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Wednesday, October 28, 2009
In a Bills season of aggravation, Byrd emerges


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Buffalo rookie free safety Jairus Bird is determined to make receivers beat him to the ball.


The phone chirped. "Chicago Bears" scrolled across the caller ID.

The voice on the other end was buoyant, a rumble of laughter detectable underneath each syllable.

"Hello, this is Gill Byrd. Jairus Byrd used to be my son. Now I'm Jairus Byrd's father."

For all of Jairus Byrd's life, he was identified as the younger boy of Gill Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers and Bears assistant coach.

As dad acknowledged over the phone, that perception has changed over the past few weeks.

Jairus Byrd, a rookie free safety for the Buffalo Bills, has already made a name for himself. He's doing it emphatically.

Through the first seven games of his NFL career, he has been Buffalo's most valuable player.

"Clearly, he's got skills that are not ordinary even for this level," said Bills head coach Dick Jauron, "and he's using them."

Jairus Byrd ranks second in the NFL with five interceptions, one behind New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper. Byrd has snagged all of his interceptions over the past three games and has picked off a pair in two games straight.

Without his interceptions, the Bills wouldn't lead the NFL in takeaways and probably wouldn't have beaten the New York Jets or Carolina Panthers the past two Sundays. Each of his past three interceptions has set up a Bills touchdown.

In a season that has been rife with letdowns for Bills fans, Byrd has been a revelation.

"I think he can be an All-Pro consistently," said Jairus Byrd's more decorated mentor, eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams, a close friend of the Byrd family. "I think he has the ability.

"What makes you an impact player is when that offensive team, going into their game plan during the week, has to account for you. I believe he's definitely one of those guys that -- if they're not already accounting for him -- they're at least acknowledging 'You need to know where 31 is.'"

Jairus Byrd's uniform number is becoming fashionable in Buffalo, and you can already project his jerseys will be popular Christmas gifts.

Buffalo storylines this season have been dominated by Terrell Owens' lack of production, disgust over Jauron's continued employment, Marshawn Lynch's suspension, two invasions of players' homes, myriad injuries and game-losing fumbles in the final minutes.

Jairus Byrd has given Bills fans a reason to cheer.

"Everything's gone so fast," he said. "I haven't really had the chance think about where I am, what's going on. I try not to focus on that. It's just getting wins and helping the team."

Injuries to safeties Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott gave him his opportunity to start. When Whitner and Scott both are healthy, it's impossible to imagine the Bills removing Jairus Byrd from the lineup.

He's the first rookie to record five interceptions in a month since Bears safety Mark Carrier in December 1990 and the first rookie with two interceptions in consecutive games since Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls in 1981.

With nine regular-season games to play, Jairus Byrd is three interceptions away from Buffalo's rookie interceptions record (Archie Matsos) and halfway to its overall season record (Billy Atkins, Tom Janik). And he's already within two interceptions of matching his father's best season.

"I'm always trying to compete with him," Jairus Byrd said. "I tell him I'm going to get him."

When informed how close Jairus was to matching him, Gill groaned in near-defeat, "Aw, man."

Few expected Jairus Byrd to make such an immediate impact when the Bills drafted him in the second round out of Oregon. He missed minicamp because of Oregon's quarterly academic schedule. He missed much of training camp while recovering from sports hernia surgery and didn't sign his contract until the end of July.

"They got a first-round talent," Williams said, conceding that his fondness for Jairus might hurt the credibility of his assessment. "The only reason maybe he didn't go in the first round is he's not a blazer as it relates to his 40 time."

Jairus Byrd has phenomenal instincts when it comes to coming up with the ball. He never has had fewer than five interceptions in a season, leaving Oregon a year early with 17 of them. He led or tied for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions his sophomore and junior seasons. He also forced two fumbles and recovered four.

Ask him to explain how he keeps coming up with the ball, and he laughs. Then he delivers a pat answer about how his teammates deserve all the credit. You can sense he has been asked the question so frequently, but he's unable to put his knack into words.

"The guys have done a nice job of getting him ready," said Jauron, himself a Pro Bowl safety for the Detroit Lions. "But nobody's making those plays except Jairus. ... He's got qualities -- and a lot of them."
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Former Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd is passing all his knowledge onto his son, Jairus.

Williams can explain the secret to Jairus Byrd's intrinsic homing skills because Williams learned it from Gill Byrd nearly two decades ago.

Bills teammates claim Jairus Byrd demonstrates advanced football maturity, and it's easy to see why. He's a superb case study in determining whether nature or nurture determines a man's potential.

Yes, he has the bloodlines. Gill Byrd played 10 seasons for the Chargers and is in their Hall of Fame.

Perhaps more importantly, Jairus Byrd's nest was the NFL locker room. His father worked in the Green Bay Packers front office and has been an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams and Bears. Gill also credited the "discipline and encouragement" from Jairus' mother, Marilyn, and the drive to compete with Gill Byrd II, the older son by two years who became a star defensive back at New Mexico State.

But it was in St. Louis where Williams took Jairus Byrd, then a high school student, under his wing. The two became so close that Jairus Byrd still calls him Uncle Aeneas.

"It wouldn't just be running and talking football," Gill Byrd said. "It'd be talking life. It'd be talking about what it takes to be a man of God, life lessons. On top of that, he learned football and techniques from one of the best."

Williams' involvement has been critical to Jairus Byrd's development because the rookie has no distinct memories of his father playing and never has seen a frame of game tape. He turned six during his father's final season. Old-school programming on the NFL Network or ESPN Classic haven't presented a glimpse.

The only footage Jairus Byrd has seen of Gill in action was grainy practice film somebody burned onto a DVD for a joke.

Williams' tutelage meant "having someone he did watch play and look up to show him 'Yes, this is what it's all about,'" Gill Byrd said. "As with any child, you need multiple voices to deliver the same message to get things across. That old saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' I think it's appropriate even in the athletic arena."

Williams simply is returning the love Gill Byrd showed him for years. Long before Gill Byrd joined the Rams' coaching staff, he'd been teaching Williams everything he knew.

Williams emerged from Southern University in 1991 hungry for information that could give him an edge. He sought out top defensive backs because he wanted to soak in their insight. He flew to Houston to meet Ken Houston, tracked down Michael Haynes and reached out to Gill Byrd.

For the next few summers, Gill Byrd and Williams worked out in San Diego. Soon after they met, Gill imparted some words that changed the way Williams played the game and sent him on his way to a career highlighted by 55 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries and 12 defensive touchdowns.

Williams called it "that little, subtle change" in his attitude, and he's sure Gill ingrained it in Jairus, too.

"Most defensive backs play with a philosophy of 'I can't get beat,' or 'Nobody can beat me,' " Williams said. "Gill made me understand, no, my philosophy has to be 'They have to beat me,' which sounds like just words, but for me it really catapulted me to another level of understanding.

"Just think of all the defensive backs you see in a game that are right next to the receiver but never turn back to look for the ball. It's because all that guy's life he's been told 'Don't get beat.' "

A thirst for knowledge has splashed Jairus Byrd. He still texts Williams in search of any tip he can get on certain receivers (Williams shared one of Randy Moss' big tells) and will wheedle advice from the legends who hang around One Bills Drive. Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas already is a big fan.

"I try to absorb everything I can," Jairus Byrd said. "My father taught me how to be a pro in life, how to be man. He's always told me to be slow to speak and quick to hear. That's pretty much the biggest thing I learned from him."

Some might look at Jairus Byrd's interceptions and flick a dismissive wrist. He has been feasting on bad quarterback play -- Derek Anderson, Mark Sanchez, Jake Delhomme. Passes have been overthrown. Balls are bouncing off receivers' hands and right to him.

Skeptics would say Jairus Byrd is a lucky duck.

"Is it luck when you study your opponent and know their tendencies?" Gill Byrd asked. "Is it luck when you play hard and hustle? Is it luck when you find the ball, track the ball and have nothing else in sight? Is it luck when you have the hand-eye coordination to catch the ball?

"I would say it's a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. Not too many guys get lucky that often."

Or so quickly.