It’s been 20 years since the hit – the devastating neck injury that initially paralyzed Dennis Byrd and forced him out of football for good.
But time gives way to clarity and a newfound perspective.
Byrd freely admitted emotions will flow Sunday when his No. 90 jersey is retired during halftime of the Jets-Dolphins game.
“It’s just a tremendous honor to be recognized by the Jets to have that number retired,” he said on a Tuesday morning conference call. “It meant a lot of me as a player.
“…I have been given a great blessing of not just having the admiration of fans, but their kindness, love and compassion.”
The former defensive lineman was selected by the Jets in the 1989 draft and recorded 27 sacks in his first three seasons. His No. 90 hasn’t been worn since he broke his neck on Nov. 29, 1992.
While trying to make a sack on Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg, Byrd ran headfirst into the chest of teammate Scott Mersereau – a hit that ultimately ended his career.
Through intense physical therapy, the former Jet was able to walk again. He also delivered an inspirational speech to his former club the night before the Jets took on New England at Gillette Stadium in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs.
The next day, Rex Ryan & Co. defeated the Patriots, 28-21.
Byrd called his four years with the Jets “the most wonderful experience I’ve had in my professional life.” And now at age 46, “I’m able to look back and understand, appreciate and be thankful for the time I had in New York.”
After all these years, Oklahoma remains home for the former University of Tulsa product. With his wife of 25 years, and their children, Byrd said he lives a “very active” life on their 170-acre ranch in the woods. “My life is still full and rich and still getting better,” he said, adding that his days often include lots of fishing and shooting pistols and rifles.
“I don’t mean to make this an episode of ‘Hillbilly Life,’” he added with a laugh.
As for his health, Byrd said “there are times that it’s obviously very frustrating, progress can be painfully slow. But as time goes on I continue to get better and better.
“…The odd thing is, that an injury I had 20 years ago, there are still encouraging signs of recovery.”