Published November 20, 2014
Dennis Byrd wrapped up his old, torn jersey, the one cut from his body more than 18 years ago, and sent it to Rex Ryan as a gift.
A few days later, he stood in front of the New York Jets and provided what wide receiver Braylon Edwards called "the most inspirational message of my life."
Byrd, who recovered to walk again after breaking his neck in a game, gave a moving speech Saturday night at the team hotel as the Jets prepared for their playoff game — a 28-21 win Sunday — against the rival New England Patriots.
"It's that moment for men to put that stamp on who they're supposed to be, who everybody thought they could be," Byrd said Sunday of his message to the team. "This is that time. There comes those moments where you've got to rise to that challenge. This is the one. This is the present game, the one that counts the most."
Still inspired by Byrd's speech, LaDainian Tomlinson and James Ihedigbo carried out a green and white No. 90 jersey to midfield for the opening coin toss. The original jersey, the last worn by Byrd and sent by him to Ryan on Wednesday, hung in the Jets' locker room before the game.
"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, just send it back," Byrd said. "They have 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. Where it went and what life it took on, we'll see. Coach Ryan received it so well."
And, so did the Jets. Edwards dragged two Patriots into the end zone with him on a 15-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that put New York up 14-3.
"After he spoke, I couldn't sleep," Edwards said after the game. "He said he would give anything in life to be able to play one more play. Not even a game, just one more play. ... I caught it and I just felt Dennis Byrd as I was going into the end zone. I'm not trying to get cheesy or anything like that. It's just honest. I felt his spirit."
Byrd's career ended in 1992, when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau against Kansas City, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. Three months after breaking the C-5 vertebra in his neck, he walked on crutches to a news conference at his hospital in Manhattan.
The next season, he walked out to midfield on his own for the coin toss, as the crowd at the Meadowlands gave him a standing ovation. The team's most inspirational player award is named in Byrd's honor, with Tomlinson winning it this season.
Ryan, who called Sunday's game against the Patriots "the second-biggest in franchise history," normally addresses the team the night before games. They are usually emotional, stirring speeches, but this time, the coach stepped aside and showed highlights of Byrd's career before having him speak.
"It was nothing short of amazing," fullback Tony Richardson said. "He spoke from his heart."
Byrd talked to the team for about 15 minutes before mingling with the players and coaches.
"When I was speaking to them initially, they were so quiet that I was a little nervous that 'this is falling flat. This is not working,'" Byrd said. "That happens at times whenever you have people's attention. I didn't panic. In visiting with the men afterward and the coaches, it was easy to see that it had the effect that I had really been wishing for."
There was no doubt about that, judging from how the Jets played.
"It was incredible," left guard Matt Slauson said.
The 44-year-old Byrd, who walks with a pronounced limp, says he is "retired" and lives in Oklahoma with his wife and four kids on their ranch. He said he had rooted for the team since his career ended and still considered himself a Jet.
"They're the only colors I've ever worn," he said. "I live a quiet life, but I do have a television at home. I've followed every game, followed all the players. It's been a joy to watch."
Byrd said he and Ryan, who was born in Oklahoma, connected immediately and he was happy when the coach was hired over two years ago.
"I love watching him as a coach," Byrd said. "He understands the significance of these kinds of things. I was thrilled to see it when coach Ryan was hired, his attitude, his pedigree, the way he coaches and how aggressive they are. I didn't know how many games the Jets were going to win, but I knew they weren't going to lose any fights."
Byrd wrote a book about his story called "Rise and Walk," which was later turned into a television movie. The former defensive end was a second-round pick of the Jets out of Tulsa in 1989. He had 28 career sacks, including 13 in 1990, in four NFL seasons.
"Last night was not the time for rah-rah speeches and getting everybody ready for the game tonight," Byrd said. "Last night was about understanding the nuances of athletics, competition, what this moment is, capturing this moment and not letting it slip through your fingers. There will be a time in the future to appreciate and enjoy when your children are born, when your children are married, those priceless things.
"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."