Sunday, January 16, 2011
Byrd inspired Jets in Foxborough
By Rich Cimini ESPNNewYork.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After a week of trash-talking madness, from Rex Ryan to Antonio Cromartie to Bart Scott, the New York Jets derived their greatest inspiration from a speech that left them utterly silent.
Not many people have the ability to render this coach and this team mute, but the yapping Jets were spellbound Saturday night at their team hotel on the eve of their AFC divisional playoff against the New England Patriots. Former Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd, whose career was tragically cut short by a broken neck in 1992, was a surprise guest speaker.
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Byrd, emerging from his Greta Garbo-esque life in Oklahoma, picked this game, this moment, to reconnect with his forever team. He came with words of passion -- no F-bombs -- and the tattered Jets jersey that was cut off his paralyzed body by doctors that fateful day 18 years ago.
The Jets were so moved they hung Byrd's jersey on their locker room wall at Gillette Stadium, adjacent to a banner that read: "Make today your day." That was one of the lines from Byrd's speech. That quote was the last thing they saw as they exited the locker room.
The Jets made it their day. They made it the day of days, stunning the Patriots 28-21 to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year. It was the franchise's biggest win since Super Bowl III in 1969, as the Jets outplayed and outsmarted Bill Belichick's Patriots.
Cynics might say that Byrd's 15-minute address to the team played no role in the Jets' win, but those cynics didn't see the look in LaDainian Tomlinson's eyes after the game and hear the near cracking in his voice as he described the impact of Byrd's words. Tomlinson called it the most emotional speech he has ever heard, and that covers a decade in the NFL.
"Unbelievable impact," said Tomlinson, who scored on a 7-yard catch. "He lost something. He lost something he loved. He brought that jersey back, that jersey they cut off him on that field 18 years ago ... and to look at that jersey, to touch it, to see him up there, holding it and talking about it, I've never seen anything like that. Never."
Former Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd's football career ended on Nov. 29, 1992.
Braylon Edwards was so struck by Byrd that he tweeted about it late Saturday, saluting Byrd and telling his Twitter followers that he never was so ready to play a game. And so there was Edwards on Sunday, catching a 6-yard slant at the Patriots' 9 and refusing to go down. He carried Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather into the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Jets a 14-3 lead.
"I just felt Dennis Byrd as I was going into the end zone," Edwards said. "I'm not trying to get cheesy or anything like that, but it's honest. I felt his spirits and the things he talked about last night. They really showed up on that play. And I looked up and I was in the end zone."
It's ironic, after a week of silly and profane trash-talking, that the best words of inspiration were G-rated, pure and real.
Byrd, who had lost touch with the organization, reached out last Wednesday through an intermediary, Jets scout Brock Sunderland. He offered his old jersey as a source of motivation, and it took a lot for him to make that gesture. During the darkest days of his recovery, Byrd used that jersey as his inspiration.
"The symbolism, to me, is priceless," he said two hours before kickoff in a private suite at the stadium. "That jersey was an essential part of my recovery. It helped me get my life back."
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Ryan accepted the jersey, but the coach wanted more. He wanted Byrd. He invited him to New England for the game, and it took Byrd about a second to make the decision to accept. It was his first Jets game since Sept. 5, 1993, the day he was feted at the season opener. He walked on the field that day only 10 months after it appeared he'd never walk again.
"For him to be walking today is a miracle," said Scott, who has a paraplegic cousin. "How can you not listen to a miracle?"
Brandon Moore usually isn't a big believer in rah-rah speeches, but the first words out of his mouth after the victory were from Byrd's speech.
"He said not a day goes by where he wouldn't trade all his possessions for one more game," Moore said. "Coming from him and what he stands for, to say something like that, it resonated with a lot of guys."
Byrd punched some bullet points in his BlackBerry, but he spoke from the heart. He was an emerging player in 1992, only 26 years old, but he never got a chance to experience a playoff victory or a shot at the Super Bowl.
"This," he said in his Oklahoma drawl, "is that moment."
The moment wasn't too big for the Jets, who played with a purpose. Last month's 45-3 humiliation weighed on their minds all week. That hurt fueled the brash quotes from Ryan about his "personal" war against Belichick and the dumb comments by Cromartie, who insulted Tom Brady.
They acted like high school kids, but give them credit: They walked the walk.
Maybe they got their resolve from Byrd's true emotion, not contrived emotion.
"It was like we needed to win this for him," Tomlinson said. "I remember one thing he said. He said he can't wait to see, as the seconds tick down, the New York Jets winning the game. It's like he knew something. It was unbelievable."
Tomlinson, by the way, was voted by his teammates this season's most inspirational player. It's called the Dennis Byrd Award.