FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets carried Dennis Byrd's inspirational jersey with them onto the field during the coin toss against New England.
Byrd, who attended last Sunday's divisional playoff game in a private suite, helped lift the Jets to the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh by delivering a powerful speech to the team the night before the Jets defeated the Patriots 28-21. Several Jets credited Byrd with inspiring them.
"It's just fitting for him to be our captain," quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "I'm proud that he is. I wouldn't want it any other way. Hearing about his story for the first time really makes you understand how fortunate we are and how fragile your career is and these moments you have on the plane, around in the locker room, having fun with guys, going to eat, playing on the field, it's pretty special."
After Byrd had his career end prematurely due to a broken neck in 1992, the defensive end lost touch with his team. But he sent a letter and the tattered No. 90 jersey doctors had to cut off his paralyzed body to head coach Rex Ryan prior to the playoff game versus the Patriots.
Byrd wrote that he waited 18 years but felt this was the appropriate time to send the jersey that inspired him so much throughout his grueling recovery to walk again.
"The symbolism to me, is priceless," Byrd said on Sunday prior to the Jets' stirring victory. "That jersey was an essential part of my recovery. It helped me get my life back."
Ryan was floored when he got the jersey and note in the mail. He immediately contacted Byrd and asked him to come talk to the team.
"That blew me away," Ryan said this week on his weekly appearance on "The Michael Kay Show" on 1050 ESPN radio. "I couldn't believe it. I was like, my gosh, I couldn't believe that he would send it to me. I wasn't deserving of that honor. I wanted our team to hear what he was telling me as well. It was a powerful message, that's for sure."
On Saturday night at the team hotel, Byrd stood before the Jets and had the most mouthy team in the NFL completely speechless. Using only a few notes typed into his Blackberry, Byrd had each player hanging on to his every word.
"It was hot in the room, but the only thing you heard was the air conditioning running," Ryan said. "You could have heard a pin drop and everything else. The guys were so, I think, in awe of him and respectful of him. He always talked about 'I'm a Jet and I will always be a Jet.'"
After the Jets' upset, several players credited Byrd with inspiring them to the victory. Byrd talked about how he never got to experience a playoff victory or come close to a Super Bowl after having his promising career end at 26. He told the Jets that he would trade everything he owns for one more game. This, Byrd said, was the moment he never got to experience.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who had a touchdown catch against the Patriots, called Byrd's speech the most emotional he has ever heard.
"He would give anything to be able to play just one more game," Ryan said of Byrd. "I think that really hit home with the guys."
On Sunday, Byrd will walk onto the field with the Jets as they take another step toward potentially snapping their four-decade-old Super Bowl drought.
"It can end at any moment," Sanchez said of Byrd's message to the team. "That was just a good reminder for us of how fortunate we are. His story definitely gave us inspiration last week and it's just fitting that he's going to lead us out before the game."
Ohm Youngmisuk covers football for ESPNNewYork.com.