Foxborugh, Mass. - Former Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd, who suffered a paralyzing injury in 1992, delivered an emotional speech to the Jets last night in hopes of inspiring the players for today's AFC divisional playoff matchup against the Patriots.
"For me, as a former athlete, as an individual, this is one of those priceless moments, a convergence of many things in this organization, the things I’ve been through in life," Byrd said in the press box a few minutes before today's kickoff. "It was special and important for me to make a contact with this team and to share with them some of the things that are so important, because the most important thing about this moment is for the men of this team to understand that they don’t come along very often.
"This is a critical point, an important point for the Jets, for this organization, for these young men," he said. "I want them to know, this is it. It’s not looking to the future, looking for this piece or that piece, or we’ll be better when we do this. It’s now. The talent is here, the coaching is here, the organizational commitment is here and it’s time to do it."
Earlier in the week, Byrd returned the jersey that he'd been cut out of after suffering a neck injury in Nov. 29, 1992 game against the Chiefs at the Meadowlands. Byrd was injured when he collided with Jets' teammate Scott Mersereau while the two were attempting to sack Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg. After Krieg stepped up to the avoid the tackle, Byrd ducked his head and hit Mersereau in the chest.
Byrd wound up suffering a broken C-5 vertebra and was unable to walk for many months. Through intense physical rehabilitation, he eventually walked again. On Sept. 5, 1993, he served as an honorary captain for the Jets' home opener and walked to midfield, receiving a standing ovation. During a halftime ceremony, Byrd was given a trophy for the Most Inspirational Player Award, which was subsequently renamed the Dennis Byrd Award.
"I just heard the most inspirational message of my life from former Jet Dennis Byrd, who suffered a career ending neck injury," wide receiver Braylon Edwards wrote on his twitter account after hearing last night's speech. "As God is my witness, I have never been more ready to perform in my life. Dennis Byrd, I respect, salute and honor you."
Byrd, who still walks with a pronounced limp, said he had been meaning to visit with the Jets for quite some time, and felt now was the moment where he could best help the team. He'd always planned to return the jersey at some point.
"It’s been on my heart for a long time to send the jersey that was cut off of me when I had my injury 18 years ago to send it back," he said. "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. Where it went, what life it took on, we’ll see and coach Ryan received it so well and was excited about doing it."
Byrd said the players need to understand the special opportunity they're faced with.
"This moment is important because this is a crossroads," said Byrd, who lives with his wife and four children on a ranch near Tulsa, Oklahoma. "This is a time in the life of this organization where they have an opportunity to take that next step. Everything’s here and it’s in place. I wanted to make sure that I at least did what I knew was on my heart and to do anything I could to let these young men know how important this moment is. You have a body, a mind and a will. What we talked about was the will."
Byrd said the reaction of the players was "priceless," although he initially thought otherwise.
"When I was speaking to them initially, they were so quiet that I was a little nervous that this is falling flat," he said. "This is not working. That happens at times when you have people’s attention. I didn’t panic, but in visiting with the men afterwards and the coaches, it was easy to see that it had the effect that I’d been wishing for."
He was heartened to know how the players and coaches felt.
"To me, that’s what I wanted to have done, because last night was not the time for the rah rah speech," he said. "Last night was about understanding the nuances of athletics, competition, what this moment is, capturing this moment, not letting it slip through your fingers. There will be a time in the future and there will be a time to appreciate and enjoy, when your children are born, when your children are married, those priceless things, but this is not that time. This is the time when you set yourself for making that next step, for beating an opponent that is a challenge to you and making a statement and that’s what this is about."