Byrd still inspiring former team

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
11:14
AM ET
Dennis Byrd, whose No. 90 jersey will be retired Sunday in a halftime ceremony at MetLife Stadium, told ESPNNewYork.com that he's planning to spend time with the Jets on Saturday as they make final preparations for their huge game against the Dolphins.

If Byrd addresses the team, it will conjure up memories of his appearance two years ago at the AFC divisional playoff game against the Patriots. On the eve of the game, he delivered a stirring speech that still resonates with the current players.

"It was just a powerful time," Mike DeVito said this week. "I think it played a key for us in winning that game."

Byrd was invited by Rex Ryan to the playoff game after he sent his last game jersey -- the one he was wearing when he broke his neck 20 years ago -- to the team a few days before they faced the Pats. It was significant, and surprising, because Byrd, living a quiet life in Oklahoma, hadn't been involved with the Jets in several years.

He spoke at the team hotel in Providence, R.I., participated in a team chapel service, and attended the game. The team captains brought out his jersey for the coin toss. The Jets made it a Hollywood-type story by stunning the Patriots.

"The thing I remember is how proud he was to be a Jet," Brandon Moore said. "He still felt like a Jet. Rex uses that term, bleeding green. You felt a connection to the past, which is something you don't feel a lot in the NFL. People leave and move on and guys that were there, there's no connection between past and present. It was good. It felt college-like in a sense."

The most touching moment in the speech, players said, was when Byrd told the team he'd give anything for a chance to have one more play on a football field. His promising career was cut short at the age of 26, after four seasons.

"The message was, 'Leave it on the field. You never know when it's going to be your last snap, so play as if every single one is,'" Dustin Keller said. "It was huge. We played our butts off that day. It meant a lot to us. Sometimes people take things for granted as far as their career. We have to realize opportunities can be lost."

Byrd was on his way to a terrific career when the tragedy occurred. He already had 28 sacks in less than four seasons. Since then, no player has worn No. 90. Former equipment manager Clay Hampton, now part of the team's management, made sure of that.

Based on statistics, Byrd's career doesn't compare to those other former Jets whose numbers are retired -- Joe Namath, Don Maynard, Joe Klecko and Curtis Martin. But in some ways, Byrd has made a greater impact.

"Life is so much more than numbers," former teammate Jeff Lageman said. "You recognize true greatness by how a person handles adversity. Dennis was able to lift people up in one of the toughest moments anyone could ever face. He was at the top of his physical prowess and, suddenly, he was incapacitated in bed. His life changed in a fraction of a second, and yet he was lifting others."

Maybe, just maybe, he can lift his old team once again.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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