It's been 20 years since a devastating neck injury initially paralyzed Dennis Byrd and ended his football career for good. But time gives way to clarity and newfound perspective on life, he said.
The former Jets defensive lineman admitted emotions will flow Sunday when his No. 90 jersey is retired during halftime of the Jets-Dolphins game.
"It's just a tremendous honor to be recognized by the Jets to have that number retired," he said on a conference call Tuesday. "I have been given a great blessing of not just having the admiration of fans, but their kindness, love and compassion."
Drafted by the Jets out of Tulsa in the second round in 1989, Byrd made 27 sacks in his first three seasons. His No. 90 hasn't been worn since he broke his neck Nov. 29, 1992 after he ran headfirst into teammate Scott Mersereau trying to make a sack on the Chiefs' Dave Krieg. Through intense physical therapy, he was able to walk again.
"I'm able to look back and understand, appreciate and be thankful for the time I had in New York," said Byrd, 46, who delivered an inspirational speech the night before the Jets' 28-21 playoff win over the Patriots in 2011.
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Byrd said he lives a "very active" life with his wife of 25 years and children on his 170-acre ranch in the woods of Oklahoma. "My life is still full and rich and still getting better," he said, adding that his days often include fishing and shooting. He added with a laugh: "I don't mean to make this an episode of 'Hillbilly Life.' "
As for his health, Byrd said "there are times that it's obviously very frustrating, progress can be painfully slow. But as time goes on, I continue to get better . . . The odd thing is, that an injury I had 20 years ago, there are still encouraging signs of recovery."
Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano called Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich "a pain in the neck" before the game in Foxboro. But after New England eked out a 29-26 overtime victory, Bill Belichick had a more applicable nickname for Ninkovich: "Jet killer." Television cameras captured the smiling coach addressing Ninkovich by his new name in the locker room after the defensive end's strip-sack of Mark Sanchez and subsequent fumble recovery sealed the win.
The video, posted on the Patriots' website, also captured Donald Trump in the locker room.