Twenty years after career-ending injury, Dennis Byrd will have jersey retired

Dennis Byrd, a Jets player who was paralyzed Dennis Byrd, a Jets player who was paralyzed during a game and has made a remarkable recovery, attends Leon Hess' funeral. Photo Credit: Audrey C. Tiernan, 1999

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Pete Carroll couldn't get the horrifying collision out of his mind. The images kept repeating: Jets defensive linemen Dennis Byrd and Scott Mersereau closing in on a sack of Chiefs quarterback David Krieg . . . Krieg stepping up in the pocket . . . Byrd slamming headfirst into Mersereau's chest . . . Byrd collapsing to the turf -- and lying motionless.

So Carroll, who was the Jets' defensive coordinator on that fateful afternoon of Nov. 29, 1992, decided to drive into Manhattan that night to visit Byrd, who had suffered a neck injury that initially left him paralyzed.

But as bad as things had been at the game, Carroll was not prepared for what happened when he and a handful of Jets met with Byrd at Lenox Hill Hospital.

He was not prepared to see Byrd almost die.

"When I got there, they were wheeling him from one room where they were doing tests to another, and he was lying on his back and he started to get sick," said Carroll, now the Seattle Seahawks' head coach. "He was starting to throw up, which was frightening to the nurse, because you could literally suffocate."

So Carroll, some of his players and medical personnel had to react immediately.

"He didn't even have the [neck] halo on yet, but we had to all tip him over so he wouldn't choke on his own vomit,'' Carroll said. "It was just horrible. Horrible. Just so catastrophic for a young man's life."

Horror then turned to rage for Carroll when he sat in on a meeting the next morning. The Jets' coaching staff and team executives tried to figure out how to break the news of Byrd's condition to the players and then the public.

"The higher-ups at the Jets are all trying to figure out what the message should be, and how to figure out what the message would be," Carroll said. "I remember them talking about, 'Well, we just have to face the fact that he's going to be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.' "

That infuriated Carroll, who knew that Byrd was clinging to the hope that he someday would walk again, that if he could just get past the critical early stages of his care, he somehow would recover.

"I can remember vehemently opposing that idea," Carroll said. "How can you possibly know? You're dealing with a man who has faith and conviction, and you just don't know how this is going to work out.''

The message did go out later in the day. There was no mention of permanent paralysis, only that the doctors were doing everything possible and that everyone was praying for Byrd's recovery.

Nearly 20 years later, Byrd will return to the New York area Sunday -- and when he enters MetLife Stadium, he'll walk in. Byrd will reunite with his former team -- which still has a strong bond with its former defensive lineman -- and see his No. 90 jersey retired in what is sure to be an emotional halftime ceremony as the Jets face the Dolphins at MetLife Stadium.

Byrd continues to serve as an inspiration not only to Jets fans but to people around the world who learned of his story.

"I'm a 46-year-old man now, and I'm able to look back, to understand, to appreciate and be thankful for the experience that I had in New York as an athlete and as a player," Byrd said before traveling from his ranch in northeast Oklahoma to New Jersey. "I've been given a great blessing of not just the admiration of fans but their love and their compassion. Probably the only bad thing is that I had a forcible retirement. Other than that, it's the most wonderful experience that I've had in my professional life."

Byrd never fully recovered from the injury -- although he gets around on his own, he walks with some difficulty -- and continues to undergo rehabilitation that he admits can be frustrating. Still, he said he lives a full life, working outside on his ranch and enjoying time with his wife and four children, who range in age from 8 to 22.

"It's still a process for me," he said. "After 20 years, I'm still healing. It's complicated, but I'm still going through the process of enervation. It's a spinal cord injury, and it's different. There are times when it's obviously very frustrating. Progress can seem to have been and be painfully slow, but as time goes on, I continue to get better and better with strength and stamina."

This isn't the first time Byrd will be reunited with his former team. Before the opening game of the 1993 season against the Broncos, Byrd walked onto the same field where he was injured and received a standing ovation from Jets fans. And as the Jets prepared to play the Patriots in a divisional-round playoff game after the 2010 season, Byrd took the jersey he wore the day he was injured and mailed it to them to help inspire the team.

"It was the right time to send the jersey back," he said. "It looked and felt to me that the style of that team resonates with me, [the style] that I loved and enjoyed so much, was really beginning to show itself again. I made the decision to send a letter and send that jersey back . . . that and the fact that I just hate the Patriots."

Coach Rex Ryan was so moved by the gesture that he invited Byrd to address the team the night before the game.

Although Byrd worried at first that he wasn't getting through to the Jets -- "They were so quiet, I was nervous, worried that it was falling flat. But I didn't panic," he said -- they actually were mesmerized by his message, and many said they used that inspiration to score an upset of the heavily favored Patriots.

"When he was telling the story, you could tell he had all the guys' attention," linebacker Bryan Thomas said. "He played the same game we play. There are chances these things can happen. He brought the original jersey they cut off of him and had it with him. Just the whole story was an inspiration. We play this game, but you can't take things like that for granted. It's reality. Something like that can happen."

Center Nick Mangold called it "an amazing story. You can read about it, but actually hearing it from him really moved a lot of guys. It was great to be a part of it."

Guard Brandon Moore said Byrd's speech helped the Jets perform at a higher level.

"I remember people were pretty taken aback by the things he was saying. You could feel the passion, and it was evident in that game," he said. "Just hearing him say, 'Play like it's your last game, give it your all, and if I only had one play . . . '

"The thing I remember him saying is, 'I'd love to have that one play.' So I think it resonated a little bit more, especially during playoff time, where it's one game and you go home if you lose."

Then-Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards tweeted that night, "I just heard the most inspirational message of my life from former Jet Dennis Byrd, who suffered a career-ending neck injury. As God [is] my witness, I have never been more ready to perform in my life. Dennis Byrd, I respect, salute and honor you."

Now Byrd will return again. It's another chance to be saluted and for him to salute those who have been so supportive over the years.

"The people from New York were so kind and so caring and did such a wonderful job of helping me emotionally," Byrd said. "It has been a tremendous blessing getting to know the people of New York and their kindness and generosity."

That kindness and generosity, combined with deep religious faith and unflagging optimism, helped Byrd get back to where he is now, two decades after that horrifying moment.

"As a 46-year-old young man," he said, "I don't know how you could really ask for what I have, to be happy in all aspects of your life and still feel that it's on the upswing. What a blessing."

With Greg Logan

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