Dennis Byrd knew it was the right time to give back the jersey he wore in his final NFL game.
This was a few days before the Jets were set to face the Patriots in the 2010 AFC divisional playoffs, and Byrd was so captivated by the way his former team was playing that he wanted to provide some extra motivation. So he found the No. 90 jersey he wore on that terrible afternoon of Nov. 29, 1992, and sent it directly to then-Jets coach Rex Ryan, jotting down a few words to wish him good luck with the rest of the season.
Ryan was so moved that he invited Byrd to speak to his players the night before the game. There were tears and hugs and then more tears that night as Byrd shared his memories with the players. He spoke about his horrific collision with teammate Scott Mersereau, a blow so thunderous that he suffered a fractured vertebra and was told he would never walk again.
But he also spoke about his miraculous recovery, how his faith carried him through the most difficult time of his life and helped him defy the prognosis, and how badly he now wanted to see these guys pull off an upset of the Patriots just weeks after the Jets had suffered a 45-3 loss in Foxborough.
The jersey hung in the Jets’ locker room that day, and it served as a fitting emblem for what turned out to be a 28-21 win over Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the seemingly unbeatable Patriots.
“It’s been on my heart for a long time to send the jersey back,” Byrd said after the game, recalling the team’s decision to retire his number in 2012. “They had honored me by not reissuing that number, and it’s a great honor. I wanted to return it and let it be what it is.”
It is a fitting way to remember Byrd upon the shocking news of his death at age 50. He died in a two-car collision Saturday morning near his home outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, leaving behind his wife and four children — along with a legacy of toughness and resilience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Byrd’s recovery from his paralyzing injury served as an inspiration to countless people, and his quiet strength and conviction were the pillars of his amazing story.
Having covered him throughout his career with the Jets, I can tell you he was one of the most genuine human beings to ever walk through an NFL locker room, a caring man who loved his family and also loved the people around him and treated everyone with dignity and respect.
That day in Foxborough was about as perfect as it could get, when players and coaches who had never met him got a chance to feel the compassion, warmth and goodwill that came so naturally with Byrd.
“He humbled us and just told us that it’s not promised,” wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who had a 15-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, said after the game. “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.”
What hit home most powerfully was this, according to Edwards: “All I can hear in the back of my mind is [Byrd saying], ‘I would trade anything for one play.’ 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.”
He never got that one play, but he gave the Jets so much more.
“It was special and important for me to make contact with this team,” he said after the game. “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. Byrd’s jersey hung in the locker room with the words “Make today your day” written above it.
As linebacker Bart Scott walked out 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.”
As we say goodbye to Byrd, let that memory serve as a poignant reminder of just how special this man truly was.
Rest in peace, Dennis.