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PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- On the eve of their biggest game since Super Bowl III -- or so head coach Rex Ryan called it -- the New York Jets received a motivational speech from one of the most beloved and tragic figures in franchise history.
Former defensive lineman Dennis Byrd, whose promising career came to a nightmarish end in 1992 when he suffered a broken neck in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, delivered a moving address to the Jets Saturday night at their team hotel.
"I just heard the most inspirational message of my life from former Jet Dennis Byrd," wide receiver Braylon Edwards tweeted.
In a follow-up tweet, Edwards added, "As God is my witness, I have never been more ready to perform in my life. Dennis Byrd, I respect, salute and honor you."Byrd sent his last Jets jersey, the one he wore on that fateful day in 1992, to the Jets last Wednesday. The team received it Thursday and displayed it in their locker room at Gillette Stadium. That jersey was cut off Byrd's body by doctors as he lay motionless on field, and he kept it displayed at his home in Oklahoma as a source of motivation through his recovery. "The symbolism, to me, is priceless," Byrd, 44, told ESPNNewYork.com in his suite at Gillette Stadium -- the first time since Sept. 5, 1993 that Byrd watched a Jets game in person. That day, he was honored by the team and served as an honorary captain. "That jersey was an essential part of my recovery. It helped me get my life back." Byrd said he called Jets scout Brock Sunderland, the son of longtime Jets scout Marv Sunderland, and told him he wanted to send the jersey as a source of inspiration for the team. Sunderland spoke with Ryan, who immediately invited Byrd to speak to the team. "It took me a long time to say yes -- about a second," joked Byrd, who walks with a pronounced limp.
The Jets meet the New England Patriots Sunday in a grudge match that will be rife with emotion. The Jets were embarrassed last month by the Patriots, 45-3, fueling a war of words in recent days that started with Ryan and escalated when cornerback Antonio Cromartie made profane comments about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Ordinarily, Ryan delivers the Saturday-night speech to the team, and they're usually quite memorable. This time, the outspoken coach ceded his podium to Byrd, who spoke eloquently of how his career was cut short and how he always dreamed of playing in a game of this magnitude, according to people in the room.Byrd spoke to the team for 15 minutes. The room was silent, he said. "I thought I flopped," he said. But afterward, speaking to coaches and players, Byrd said he was told his speech was inspirational. He said the idea of sending his jersey "was on my heart a long time," and credited Sunderland with making it happen. He and Brock became friends when Brock was a young boy, hanging out at training camp when Byrd was a player. Byrd said he didn't want to detract attention from the team by talking about himself or his speech. But Byrd wanted this out about his respect for Ryan, a fellow native Oklahoman: "When I first saw the Jets had hired Rex Ryan ... I didn't know how many games the Jets would win, but I knew they weren't going to lose any fights." 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.
It was an emotional week for the Jets, but it hit a fever pitch with the arrival of Byrd, who has been living a quiet life in his native Oklahoma. It's believed this was his first team function in more than 15 years. In the years following his injury, which left him temporarily paralyzed, Byrd drifted away from the spotlight, cutting off ties with former teammates and team officials.
Byrd's injury gripped New York for several weeks late in the 1992 season, when he was front-page news. Three months after the injury, which occurred when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau, Byrd walked on crutches into an emotional news conference at his Manhattan hospital.
The following season, the Jets honored Byrd on opening day, when he walked on his own to midfield for the coin toss. He was presented with the Most Inspirational Player Award, which was immediately renamed the Dennis Byrd Award. It's presented annually to a player on the team, as voted by the players. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson was this season's recipient.Byrd said it had been on his mind for many years, reconnecting with the Jets, but he never felt the time was right because of the upheaval with the coaching staffs. Byrd is a Ryan admirer -- he always dreamed of playing for Ryan's father, Buddy -- and felt this was the right moment to reach out to the team. "This is the first time in my life that I've been around a group of guys and coaches and an organization that has the genuine ability to win a world championship," he said. "I wanted them to understand how important this moment is. This is the moment. It's not the future, it's now."
No Jets player has worn No. 90 since Byrd, although it hasn't been formally retired.
Byrd worked one season as a CBS analyst, and later as an assistant high school coach, before leaving the game. He wrote a book, which led to a TV movie about his life. In recent years, he has traveled the country as a motivational speaker.Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.