Dennis Byrd had always planned to give back the last jersey he wore, the one that was cut away by medical personnel after he suffered a paralyzing neck injury on that awful afternoon of Nov. 29, 1992. He just needed to choose the right time to give it back.
After watching his old team beat the Colts last week in a wild-card playoff game, Byrd knew the time had come.
"It's been on my heart for a long time to send the jersey back," said Byrd, who had kept the No. 90 jersey at his home outside Tulsa, Okla. "They had honored me by not re-issuing that number, and it's a great honor. I wanted to return it and let it be what it is."
Byrd sent the jersey back to the team Wednesday, hoping it would provide some inspiration for the Jets' divisional playoff game against the Patriots Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. Rex Ryan was so moved by the gesture that he asked Byrd if he'd present the jersey to the Jets in person, and the former defensive end made a surprise appearance at Saturday night's team meeting.
He gave them his jersey, and more importantly, he inspired the players in a way many had never experienced. After their stunning 28-21 upset of the Patriots, the players said Byrd's message proved instrumental.
"He humbled us and just told us that it's not promised," said wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who had a 15-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. "A lot of times you take for granted everything you've been given. We needed to be brought back to reality, and that's what he did for us last night."
The thing that hit home most powerfully was when Byrd told them this: "All I can hear in the back of my mind is [Byrd saying], 'I would trade anything for one play,' " Edwards said. "He didn't say another season. He didn't say one game. He said, 'I would trade anything in this world for one play.' You know what one play is? That lasts maybe six seconds. He'd trade his whole life in for six seconds. That's all it took for every guy in that room last night."
Byrd, 44, was able to walk again within a year of the injury, although he still does so with a pronounced limp. Eighteen seasons after his Jets career ended, he wanted to make one more contribution.
"It was special and important for me to make contact with this team . . . ," he said. "This is a critical point for the Jets, for this organization, for these young men. I want them to know, this is it."
Seize the moment, Byrd told them, because this moment might never come again.
The Jets hung Byrd's jersey in the front of their locker room, with the words "Make today your day" written above it.
As linebacker Bart Scott walked out of the locker room for the start of the second half, he stopped for a few seconds. "I grabbed that jersey," he said. "I held that jersey. I squeezed that jersey, and I kissed that jersey. I let that jersey inspire me to continue to fight the fight the whole way through."
Scott was not being overly dramatic. The Jets were truly inspired by what had taken place.
Byrd said before the game that he hoped his message would resonate. But he had felt he was not getting through to the players during much of his 15-minute speech, so he was glad to hear that they were moved.
"They were so quiet that I was a little nervous that this is falling flat," he said. He then saw his greatest wish come true: The Jets beat the Pats to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
"I wanted to make sure that I at least did what I knew was on my heart," Byrd said, "and to do anything I could to let these young men know how important this moment is."
The moment is here: The Jets are one win away from playing in the Super Bowl for the second time. And Byrd's jersey is back in a place of honor in their locker room.