Dennis Byrd, the former Jets defensive lineman who was paralyzed during a game in 1992 but defied doctors’ predictions that he would never walk again, died Saturday in a two-vehicle collision north of Claremore, Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. He was 50.
According to the Tulsa World, Byrd was involved in a collision that sent two others to the hospital in critical condition. A 17-year-old from Claremore driving a 2000 Ford Explorer northbound on Oklahoma 88 swerved into the oncoming lane and struck a 2004 Hummer H2 driven by Byrd, who was pronounced dead at the scene.
Byrd suffered a paralyzing neck injury in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, 1992, when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau as the two were rushing toward quarterback Dave Krieg. He underwent months of intensive physical therapy and followed through on his vow to walk again.
Byrd made an emotional return to the Meadowlands for the Jets’ opening game in 1993 and walked to the middle of the field as an honorary captain for the coin toss. He was presented at halftime with a trophy for the Jets’ Most Inspirational Player Award, which has subsequently been called the Dennis Byrd Award.
He wrote a memoir, “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd,” detailing his recovery that included a heavy reliance on his faith, and was the subject of a made-for-television movie, “Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.”
Byrd suffered a fractured C-5 vertebra when colliding with Mersereau’s chest after Krieg stepped up to avoid being sacked. He crumpled to the turf and lay motionless for several minutes before being carted off and taken to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
The team’s trainer at the time, Bob Reese, said after the game that Byrd told him he couldn’t move his legs, although he had partial use of his arms. “He said he hit his head, but couldn’t remember how,” Reese said.
The Jets were devastated afterward.
“Any time you see a guy laying on the field like that, it’s got to affect you,” Jets coach Bruce Coslet said after the game. “When I was playing, one of my teammates, Ken Dyer, tackled John Brockington in Green Bay and ended up laying in the hospital at Green Bay for 10 months. It was a flashback situation for me. We hope you don’t jump to any conclusions about Dennis. He’s one tough son of a gun.”
Mersereau, who was close to Byrd at the time of the injury, told a reporter after the game that he had the wind knocked out of him by the collision. He returned to the game shortly after the play.
“I didn’t know who hit me, but obviously it was Dennis,” Mersereau said. “At the last second I saw something coming. He hit me in the sternum. It was pretty hard. It was enough to bend me over backwards. It knocked the wind out of me. I had no knowledge of what was going on initially, because I was gasping for air. It wasn’t until later when I came off on the sideline that I saw them take him away.”
As it turned out, Mersereau was injured on the play, suffering several spinal fractures that eventually ended his NFL career at age 29.
In a 2012 interview with ESPN.com, Mersereau recalled his first visit to the hospital to see Byrd.
“Worried about me,” Mersereau said of Byrd’s mindset. “I can’t forget that. It brings a tear to my eye now. He was worried about how I was taking it, and there he was. I’m walking around and he’s in bed, paralyzed at that point. I’d like to think I’m that strong, but I’m not so sure that would be the case.”
Byrd frequently went on speaking tours to discuss his recovery, but eventually shied away from public appearances and only infrequently kept in touch with former teammates. He did, however, speak to the Jets before a playoff game against the Patriots in 2011. Several Jets players said Byrd’s message inspired them in what turned out to be a dramatic victory over the heavily favored Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs.
The Jets retired his No. 90 during the 2012 season.
Byrd, who lived in rural Talala, Oklahoma, is survived by his wife, Angela, and four children.