NFL

The Sad, but Inspirational, Story of Former Jets DT Dennis Byrd

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg stepped up to avoid a sack as two members of the New York Jets were circling in on him. As Kreig moved up Dennis Byrd collided with teammate Scott Mersereau and suffered a broken neck and was never able to play football again. Byrd’s story later served as inspiration for the Jets and other people all over the world before his untimely death in 2016.

Dennis Byrd’s NFL career

Dennis Byrd began his NFL career in 1989 after he was drafted in the second round of the 1989 NFL draft by the New York Jets. Byrd, who played his college ball at Tulsa, was a 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive lineman who played four seasons in the NFL, including all 16 games in his first three seasons.

In 1990, he had his best season as a defensive tackle, registering 13 sacks. In 1992, however, his life changed dramatically when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau while attempting to sack Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg. On the play, Byrd’s head hit Mersereau’s chest and Byrd went down to the turf unable to move his legs.

Byrd suffered a broken neck on the play and was never able to play football again. He finished his career with 28 sacks and 110 tackles. The New York Jets officially retired his No. 90 in October of 2012.

Dennis Byrd the inspiration

After Dennis Byrd suffered a broken neck in that 1992 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, he was determined to walk again. He knew it wouldn’t happen instantly, but with hard work and his determination, he knew that time would come.

Byrd went through extensive therapy and kept the No. 90 jersey he wore and had to be cut off him that day. He had that jersey on a shelf in his house and used it as motivation during his rehabilitation. “It’s not hard to look at that jersey,” Byrd said in 2011. “The jersey, to me, was symbolic of so many things. All of the effort, the work, the sacrifice that it took to get to the point to earn that jersey.”

Byrd sent that jersey to New York Jets coach Rex Ryan the week of his team’s playoff meeting with the New England Patriots. Ryan was so touched, he asked Byrd to address his team before the game. His speech was impactful. “I just felt Dennis Byrd as I was going into the end zone,” said wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who scored a touchdown in the Jets’ 28-21 upset victory. “I’m not trying to get cheesy or anything like that, but it’s honest. I felt his spirits and the things he talked about last night. They really showed up on that play. And I looked up and I was in the end zone.”

Byrd killed in a car accident in 2016

Dennis Byrd was an inspiration in so many ways. He learned how to walk again after a tragic accident took away his football life. Byrd toured the country sharing his life story. He let people know anything can happen with hard work and determination.

On Oct. 15, 2016, while driving with his 12-year-old son, Byrd was involved in a two-vehicle collision when a 17-year-old swerved his car into the oncoming lane and struck Byrd’s vehicle. Byrd died at the scene.

“He’s a testament to hard work,” former Tulsa teammate Jerry Ostroski said. “That’s why he got to where he was. He made himself into the player he was. He wasn’t a guy born with tremendous size. He worked hard in the weight room, gained weight, got big, had a high motor. He turned himself into a second-round draft pick in the NFL.”

Byrd co-authored a book called Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd and was also the subject of a made-for-television film Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story