The bond no collision could break
Hit that sent ex-Jets Mersereau, Byrd on separate paths reunites them Sunday
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Twenty years ago, two teammates -- good friends -- collided on a football field with such force that witnesses swear it sounded like a factory explosion.
One got up. The other didn't for a long time, the top of his spinal column crushed by the impact.
Dennis Byrd overcame paralysis and learned to walk again, becoming a celebrity and a symbol of inspiration. There was a book, a made-for-TV movie and motivational speeches across the country, including a celebrated pep talk to his old team before a playoff victory two years ago.
Scott Mersereau limped away with only a sprained ankle -- so he thought. He later developed severe back pain, took painkilling injections and was forced to retire at the age of 29 when a doctor told him there was damage in his back and he risked paralysis if he continued to play.
Mersereau faded into anonymity, requiring three surgeries and enduring a personal hell that only a small circle of people knew about. "He was the forgotten half of that collision," former teammate Jeff Lageman said.
Sadly, Mersereau and Byrd lost touch, adding an emotional hurt to the physical pain. They will be forever linked by one moment in time -- one tragic moment -- but they haven't talked in 18 years.
The New York Jets are retiring Byrd's No. 90 jersey in a halftime ceremony Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and Mersereau is planning to fly up from Florida to attend. After all these years, there's something he wants to tell his old friend, something he needs to tell him.
On the play that changed their lives, Byrd and Mersereau were doing what they were taught to do from the time they were pee wee players in Oklahoma and Long Island, respectively -- hunting the quarterback.
Byrd came from one side, Mersereau the other. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg was about to become the middle of a painful sandwich, but he stepped up at the last possible moment. Byrd and Mersereau couldn't stop. Byrd lowered the crown of his helmet into Mersereau's sternum, and down they went.
Nov. 29, 1992.
"I can turn it on right now and see every little detail of it, from every angle," Mersereau said recently.
He was sitting on an outdoor patio at a Starbucks near his home in Boca Raton, Fla. The morning air was heavy and the clouds were dark. You looked into his blue eyes and you could almost see the VHS version of the collision, replaying in his mind. His mother taped every one of his NFL games, and he has a copy of that particular game in his home. His wife has seen it. His kids have seen it.
Has it really been 20 years? Time has been kind to Mersereau. He's 47, but he still has that thick, nose-tackle chest, still a well-proportioned 255 pounds. Wearing a baseball cap backward, revealing only flecks of gray over his ears, he didn't look anywhere close to middle age.
I can turn it on right now and see every little detail of it, from every angle.” -- Ex-Jets defensive lineman Scott Mersereau
During his playing days, Mersereau was the carefree bachelor, always looking for a good time. Byrd was the opposite, a country boy who went to church every Sunday and married his childhood sweetheart. But they became fast friends and lived together for a couple of weeks after the '92 training camp.
They watched a lot of movies together, and their favorite was "Dances With Wolves." They loved the ending, the scene where Wind in His Hair bids an emotional goodbye to Kevin Costner's character, Lt. John Dunbar.
"Do you see that I am your friend? Can't you see that you will always be my friend?"
That, Byrd and Mersereau decided, would be them. Always friends.
A few months later, their friendship was tested in ways they never thought possible. Byrd was hit so hard that the C-5 vertebra in his upper spine exploded, rendering him paralyzed. In layman's terms, it was a broken neck, the ultimate football horror story.
For Mersereau, the hardest part was a couple of days later, when he went to see Byrd in the hospital. The Jets were so concerned about Mersereau's state of mind that they requested he see a psychologist before the visit. He declined, insisting he wasn't racked by guilt. But it still was one of the toughest things he ever had to do.
When Mersereau walked in, he saw the cervical halo, screwed into Byrd's skull. He saw dried blood on Byrd's forehead. He saw his teammate -- his friend -- helpless in a bed, his wife at his side.
"I was just a nervous wreck," Mersereau said. "I mean, more nervous than ever in my life. He saw me, he smiled and the first thing he said was, '‘Mers, me and Angie have been so worried about you.'"
Mersereau, sitting at an umbrella table at the Starbucks, paused and swallowed hard. His eyes moistened, his voice cracked. Twenty years later, it still gets to him.
"Worried about me. I can't forget that," he said. "It brings a tear to my eye now. He was worried about how I was taking it, and there he was. I'm walking around and he's in bed, paralyzed at that point. I'd like to think I'm that strong, but I'm not so sure that would be the case."
Just then, the Florida sky opened and it started pouring.
To this day, Mersereau believes the force of the collision caused his medical condition -- three cracked vertebrae in his lower back. He knew something was seriously wrong because he needed painkillers to make it through the '93 season, taking Toradol injections before every game and again at halftime.
Released by the Jets after the '93 season, Mersereau tried to catch on with the Green Bay Packers, but he never got past the physical.
"The doctor looked at the X-rays and said, '‘You have a broken back. You can't play anymore. You risk paralysis,'" he said.
He was done with football, but his ordeal was only beginning -- a physical and emotional downfall that nearly broke him.
Mersereau was in such pain that he couldn't walk on the sandy beaches near his home. He underwent two operations, including a laminectomy -- the removal of part of the vertebral bone. Neither procedure worked.
Finally, in June 1996, he opted for last-resort surgery -- a three-level spinal fusion in which six rods were inserted into his back. Doctors used bone grafted from his hip to repair the cracked vertebrae. The procedure, eerily similar to what Byrd had undergone in the aftermath of the collision, lasted 12 hours. The recovery felt like forever.
For the first three days, Mersereau was in such pain he couldn't sleep.
"He was about ready to lose his mind," Lageman said.
Mersereau was bed-ridden for six months, requiring a home health aide. He was a single dad, unable to care for his 2-year-old son, Dylan, and that tore him apart. Everything was falling apart -- his body and his world -- and he slipped into a dark place.
"When you're done with your career, you're going to go through some form of depression," he said. "The only question is, is it going to be mild, moderate or severe? I went through that. I'm mature enough to admit it. It was a difficult period."
Four years after the collision, Mersereau was living Byrd's nightmare. Except in his case, there were no TV cameras and microphones hovering around him. There wasn't an adoring public, applauding and weeping for joy when he took his first steps.
"Scott went through absolutely excruciating pain for four years," former teammate Paul Frase said. "His surgery, in terms of the hardware, was similar to what Dennis went through. Scott's vertebra didn't blow up like Dennis' did, but anytime you're talking about plates and screws, it's pretty devastating."
To get from the bed to the bathroom, Mersereau had to roll to one side, maneuvering his upper body into a bulky back brace -- his Ninja Turtle brace, he called it. The low point, he said, was taking a shower. The former nose tackle who once won the NFL Strongest Man Competition couldn't do it alone.
"I sat in a shower chair, sat there naked, and had somebody wash me," he said. "That's pretty humiliating."
By now, Byrd had faded from the public spotlight, repairing to a quiet life with his family at their lakeside home in Owasso, Okla. The former teammates were 1,400 miles apart, disconnected, their roles reversed. The one who got up was down.
Seeking inspiration, Mersereau read Byrd's autobiography, "Rise and Walk," and he watched the movie of the same title.
"That kept me going, it really did," he said.
So did the message he wanted to deliver to Byrd.
Mersereau is in his fourth season as the defensive coordinator and defensive-line coach for Boca Raton High School. He started coaching a decade ago, when Dylan was 7. Appropriately, their first team was the Boca Jets.
They stuck together, father and son, from the youth leagues to the varsity. Now Dylan is a senior, a 6-foot, 190-pound strong safety.
Mersereau has discovered his passion. He loves coaching, loves everything about it -- the one-on-one instruction and the ability to create a game plan that befuddles even the best schools in talent-rich South Florida.
"It's my connection to the game," he said. "I'm helping kids, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not doing it for myself. It fills a void."
Mersereau, who works as a financial analyst for a firm in Boca Raton, lives a comfortable life with his wife, Heather, and their four kids. There are constant reminders of the old pain. He can't swing a golf club, can't lift heavy weights and can't run at full speed. But he can walk on a beach without feeling the knives in his back, and that is a wonderful feeling.
If there's regret in his life, it's that he lost touch with Byrd. The last time they saw each other was about 1994, when they got together with a few former Jets at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas. After that, most of them drifted from Byrd.
Mersereau never took it personally. He always assumed that Byrd needed his space, that contact with him would trigger memories of the collision and its gruesome aftermath.
"I couldn't imagine his pain," Mersereau said. "I had to respect that, so I backed off."
Other former teammates did the same. They harbor no bitterness toward Byrd, figuring he wants to avoid reminders of the past. He loved the game so much -- he used to collect little jars of dirt from every stadium -- and it was ripped away at the age of 26. The collision broke his neck and his heart.
Byrd says he feels guilty that he hasn't maintained stronger ties with his old teammates, including Mersereau. Initially, he wanted to focus on his recovery.
"The first few years, it was just about survival, getting my body right and finding a way to keep my mind right," he said in a phone interview. "After five ... 10 ... 15 years, you get embarrassed. How do I explain it then? I let some things go, important things like keeping in touch."
Byrd sounded genuinely remorseful about his distant relationship with Mersereau. He turned nostalgic, reminiscing about special times they shared after the collision.
"Scott was the guy who was there at such significant moments," he said. "Literally, the day I took my first steps outside the brace bar, Scott was there and he was at my side. I actually held on to his arm for my first step. Those are moments and memories that I'll always cherish.
"I'm guilty of taking those for granted, but I won't do that anymore," Byrd vowed. "I'm really going to try harder."
Physically, these past few years haven't been easy for Byrd, who ended his self-imposed withdrawal from the public eye two years ago when he made a surprise appearance at a Jets playoff game. After a long lull in his recovery, the muscles in his lower back started regenerating, causing severe pain. As he described it, the electricity came back on. His football mentality took over, and he pushed himself through it.
Byrd now lives on a 170-acre ranch in rural Oklahoma. He has four kids, ranging in ages from 8 to 22, and soon he will be a grandfather. His youngest, Zach, loves football (he has a New York Jets bedspread) and soon he will play the sport that brought so much joy to his father.
"If I woke up tomorrow as healthy as I was when I was 26, I'd beg, borrow and steal for a uniform," he said. "If I could go back in time, you bet I'd play the Kansas City Chiefs again -- except, on that play, I'd just take a knee and watch."
Byrd can't wait to see Mersereau.
"I miss him so much," he said, choking up. "I'm going to tell him I love him."
Mersereau knows exactly what he will tell Byrd. He has known for 16 years, repeating the lines countless times during his own ordeal.
It's a thank you.
"I'll hug him and tell him I never forgot the words he said to me in the hospital," the old nose tackle said. "His courage was just ... he was worried about me. That was the last thing I expected. That was the most powerful, emotional statement I ever heard anybody ever say. Those words. ...
"They carried me."