Angela Byrd knew something was terribly wrong when she saw her husband wasn’t moving.
Dennis Byrd had swooped in from one side and Scott Mersereau from the other, and the two defensive linemen closed in on Kansas City quarterback Dave Krieg — but a split-second before they got to him, Krieg stepped up in the pocket to avoid getting hit. Byrd and Mersereau slammed into one another, with Byrd’s helmet hitting Mersereau’s chest squarely, and the two players fell to the turf.
Mersereau was writhing in pain.
Byrd was motionless.
From her seat in the end zone on that cold, overcast afternoon of Nov. 29, 1992, Angela watched in horror and feared the worst.
“I remember telling my friend Marla, ‘It’s Dennis, and he’s not moving,’ and I just started to cry because he was never the kind of guy to lay on the field no matter what the situation,” Angela said from her home in Oklahoma.
She immediately left her seat to be with her husband, whom she’d first met when the two were students at Mustang High School.
As Angela raced to an elevator that took her down to the field level, Dennis was being tended to by the Jets’ medical staff, with players and coaches watching in silence. At one point, Jets defensive lineman Marvin Washington, shaken by the sight of his teammate and good friend lying on the turf, went over to Byrd.
“I don’t have any feeling in my legs,” a frightened Byrd told Washington.
“Try, baby, try,” Washington told him. “He seemed to pass out after that.”
After several more minutes, as he lay on a backboard to which medical personnel had carefully transferred him, Byrd looked up at the cloud-filled sky.
He repeated the question over and over again.
“Am I going to be paralyzed?” he said. “Am I going to be paralyzed?”
Coach Bruce Coslet flashed back to another horrifying scene he’d experienced while playing tight end for the Bengals.
“One of my teammates, Ken Dyer, tackled John Brockington in Green Bay and ended up lying in the hospital for 10 months,” Coslet said. “It was a flashback situation for me.”
Many of Byrd’s teammates quietly came by to offer words of comfort, gently touching him to show their support and love.
After he’d been placed in the ambulance, Angela joined her husband as Jets trainer Pepper Burress held Byrd’s head and neck in place. Team physician Dr. Stephen Nicholas sat nearby as they went to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
“We just prayed and I told him, ‘I love you’ as many times as I can remember,'' Angela said. " ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’ ”
By the end of the evening, after numerous tests were done and Byrd was fitted with a halo to keep his neck in place, doctors broke the news to them: Byrd had suffered a fractured vertebra and was paralyzed from the neck down. There was no telling when — or if — he would walk again.
“The doctors told us it would be two years before they knew if he’d ever walk again,” Angela recalled. “That’s when you go ‘Whoa.’ We had a 2-year-old at the time, and I was pregnant with our second daughter. And you’re just like, ‘OK.' From that point forward, we dug into our faith, what we’d been raised on, did a lot of praying, a lot of talking to God about it, and He gave us the peace and the strength.”
Doctors may have offered a timeframe of Byrd’s recovery, but Byrd himself was convinced he would walk again — and that he'd do so much sooner than two years.
He also experienced some moments of abject fear and uncertainty about what lay ahead, especially in the early days of his hospitalization.
“It was the first week that I was in Lenox Hill Hospital, and I would wake up in the halo brace in the early hours of the morning, and I couldn’t move,” he recalled in an interview in 1993. “I didn’t know where I was. I was horribly frightened, and I couldn’t figure out what had happened. That was the most frightening experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
But Byrd overcame that fear with a combination of perseverance, a deep faith in God and a support system of family and friends, starting with his wife, whose unfailing belief was cited constantly through Dennis’ darkest hours. And 10 weeks after suffering the injury, he left the hospital with the help of a pair of crutches.
He had begun to walk again.
His recovery was nothing short of remarkable, and he was the subject of national attention for what had become an inspiration to millions. He shared his story in a book, “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd.” His life was the subject of a 1994 movie, “Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.”
On Tuesday, it will have been 30 years since that fateful moment when he and Mersereau crashed into one another, and Byrd’s spirit remains a part of the Jets to this day.
Even if he is no longer here to witness it.
On Oct. 15, 2016, Byrd was killed in a car accident near his home in Tulsa when an oncoming car veered into Byrd’s vehicle. His 12-year-old son was in the car and suffered a fractured leg.
Byrd had turned 50 only 10 days earlier. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Pete Carroll felt the miracle in his fingertips as he stood at the foot of Dennis Byrd’s bed.
This was about a week after Byrd was injured, and Carroll, then the Jets’ defensive coordinator, was visiting Byrd with a couple of Jets players at Lenox Hill. Carroll adored Byrd, whose yes-sir, no-sir, aw-shucks temperament made him one of the most coachable players Carroll had ever worked with. Carroll had rarely come across a player with the kind of dedication to faith, family and football that Byrd lived by.
“He was such an amazing kid,” Carroll said. “Everyone loved him. Nothing could get him down. He always had so much ”
A soft-spoken man whose ferocity as a pass rusher belied his gentle soul, Byrd was in good spirits as he spoke to those around him. This despite the fact that only days before, he’d had a metal halo mounted on his head — with screws drilled into his skull — so his neck wouldn’t move.
“We’re all standing around him, and everybody’s giving him [expletive] and joking around to help lift his spirits,” Carroll said from his office outside Seattle, where he is the Seahawks’ head coach.
Though Byrd had no feeling in his lower extremities after being paralyzed from the neck down, Carroll held on to his feet.
“His toes were freezing,” Carroll recalled.
And then it happened.
“I could feel his toes twitching,” Carroll said.
He immediately told one of Byrd’s doctors who was in the room.
“Come on over and feel this,” Carroll told him.
Carroll was told this most likely was an involuntary response, but the coach was unconvinced. He believed this was the beginning of something both unusual and unexpected.
“I remember it so clearly,” he said. “It was so emotional.”
But Carroll was urged not to make too much of it, and there were intense discussions within the organization about how much information to publicly divulge about Byrd’s situation. Carroll wanted to present as optimistic a picture as possible, even before he’d actually felt Byrd’s toes move.
“There was an update given to the organization and the families about Dennis’ situation, and there was talk about him never walking again,” Carroll said. “I remember battling with the guys, saying we need to give out positive thoughts. There was some talk about wanting to tell people the truth, and I [got angry] and said we don’t have to say that he’ll never walk again. We wanted to hold out hope and thought he would find a way back.”
As the weeks went by and Byrd showed remarkable signs of progress, Carroll would report back to the players.
“Dennis would send us messages about lifting his left leg and things like that, and we told the players,” Carroll said. “They loved hearing about it.”
Byrd spoke to his teammates via conference call before they faced the Bills in Orchard Park the week after the injury, and the players loved hearing from him. The Jets were just 3-9 and the Bills were in the midst of their third straight Super Bowl season. But with an emotional jolt provided by their fallen teammate, the Jets pulled off a 24-17 upset.
It was their final win in a 4-12 season.
“There ain’t no question about it,” safety Brian Washington said when asked if this was more than just another game to the Jets. “We talked about it before the game. [Byrd] just didn’t want any of us to play scared. He was more excited than we were. He wanted us to play hard, and that’s what we did.”
It was Washington’s interception return for a touchdown that provided the winning score.
Although the Jets lost their final three games, Byrd’s remarkable recovery became a rallying point for the team, and reports of his progress, as well as frequent visits by teammates, lifted his spirits as he went about the ordeal of regaining strength after his injury.
Young and fearless
Truth be told, Jeff Lageman was anxious to get away from Dennis Byrd. The sooner the better.
They were drafted the same year — 1989 — with Lageman the team’s first-round defensive end out of Virginia and Byrd the second-round defensive end from Tulsa.
“It was our first minicamp and we roomed together,” Lageman said. “The first night, he was talking to his wife and he’s like, ‘I love you so much,’ and all this lovey-dovey stuff. I’m like, ‘Hey . . . I gotta get out of here.' So I roomed with [linebacker] Joe Mott, who was more of a heathen like me.”
But Lageman and Byrd grew closer as teammates, and when the injury happened, they became inseparable. Lageman was in the press level at the Meadowlands when Byrd was hurt, rehabbing from a torn ACL. When he saw his teammate on the turf, he raced down to try to be with him. He didn’t realize then just how traumatic the experience would be.
“When you’re that young, dumb and fearless and bulletproof, you don’t want to think this is going to completely change someone’s life. You figure his system is in shock and it will get better,'' Lageman said. "We’re warriors. You don’t think the warrior is going to get hurt at all. We have a body of armor. Tape it up and put an ice pack on it, and we’ll be OK tomorrow.”
It wasn’t until Lageman’s first visit with Byrd at the hospital that it fully sunk in. Lageman had wanted to be strong for his friend, but when he walked into the room and saw Byrd in the halo, the tears came.
“He said, ‘Don’t go soft on me now,’ ” Lageman recalled. “I was sitting there going, how in the world can this guy cheer me up in this situation? I’m supposed to be the one to help him. It showed the incredible faith and the inner strength that Dennis had. He was a very religious guy and he always believed that God had a plan.”
“I learned to trust in God,” Byrd said in a 1993 interview for “Oklahomans,” a video series. “I’m very fortunate I went through this accident. I have matured in a way that could very well have taken me an entire lifetime.”
Angela Byrd knew her husband would walk again shortly after he arrived at the hospital.
“‘Never' and ‘I can’t’ are words Dennis would never say,” she said. “We just dug into our faith, what we’ve been raised on, just did a lot of praying, talking to God about it, and He gave us the peace and the strength.
“The day after his injury, I was in his ICU room and I started humming the words to a song. I stopped in my tracks because I realized what the song was. It comes from Isiah 40:31 and it goes, ‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ When I realized what the words were, I felt through that song, God was telling me Dennis was going to walk again. I went over to him and I sang it and we both cried. It was like, ‘You’re going to walk again. We don’t know when.' It was like God’s promise in real time to us.”
On Feb. 12, 1993 — 75 days after suffering his paralyzing injury — Byrd walked out of Mount Sinai Hospital, where he had continued his rehabilitation, to return home.
“His recovery is truly spectacular,” Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, chairman of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai, said after a news conference. “I am astounded. He’s beaten the odds many times over.”
(Byrd still struggled to walk for the rest of his life and had a noticeable limp. As he got older, he was afflicted with nerve pain that stemmed from the injury. At times it became debilitating and led to him often withdrawing from interacting with people.)
Less than seven months after walking out of Mount Sinai, Byrd walked out of the tunnel at Giants Stadium as the Jets opened the 1993 season against the Denver Broncos. He was the “12th man” of the defense, and the sellout crowd of more than 75,000 stood and roared, one of the most thunderous ovations in the stadium’s history.
The only thing missing for Byrd was the chance to play football.
“The hardest part of everything I’ve been through is knowing I can’t play again,” he said. “That’s the only thing I’ve ever broken down and cried about. Not that I might not be able to walk again, but I wouldn’t be able to play. You’ll never know how that feels until you crawl into my shoes. It’s not just the game. It’s the locker room, it’s the players, it’s the cheers, it’s the crispness of playing on a fall afternoon. It’s been hard to deal with.”
If he had his life to do over again, Byrd still would have played, Lageman said.
“Odd that someone could love the game that much in his mind,” he said. “He always told me, ‘If I could do it all over, I’d do it again. I miss the game of football so bad.' ”
The package was addressed to Rex Ryan. Written on the return address label: Dennis Byrd.
It was a few days before Ryan was about to coach the biggest game of his life. Ryan’s Jets had just pulled off a stunning upset of Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts on the road in the wild-card round of the playoffs, and they’d earned a chance to face Tom Brady and the Patriots in the divisional playoffs at Gillette Stadium.
Ryan had suffered arguably his most humiliating defeat in a 45-3 loss at Gillette in a Week 13 game, and few people gave the Jets a chance in the rematch.
Ryan opened the package from Byrd and could barely believe what was inside. It was the jersey he’d worn the day he was injured in his final game. And with it was a note from Byrd.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Ryan said from his home in Tennessee. “He was saying how he appreciated how we play and how this is the first time he’s really identified with a team.”
Ryan was so moved by the gesture that he contacted Byrd to invite him to the game. He also asked Byrd if he’d speak to the players the night before. Byrd agreed.
“He humbled us and just told us that it’s not promised,” wide receiver Braylon Edwards said of Byrd’s speech. “A lot of times you take for granted everything that’s been given.”
Edwards said the most powerful part of the speech was when Byrd confided just how much he missed the game.
“All I can hear in the back of my mind is him 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.”
Ryan said it wasn’t his intention to have Byrd serve as a motivational speaker.
“I brought him in so that he could share that story of him identifying with our team, and that was a powerful deal,” Ryan said. “I just remember him having the courage to step up there and talk about his journey. I think the players identified with Dennis because that’s what you do. When you play, there’s risk. Everybody knows it. For them, even though he wasn’t a teammate, he was still a Jet, and that’s why I brought him in, because he was a New York Jet. All that he has been through, and he loved our team. He’d lost touch with the franchise, but he identified with our group of guys.”
When Ryan began telling the story of wanting Byrd to walk onto the field with the team captains for the coin toss, he couldn’t speak for nearly two minutes.
“I’m sorry . . . ,” Ryan said.
He was weeping.
'I let that jersey inspire me'
It was the most consequential game of Ryan’s career.
The Jets’ captains carried Byrd’s jersey to midfield for the coin toss and the jersey was hung just outside the locker room, where the players touched it. There was a sign with the words “Make today your day.”
“It was special and important for me to make contact with this team,” Byrd said. “This is a critical point for the Jets, for this organization, for these young men. I want them to know, this is it.”
“I grabbed that jersey. I held that jersey. I squeezed that jersey and I kissed that jersey,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “I let that jersey inspire me to continue to fight the fight the whole way through.”
The Jets did it. They beat the Patriots, 28-21, in one of the most remarkable games in franchise history. And while they lost to the Steelers the following week in the AFC Championship Game, their win over the Patriots remains one of the most gratifying in franchise history.
For Byrd, it was one of the most special memories of his life.
Scott Mersereau was devastated to hear the news of Dennis Byrd’s death.
He found out on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2016. Byrd was driving home along Route 88 outside Tulsa with his 12-year-old son, Zach, when an oncoming vehicle veered into Byrd’s Hummer and crashed head on.
Dan Dunkel, driving home from a football game with his wife and two grandsons, drove by the crash and stopped to help, he said in an interview with News 6 of Tulsa. Zach was having trouble extricating himself from his seatbelt, and Dunkel used a pocket knife to cut the belt and get Zach out of the car.
Dunkel then went over to try to get Byrd out. He felt for a pulse, but there was none. Flames and smoke from an engine fire crept into the car, and Dunkel and others trying to get Byrd out had to back away.
Zach was praying, and Dunkel heard him say, “Goodbye, Daddy. See you later.”
Moments later, the car was in flames.
Mersereau cried when he heard the news. The man whose life was inextricably linked with his own was gone at age 50.
A flood of memories came back, and Mersereau was overcome with grief. Largely forgotten in the aftermath of Byrd’s injury and inspirational recovery, Mersereau experienced his own challenges after the collision. He’d eventually learn that he suffered fractures in his lower back that caused intense pain that even morphine couldn’t eliminate. He once told Lageman that after a surgical procedure to fuse his vertebrae, he was in such pain that he couldn’t sleep for two days. “Scott said morphine wasn’t touching the pain,” Lageman recalled. “So he grabs the doc and squeezes his hand and says, ‘Doc, give me some Toradol,'' referring to a heavy-duty anti-inflammatory drug. Finally, he slept.
Mersereau, who grew up in Riverhead, played only one more season and experienced severe depression after his career ended when he was 28. “You go from playing a sport and you have everything you love, and it ends,” he said. “Your identity is gone. That’s taken away and you think, ‘What am I going to do the rest of my life?’ ”
Mersereau eventually recovered and now is a financial planner in south Florida, but he can never forget his time with Byrd. Especially their first meeting after the injury.
The Jets initially prevented Mersereau from seeing Byrd, fearing the psychological impact for both men.
“They were worried about his reaction and my reaction, worried about me blaming myself for what happened,” Mersereau said. “They had me talk to a psychiatrist. After a few days, they let me go see him, and I’m nervous. I am blaming myself a little bit. So I open the door and he smiles and says, ‘Oh, Mers, Angela and I have been so worried about you.’ ”
Mersereau was stunned. His voice cracked as he recalled the moment. It took a few seconds for him to continue.
“I said to him,’What are you talking about? What do you mean? What are you saying?’ He was so worried about me, and I’m walking around and he’s paralyzed. I would love to think I would be that type of person in that situation, but I’m not so sure. It stunned me. I was not expecting it. I just broke down. He’s like, ‘God will take care of this. I’m one of God’s children. He’s going to provide a path for me.’ I don’t know that I’ve known a better person than Dennis Byrd.”
Years later, when the Jets retired Byrd’s jersey close to the 20th anniversary of his injury, Mersereau and Byrd reconnected.
“After the game, Hurricane Sandy hit, and we got stranded for three days, so we spent time with our families,” Mersereau said. “Everything was shut down.There was one place in Hackensack, a pub right next to a fire station, and we went there every day for lunch and talked. I’m forever grateful that we had that time together.”
Yet there was regret for Mersereau after Byrd died, especially knowing that his friend had struggled with his own depression in his later years. Yes, Byrd’s recovery was incredible and inspirational. But there was anger, too, and pain related to the injury — sometimes so excruciating that Byrd could barely tolerate it.
Many of his former teammates were saddened that he had withdrawn and kept them at arm’s length.
“There was that anger that the game was taken away from him,” Lageman said. “Even though he was a man of God, he was human and he had that anger. What he loved was taken away right when he was at his peak. He was someone who could love the game that much, but there was still a feeling of anger that it was taken away.”
Keeping the faith
For Angela Byrd, the grief was unimaginable. In 1992, she was with Dennis every step of the way — literally — after his injury. Years later, while grieving his loss, she was there for her son as he learned to walk again. The two drew strength from Dennis’ ordeal.
“Even when my son was injured in an accident that took his father’s life,” she said, “we were not going to say ‘we can’t’ and ‘never.’ ”
Angela and her four children will be at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 18 to celebrate the life of one of the most unforgettable men to wear a Jets uniform. Three decades after that terrible moment, they will serve as honorary co-captains before the Jets face the Lions.
The team has never forgotten Byrd. Not only was his jersey retired in 2012, but the Jets select the Dennis Byrd Award winner as the team’s most inspirational player.
“The story of Dennis Byrd cannot be told without Angela Byrd,” Lageman said. “She was an amazing wife, a beacon of strength for a lot of people. She’s raised amazing kids who I keep up with, and she’s done an amazing job through an incredibly difficult time.”
Jets fans are sure to offer heartfelt appreciation when the Byrd family walks onto the field with the captains for the coin toss.
“New York fans are the best,” Angela said. “When they love you, they love you. Just so supportive.”
There will be a flood of emotions for the family, especially Angela, who persevered through so much over the years.
“He was a man that went through some really difficult days before his death,” she said. “It was a lot for one man to endure and keep the faith. But I think if he were able to say it, it’s like, ‘How can you not keep the faith?’ ”