is to keep his head down, stay in survival mode, and—by the time he looks up—the scene will be glorious: Lombardi Trophies. A future for his daughter. The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Yeah, that's when he'll have a chat with Deion.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30:  Kevin Byard #31 of the Tennessee Titans walks through a tunnel of fans before a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Colts defeated the Titans 33-17.   (Phot
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In Canton.

"I know he knows who I am now," says Byard. "I'm going to get that gold jacket, and I may have some words for him then.

"We’ll talk about it in Canton one day."

Such is the trajectory Byard believes he's on.

Until then, he cannot change.

"I don't ever want to get into a position where I'm sniffing myself," Byard says, "and I think I'm great and I stop working and I feel like, Oh, I can just roll out there and do what I do. The moment you think you've made it, that's when your trajectory is on the way down."

It's easy to lose track. He starts counting on one hand, then the other hand, and thinks. And thinks.

How many times was his family was evicted?

"One, two, three...I want to say it was seven," Byard says. "No, it was eight. Eight times. Eight times in nine years."

When his mom and dad divorced in 2007, Mom rounded up her seven kids (including three girls aged seven, five and three) and moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta, the family mostly crying the whole drive south in their U-Haul. When they finally rolled into Mom's friend's house, Mom had all of $100. Initially, they stayed here, jammed into one of the bedrooms and the basement. Then they literally moved somewhere new every year. Mom worked as a waitress—and Artina Stanley still holds down the same job at the same spot today.

Food stamps helped, but it wasn't easy for a mother to support seven children on a waitress' salary.

"You're in survival mode," Byard says.

In a new city, at age 14, Byard was forced to grow up. Fast.

Both he and his brother got jobs at the cafeteria-style Piccadilly restaurant in high school to support their own meals as much as possible and chip in on the occasional phone or cable bill. Games were on Fridays; work was on Saturdays and Sundays. In his senior year, Byard's then-girlfriend, now-wife, Clarke, helped pay for many of his dinners, too. (Checkers was a go-to spot.)

This wasn't the best area. Byard recalls widespread poverty, drugs and gangs in his community. "Some influences," he says blankly. So when Byard headed to college, he couldn't stop thinking of his family, of things only getting worse back home. Sure enough, they did. The winter of his senior year at Middle Tennessee State, Byard headed home and there was no heat.

The electricity was cut off, he recalls, for about a week.

There was a wood fireplace, but of course the family had no money for wood. So as a family, everyone scavenged for any branches they could outside. Byard and his siblings ripped branches off the dying pine trees and scooped up anything that had fallen to the ground. This winter in this pocket of Georgia, he assures, was cold, too. Really cold.

Twig by twig, hour by hour, they stayed warm.

No electricity also meant no food in the refrigerator, so they ate cereal. So much cereal. And meal to meal, they survived.

Says Byard, "It was day to day, OK, what are we eating for breakfast? We made it through breakfast. OK, lunch? Made it through that. OK, dinner? That's exactly how it was."

Maybe child support payments were coming in from Dad, but, Byard notes, Dad had about 15 kids total. There wasn't exactly a lot of money to go around.

One thing still burning this day is the fact that most all of his baby pictures vanished. "Lost in the sauce," he laments. So much of his childhood was robbed. Yet through it all, one thought consumed Byard's mind: Keep pushing. In college, Byard was obsessed with doing everything he could to get everyone out of this situation. He repurposed all angst into an overwhelming tenacity.

"Everybody doesn't have your vision," he told himself.

Thus, college was the true tipping point of his life—Byard would either make it to the NFL and earn millions or fail and succumb to a life of poverty, of living meal to meal, of...he can't even fathom what he'd be doing. There was no other option. After Kentucky pulled a scholarship offer and he headed to Middle Tennessee State, Byard lived in a constant survival state. He never, ever wanted to one day say, "You had this opportunity, and you pissed it away." What are you going to go home to? he thought. If you don't make it, you're going to be living in your Mom's house, and she's already struggling.

When a coach told Byard to picture himself racing athletes in Alabama or Florida State every 100-yard sprint—not just his teammates—he took it to heart.

He imagined Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to his left, Vaccaro to his right, and toasting them both.

Every lift of a dumbbell, Byard's sisters were on his mind.

"I was literally working out, like, having the faces of my sisters in my head," he says. "Like, Do some more reps! Go harder!

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"Anytime I felt like a workout was really getting tough, I tried to picture my siblings. Picture the situation. That was in my mindset—think about what the hell they're doing. Think about the fact that she might not have food or lunch or something like that. That was the mentality."

It paid off.

Byard started all four years in college and had seasons of four, five, six and four interceptions.

And it was the end of his sophomore year, into his junior year, when Dad couldn't stop calling his phone. Suddenly, Kevin Byard Sr. kept calling and calling, and Son was very skeptical, so Son finally snapped. In what Byard calls his first "real" conversation with his dad, he said he told him, "Now, all of a sudden, you’re trying to be a father figure when you see me doing good at football. You're too late!"

His father hadn't known how strongly his son felt. They chatted. And chatted. And wounds were mended.

The way Byard looks at it, you get one mother and one father, so he forgave.

Today, the two are close. Byard blossomed into a legit star, headed to the NFL and insists Dad is in it for the right reasons.

The weekend before sitting down here in Texas, Byard Jr. even spent time with his dad's family in Philadelphia to learn more about his roots. Turns out his grandfather earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam—"I got this in my genes!"

Now Byard is determined to create a new legacy for his entire family.

On Sept. 18, a day before the Titans' Week 3 game at Jacksonville, Byard's baby girl is due. He's been reading books to her at night in hopes she'll recognize his voice when she's born. One of his cousins told him her husband read books to her belly through the pregnancy, and once her little boy popped out, he recognized Dad's voice instantly.

"I'm like, 'I want that to happen!'" he says. "Everybody keeps telling me I'm going to be wrapped around her finger. I won't be able to say no."

He can't disagree.

The nursery is done. He needs to be there for the delivery.

And he needs to make sure she never feels like she is in survival mode.

No doubt, Byard still feels like he has no other option.

The base of this hill near a middle school track, just outside of Austin, is littered in a constellation of sneakers and backpacks and water bottles and resistance bands and, why not, piles of deer droppings.

Byard's working out with Vaccaro and a handful of other pros, and it only gets hotter and hotter to the point Byard's white tank is completely drenched underneath a weighted vest. He hardly utters a word for an hour straight, the sharp instruction of trainer Jeremy Hills cutting through the clanging of nearby construction and a blend of Young Savage and Lil Yachty booming on the speaker.

Each workout is more devastating than the last. The Ickey Shuffle ladder drill, uphill, inches everyone toward the brink before the final drill nearly makes everyone outright collapse. Byard and Co. all backpedal up that hill, dragging a weight attached to their hips, stopping at either the closer "Yellow!" or farther "Orange!" cone on Hills' command. The Titans safeties wince and squint and grunt, and Vaccaro has one quick message on his trot down the hill—"Two best safeties in the league."

This is what survival mode looks like now.

Putting yourself through hell in the Texas heat, for one. Temps reached the mid-90s the three weeks these two trained together, but as Vaccaro puts it, "You have to take yourself to a dark place" in training if you want to make that crucial play in the fourth quarter against Tom Brady with a Super Bowl trip at stake.

And for Byard, it does not stop here.

The No. 1 reason for all those picks that got him paid is endless film study. He sees it, trusts it and pulls the trigger better than any safety—and it's not by accident. He believes he's too valuable to be in the box 24/7 or over the top 24/7, saying bluntly, "I need to be everywhere." Every game plan, every week. So, it's simple: "I watch a s--tload of film."

The night after games, Byard replays that game on his iPad "100 times"—i.e., over and over and over again until he can't keep his eyelids open. The next day, he's watching five games of his next opponent. On Tuesday, two or three more. By game time, he's seen every game of that team. Coordinators, he explains, all have tendencies. What do they like to do the first down of a drive? What do they like to do after a big play? When they lose yardage on first down? On second down? By game time, he has all the answers cataloged—and he attacks. No wonder he flashes a bitter-beer face when told Darius Leonard believes watching less film helps.

Maybe Leonard could get away with it because nobody knew him in year one, Byard wonders aloud.

"I don't know how long that's going to last," Byard says, "as a legit football player."

Byard then leaps to his feet to re-enact one play against Miami last year. He knew wideout Jakeem Grant had 4.3 speed, so he knew the split-second Ryan Tannehill's shoulders turned to Grant's side that Tannehill was going deep. Playing deep center, Byard redirected toward Grant, sprinted, dove and nearly plucked a one-handed pick.

It's a play, he believes, "99 percent" of safeties in the NFL don't make.

He does watch film of the greats. His two coordinators in the pros coached two of the best safeties ever—Dick LeBeau (Troy Polamalu) and Dean Pees (Ed Reed). Byard loved how Polamalu was a maniac around the line of scrimmage, how he'd tell a corner, "Hey, I'm about to blitz, get my back" and wrecked offenses. That could be him someday. And this offseason, he watched Reed's entire 2012 Super Bowl season.

But safeties today? He doesn't want to pigeonhole himself as a "box" safety or a "center field" safety, so he doesn't compare himself to anyone.

"I battle," Byard says, "with myself."

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Landon Collins, repped by the same agent, wasn't boxed in as a box safety and cashed in as well. To Byard, you pay a premium for somebody to come in and completely change the tone of your defense. And Vaccaro says he believes—catching his breath post-workout—there isn't one safety in the NFL who does everything like Byard does. Not Derwin James, not Jamal Adams.

Sure, Canton it is.

"If he says, 'I'm going to be in Canton one day,'" Vaccaro says, "then I'll bet all my money I have right now that he will be."

That's how Byard's still living, like nothing will stop him.

Granted, this mentality can backfire. Byard had the nerve to speak of Tom Brady in the 2017 playoffs, saying he wanted to make Brady look like Blake Bortles and...you know the rest. (Patriots blowout, 337 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, yada, yada, yada.) The point, Byard emphasizes here, is that he sincerely is afraid of no one. Including the best ever.

"I'm not going to go into the game like, 'Oh my God, it's Tom Brady. I'm s--ttin' in my pants,'" Byard says. "I want to go into the game not thinking about it and treat everybody as if they're X's and O's. Understanding who I'm going against but don't back down from a challenge, don't back down from anybody.

"You can see it sweating out of my pores. I have confidence in everything I do. ... I'm always going to have that super confidence in myself."

Similar to how Nickell Robey-Coleman was thinking before the Super Bowl. Byard remembers NRC's words well, saying that same "ultimate confidence" drives him. An attitude rooted in midnight film sessions and all those hellish workouts. His Titans clubbed New England last year, 34-10, so the entire Titans defense is not afraid of anyone.

And honestly, Byard idolizes Brady because Brady, to him, epitomizes survival mode at its finest. Brady works and works "quietly." Brady wins and wins "quietly." Adds Byard, "That's what I want to be." Far too many players operate on the other end of the spectrum, obsessed with being their own hype men. "Clout-chasing," Byard calls it. He doesn't mention any names, but the social media charade is predictable and childish.

He'll follow his "code." He'll stay in the moment. And when he's finished...

"I'm going to be up in the record books."

For now, he's only thinking about Week 1 and the Cleveland Browns.

You better believe he's amped by the fact that the Browns—Baker! OBJ! Jarvis!—are currently media darlings.

"I love it. I love it. I love it. I love all the hype. If we really want to talk about going from good to great, this is going to be a great first test for us," he says. "We know it's going to be a great challenge for us—and bring it on. That's something we're going to be looking forward to. I know Baker's going to be back there slinging it. As a safety, me personally, I get excited when I know a quarterback is a gunslinger. He's a great quarterback. He had a great rookie year last year. But I get excited going up against a gunslinger, because I know Baker Mayfield is not going to care about Kevin Byard.

"He's going to throw it up there. And I invite that. I love that."

There's going to be trash talk. So much talk. Byard isn't one to research your family, but he will be in your earhole if you're struggling. He can't wait to yack at Jarvis Landry again after giving it to him through all of Jay Cutler's fluttering ducks two years ago. "You ain't doing s--t!" he remembers yelling, though Landry got the better of him that day. "I was a young player at the time, but I'm not backing down from nobody. I don't give a damn who you are."

He'll try to get inside Odell's head, too. "We'll see."

And the Titans will know, instantly, if they're contenders themselves.

It's serene here at Vaccaro's pool. Still.

For Byard, this is the calm before the storm, because he is the one who must wreck the AFC for the Titans to contend. At this price, he must decode, disrupt and dominate quarterbacks every week. So, QB to QB, he breaks down his own division.

Deshaun Watson? He feels like this is already a heated rivalry.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 26: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans runs for a 15 yard touchdown as he beats Brian Orakpo #98 of the Tennessee Titans and Kevin Byard #31 to the endzone during the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadiu
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Nick Foles? It's a whole new ballgame in Jacksonville because, uh, in his words, "Blake Bortles is Blake Bortles. They actually have a good quarterback—a Super Bowl-winning quarterback—now." Byard has no clue why the Jags clung to Bortles so long but is glad they did. Whenever he saw Jacksonville on the schedule and saw it'd be Bortles under center, he knew his offense only needed to score a touchdown or two to win. "Jag killers" is what the Titans called themselves. Foles changes things.

Andrew Luck? When Byard's mind races to this Titan killer, his steely, no-other-option language returns. He's once again that college student in the weight room picturing his siblings. Luck is a perfect 11-0 against the Titans. No QB in NFL history has owned another team quite like this. Nobody will ever give a damn about the Titans and nobody will ever know him until they get win No. 1.

It's embarrassing. He's had enough.

"We have to beat Andrew Luck," Byard says, "That's something that has to change, like, ASAP."

It's tough to blitz Luck, Byard says, because he's so smart. And snapping his fingers, Byard explains how Luck races back to the line of scrimmage before most defensive coordinators can even call a play. Stay in the same defense, sit in zone, go straight man, and he'll "pick you apart." Somehow, you must stay creative and aggressive on the fly.

That's Byard's job.

He believes the Titans are finally ready to elevate from good to great.

Defensively, he points to his secondary as the best in the NFL. Ex-Patriot Malcolm Butler re-emerged as a shutdown corner by midseason. Logan Ryan is one of the best slot corners. Teams like the Bears don't need to blitz because of Khalil Mack "wrecking s--t," Byard adds, which leads to a flurry of turnovers. The Titans don't have that luxury. They do need to blitz. But in Byard's opinion, that's a good thing. He likes that Tennessee's DBs pinball all over the field, all while disguising a variety of confusing coverages.

"You don't know where the hell the pressure's coming from," says Byard, citing nine sacks from Titans DBs last season.

The mastermind is Pees. A man who watches even more film than him. Once, Pees called Cover 2 on a 3rd-and-short play against the Jets. What the hell is he doing? Byard remembers thinking. It was a trap. This specific call actually resembled man defense, thus tricking the Jets into calling an RB screen that led to an easy tackle for loss. Says Byard, "I was like, 'Wow. Dean Pees is the truth for that one.'"

Every year, a team nobody sees coming makes a legit run at a Super Bowl. Byard sees no reason why that team can't be the Titans.

The expectation is to win the AFC South, once and for all.

"People might disrespect Marcus and try to disrespect our offense," Byard says, "but you can't disrespect our defense with what we did last year. We gotta get healthy man, we gotta find a way to get healthy."

Oh yeah. About that. About "Marcus," the other quarterback in this division. This is Marcus Mariota's last chance in Tennessee.

The Titans have done everything in their power to help him—from taking receiver Corey Davis fifth overall in 2017 to investing heavily in the offensive line to re-signing tight end Delanie Walker to drafting receiver A.J. Brown and signing receiver Adam Humphries this year. Byard raves on and on about this supporting cast and is quick to add that Mariota has a "big Mack truck" at running back, too, in Derrick Henry. Then, there's Dion Lewis. He's gushing.

Mariota is the perceived weak link on one of the league's best rosters, the one who takes the flak, and Byard doesn't think that's fair. Byard is quick to say Tennessee can absolutely win with Mariota because nobody has a clue what the quarterback's been dealing with.

Byard won't disclose details, only assuring everyone that his quarterback has dealt with even more than the fractured fibula in 2016 and nerve damage in 2018.

"And he played through a lot of injuries," Byard says. "He de-cleated [Alec] Ogletree one time on a block. This guy, he's one of the toughest guys I've ever played with. If not the toughest. I've seen the injuries he has to go through every week to make sure he's ready to play a game. So I do think we can win with him. I think we can take it all the way.

"He's a tough son of a gun. I know he's healthy. I'm hoping to see him really ball out for us this year. That's one thing everyone on our team knows. It may not be on the outside. But inside the building, we trust in him and we believe in him. And we know we can win with him."

In other words, exactly how the Jacksonville Jaguars believed in Blake Bortles last season. They, too, believed they could win with their quarterback. They, too, cited such a linebacker mentality in their QB. And now, Bortles is a backup playing some 2,500 miles away.

Expectations change fast. For now, Byard's job is to ruin other quarterbacks with his mind, his athleticism, his violence, every weapon in his arsenal. Byard loves setting goals he says "may sound ridiculous," because if he can get close, that's pretty damn good. He predicted double-digit turnovers in 2017 and did exactly that with eight picks and two fumble recoveries.

So there he was, shortly after signing his deal, tweeting "Now let's go win multiple championships" with five ring emojis.

Kevin Byard @KB31_Era

Still haven’t been able to process everything!! Gotta give thanks to The Most High he’s been there with me throughout everything! Nashville I’m here for a good time and a long time! Now let’s go win multiple championships!! 💍💍💍💍💍

If the Titans win even one Super Bowl, people will have no choice but to take notice. Until then, if they don't, he doesn't care. Thinking back to posing on the star last year, Byard gets a chuckle out of the fact that all anybody wanted to talk about afterward was Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, as if it's insane an offense could struggle against...the Titans.

Fine by him. His head's still down. Survival mode.

"When you're the best, people will speak for you," Byard says. "People will tell you you're the best.

"That's what I want to be remembered for."

One day, he'll lift his head up. His career will speak for itself.

Then Byard will ask Deion Sanders if he knows who he is.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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