In 1983, Dennis Byrd was a brilliant senior player for the Mustang High School football team. I was the sports editor at the nearby El Reno Tribune, which at the time was the only daily newspaper in Canadian County.
Byrd was a slender but dynamic defensive end, and everyone agreed that if he could gain weight and muscle, he might have success at the next level. His next level was at the University of Tulsa, where he developed ultimately into a second-round NFL Draft pick and a 6-foot-5, 270-pound pass-rush star for the New York Jets.
While I remember having interviewed Byrd a couple of times at Mustang and a couple of times during the ’90s, I really didn’t get to know him until Tuesday, during a 90-minute memorial service at Church on the Move in Tulsa.
Nearly 24 years after a spinal injury ended his football career and resulted in partial paralysis, and only a few days after his 50th birthday, Byrd was killed in a two-vehicle crash on Oct. 15.
In 1989, Marty Lyons was a 32-year-old New York Jets defensive end and Byrd was a 23-year-old rookie. On Tuesday, in a church auditorium located a few miles south of Byrd’s Rogers County home, Lyons addressed a congregation of more than 1,000.
About 40 former Golden Hurricane players and coaches were seated together.
“On behalf of the entire Jets family,” Lyons said, “our hearts are broken.”
On Nov. 29, 1992, during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Byrd sustained a spinal fracture when he collided with a teammate. There was a seven-hour surgery. During the first couple of weeks of the recovery, Lyons recalled having visited Byrd’s New York hospital room.
“Dennis, how are you doing?” Lyons asked.
Lyons said Byrd’s response was powerful: “I’m going to walk again. This is God’s plan.”
The immediate doctor predictions were that after maybe two years of treatment and rehabilitation, Byrd might walk again. Obliterating that expectation, Byrd walked again within weeks of having been injured.
The New York Jets responded by establishing the Dennis Byrd Award, presented annually to the team’s most inspirational player. In 2012, the Jets retired Byrd’s No. 90 jersey.
On Tuesday, a framed Jets jersey and a late-1980s model TU football helmet were on the display at the front of the church auditorium.
Rick Schaeffer, Byrd’s agent and friend since 1988, reported that he had been inundated with responses to Byrd’s death. During the service, Schaeffer read excerpts from letters written by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw (who interviewed Byrd after he had been injured), actor Peter Berg (who played the Byrd role in the 1994 “Rise and Walk” movie), and longtime CBS Sports anchor James Brown. During the 1993 season, Brown and Byrd were partnered during CBS’ NFL telecasts.
This published message was not mentioned during the service, but it was poignant: “Dennis Byrd was the most genuine and nicest player I’ve met in my 38 years covering the NFL,” wrote Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. “He was deeply religious and never once felt sorry for himself.
“It was impossible not to admire his courage after his career-ending and life-threatening injury.”
Byrd is survived by his wife Angela and four children, the youngest of whom, 12-year-old son Zach, was a passenger in Byrd’s 2004 Hummer H2 at the time of the Oct. 15 collision. Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene. Zach sustained serious injuries, as did the driver of the 2000 Ford Explorer that was said by an Oklahoma Highway Patrol investigator to have crossed the center line of Oklahoma 88 before striking Byrd’s vehicle.
The 11 a.m. crash occurred between Oologah and Claremore. The OHP indicated that Byrd, his son and the other driver — a 17-year-old male from Claremore — were using seat belts.
Until the OHP completes its investigation and delivers its conclusions to his office, Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard says he doesn’t know whether criminal charges will result from the crash.
Among the Tuesday speakers was Willie George, the Church on the Move pastor who said he treasured memories of having accompanied Byrd during several hunting trips.
“Dennis was in a lot more pain than most of us realize,” George said. “He always bounced back. That’s why America fell in love with Dennis. Dennis was a resurrection man.”
At the end of the service, the music playlist shifted from Christian songs to classic-rock selections that presumably had been Byrd favorites. Included was “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” a heavy Scorpions tune always played during TU football games.