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Dennis Byrd honored by Jets before game; teammates recall his strength, character

The Jets hold a ceremony for Dennis Byrd

The Jets hold a ceremony for Dennis Byrd before a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. Photo Credit: Lee S. Weissman

Scott Mersereau heard the devastating news about Dennis Byrd’s death on Oct. 15 and couldn’t believe what had happened to the man with whom his life had become so inextricably linked.

On Nov. 29, 1992, Byrd suffered a paralyzing injury when he crashed into fellow Jets defensive lineman Mersereau as they converged on Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg. Nearly 24 years later, Mersereau — who had just gotten home from a high school fundraiser near his home in Boca Raton, Florida — learned about Byrd’s death and was overcome with grief.

“I just dropped to my knees and just cried,” Mersereau told Newsday on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets paid tribute to Byrd in a ceremony before a 24-16 win over the Ravens. “It hasn’t left my mind. It’s really tough to stop thinking about it.”

Byrd was killed in a two-car crash on a highway near his home outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. His 12-year-old son, Zach, was injured in the crash but was able to join the rest of Byrd’s family for Sunday’s tribute. A 17-year-old man driving a 2000 Ford Explorer had veered into the oncoming lane and struck Byrd’s 2004 Hummer H2. Byrd, 50, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Mersereau’s eyes reddened as he talked about Byrd, especially as he recalled the time he first saw him in the hospital after Byrd suffered a paralyzing neck injury caused by the force of his collision with Mersereau’s chest.

“The Jets had me speak to a psychiatrist for a couple of days, and they wouldn’t let me see Dennis to make sure I wasn’t feeling guilt,” said Mersereau, who starred at Riverhead High School before playing at Southern Connecticut State University. “Then I went to see Dennis for the first time, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to him. He’s in the hospital, he’s got the [neck stabilizing] halo on. He’s got the screws in his forehead. There’s dried blood running down his temples.”

Mersereau was overwhelmed at what Byrd told him.

“The first thing he said to me was how worried he was about how I was going to take this,” said Mersereau, now 51. “Here was a guy who, at the time, for all we knew, was never going to walk again, and he had a smile on his face and he was worried about me. That’s what Dennis Byrd is all about. That was the most powerful thing that anybody’s said to me my whole life.”

Mersereau also was injured on the play, and to a much greater extent than he initially realized. He played the remainder of the season, but a postseason medical exam revealed three cracked vertebrae in his lower back. He underwent surgery, and his career ended after he played one more season in 1993.

Byrd eventually was able to walk again, and he wrote a book, “Rise and Walk,” detailing his recovery.

Byrd’s words still resonate with Mersereau, who fell out of touch with Byrd in the years between Byrd’s injury and the time the Jets retired his number in a MetLife Stadium ceremony in 2012. The two embraced, and as it turned out, they spent three memorable days together after that. The night of the ceremony, superstorm Sandy grounded all flights. The Byrds and Mersereaus were staying in a local hotel and had to stay put.

“I hadn’t really caught up with Dennis that much through the years, and after the game, we go back to the hotel, the power goes off, and so we hung together for three days,” Mersereau said. “We found a restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey, that was next to a fire station, so there was power there. We went to that restaurant for three or four hours a day for those three days. I’m so thankful I had that time with him. I feel so blessed I had that time with him and we were able to connect.”

Byrd had hoped they would spend even more time together, and he invited Mersereau and his family to his home. Mersereau now regrets not going.

“People say he isolated himself a little bit, but this was my doing,” Mersereau said. “I feel horrible that I didn’t go out there. We all feel like we have more time, but we don’t know that. You get involved in your daily life, your kids, and you get self-absorbed in your own things.”

He’ll never forget his friend. Nor will he forget Byrd’s incredible spirit, especially when they met that first time after the injury. “I said, ‘Dennis, you’ve got to be kidding me. Look at me. I’m walking through that door,’ ” he said. “And he said, ‘Scott, I’ll be fine. The devil can never take me. God will always be mine, and I’m going to beat this.’

“Dennis never felt sorry for himself,” Mersereau said. “He never said, ‘Why me?’ Never. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and I’m going to miss him. We lost a great person in Dennis Byrd.”

Paul Frase can see the play as if it had just happened.

“It was a stunt,” the former Jets defensive end, who was at Sunday’s tribute for Byrd, said of the defensive play call against the Chiefs. “Marvin [Washington], Dennis, Scott and I are lined up, and Marvin and I both slanted in.”

The Jets ran the play perfectly. Mersereau and Byrd, both initially lined up inside, looped around to the outside and converged on Krieg. Just as they were about to hit him, the quarterback stepped up in the pocket to avoid them. Byrd then collided helmet-first into Mersereau’s chest, and the two linemen fell to the turf.

Washington went over to Byrd and told him to get up.

“I was like, ‘C’mon, Dennis, get up,’ ” said Washington, who attended Sunday’s event. “He said, ‘I can’t move.’ So I just backed off. With football injuries, somebody tells you that, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was in horror. I backed off and then I started crying. This is my friend. The night before the game, he told me that [his wife] Angela is pregnant again. I remember thinking she’s at the game, and it’s all just such a bad time. I’ve never seen that on the football field, and have never seen it since. It’s horrible when you tell somebody to get up and he just says, ‘I can’t move.’ That was a horrible day. And I had many horrible days in that stadium, but that was the worst.”

But Washington soon found out how courageous and uplifting Byrd would be.

“Dennis showed us he was the one who could handle it,” Washington said. “He showed us in the hospital, with his strength and determination to walk.”

Washington doesn’t want people to forget how good a player Byrd was.

“I played with Bryant Young [of the 49ers] and Trevor Pryce [of the Broncos], and I can put Dennis right up there with them,” Washington said. “He was a phenomenal player, but an even better person.”

Frase also was a close friend when the two played with the Jets, and Byrd’s practical jokes inside the locker room were legendary. Such as the time Frase rushed out of practice a few minutes early to return home before the team’s bye week to get married.

“[Coach] Bruce Coslet let me out 15 minutes early, and I’m racing to put my clothes on and get out of there,” Frase said. “I put on my socks, then put on my shoes, and shaving cream squirts all over the place. I look over at Dennis, and he’s just laughing. He had filled both my shoes with shaving cream. That was Dennis Byrd. We loved him and we despised him.”

Frase was heartbroken to hear the news of Byrd’s death.

“All sorts of things start running through your head,” Frase said. “Who could have predicted something like that?”

He feels terrible for Byrd’s widow, Angela, who was at the game but declined to speak about her ordeal.

“I think it’s important for her to know that we’re here for her,” Frase said. “Whatever you need, don’t hesitate to reach out. That’s all we can really do is pledge to be here and support anything that they might need as a family.”

Washington still is coming to grips with Byrd’s death.

“I’m sad, but I’m kind of [ticked] off, because I don’t think Dennis deserved that,” Washington said. “There’s a lot of bad people in this world that do a lot of bad things, but it always seems like the good ones are taken away. I guess they have a bigger mission in the next life than they do here. If there’s somebody that has a bigger mission than being on this Earth, it’s Dennis. He was very faithful. He was a good person. He was one of the good people I’ve run into not only in football, but in life.”

He thinks back to last week’s accident and wonders why.

“I know life isn’t fair, but damn, that’s a hell of a hand to be dealt,” Washington said. “I guess the Lord knew that Dennis could handle it. I think about him riding with his son. I’m sure Dennis would say, ‘Take me instead of my son.’ It’s just a horrible thing. I hate that he got paralyzed. I hate that he went through all that pain, and I hate that his time on Earth finished the way it did.”

Washington and Byrd formed an unlikely alliance during their playing days and grew close despite coming from different backgrounds. Byrd grew up in rural Oklahoma and Washington in Dallas.

“He was from dirt, and I was from concrete, but we got together,” Washington said. “And the reason we got together is because he was a good guy and had a good spirit. He was genuine. I loved the guy.”

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