Dennis Byrd, the former NFL defensive lineman whose career was ended by neck injury, was killed Saturday in a car accident. He was 51.
Byrd died in a two-vehicle collision on Oklahoma 88 north of Claremore, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said. He starred at the University of Tulsa before playing for the New York Jets.
“We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’s wife, Angela, their children and the entire Byrd family,” said Dr. Derrick Gragg, Tulsa’s athletic director. “Dennis exemplified true determination, tremendous heart and humility throughout his life. He had a tremendous playing career at TU and professionally with the New York Jets. He overcame great personal adversity after a life-altering injury on the football field. We know that Dennis touched numerous lives and will be missed by many.”
The crash happened around 11:15 a.m. between Oologah and Claremore, the highway patrol said. A 17-year-old Claremore driver in a 2000 Ford Explorer northbound on Oklahoma 88 veered into the oncoming lane, striking the 2004 Hummer H2 that Byrd was driving, the highway patrol said.
Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene, and the 17-year-old driver and a 12-year-old passenger in Byrd’s vehicle were taken to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, where they were in critical condition.
Byrd was midway through his fourth NFL season when he was briefly paralyzed during a game on Nov. 29, 1992, against Kansas City. He broke his neck after slamming headfirst into the chest of Jets teammate Scott Mersereau as Chiefs quarterback David Krieg stepped forward to avoid a sack.
The impact broke the C-5 vertebra in Byrd’s neck, leaving him unable to walk for a few weeks. After a vigorous rehabilitation, Byrd returned to the Meadowlands for the Jets’ opening game the following season and walked to midfield as an honorary captain.
He never fully recovered from the injury, walking with some difficulty and going through continuous rehabilitation during the years since. But Byrd, a devout Christian, wrote a book in 1993 called “Rise and Walk,” which detailed how he relied on his faith and family to push through his injury to recover and serve an inspiration to others who went through similar situations.
Byrd’s story was later made into a made-for-TV movie, with actor-director Peter Berg playing him.Comment: An inspiration to me. Image below is screen snap of WSJ article
More on Dennis Byrd
A team of six surgeons worked for seven hours at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan today to successfully stabilize the fractured fifth cervical vertebra in the neck of Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd. But it could be as long as two years before Byrd will know if he will regain the use of his paralyzed legs, according to Dr. Elliott Hershman, the team's orthopedist. "The goal of the surgery -- to stabilize the spine -- was achieved," said Hershman, who was not part of the team that operated on Byrd. "The long-term prognosis has not changed. The overall amount of improvement that may occur will take some time to determine." Can't Flex Fingers Byrd, who fractured the vertebra in a collison with teammate Scott Mersereau in the Kansas City game last Sunday, still has no use of his legs, although he can sense when he is touched. He has partial use of his arms, but can't flex his fingers.Byrd recovery more than just a physical one - May 16, 1993
Byrd had since made a remarkable recovery. He's now walking with hesitant steps. His mental attitude is even more remarkable. Instead of being bitter, Byrd, a devout Christian, sees his accident as a chance to help others. "I can touch more lives than I ever could have as a football player," he said last week during a speech to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He now realizes how wrong he was to feel so much despair on the field. "Six-foot-5, 277 pounds. This is how I identified Dennis Byrd. This is what I thought made me the love of my wife. This is what I thought made me the respected father of my daughter. This is what I thought people looked to when they saw Dennis Byrd. "Understand what this tragedy did to me. I was stripped of what I thought was my manhood. I was stripped of my physical prowess, of my speed and my strength and my physical ability. All this was gone. Looking back now, I was so completely wrong. Out of this lesson, I learned more about myself and about my God than I could have learned in a lifetime," he said.Miracle? Byrd is the word - Friday, November 29, 2002
Recovery from spinal cord injuries is, however, gradual, and Byrd's is incomplete. Now 36, he still walks with great difficulty, lifting his legs like a man carrying concrete blocks on his shoulders. He estimates he has regained only about 20 percent of the strength and muscle capacity he had before the injury, which cut short his promising pro career 12 games into his fourth season.
But he's also able to hunt and fish and enjoy the ranch he purchased in Nowata County four years ago. And he carries a song in his heart. As miraculous as any aspect of his injury and partial recovery are his attitudes toward them. He seems never to dwell on the things he has lost, and talks constantly about the things God has given him.
"The greatest thing about Dennis is how he has chosen to carry himself in spite of all the physical limitations. I've never seen him have a down day," says Willie George, a good friend and also Byrd's pastor and founder of the enormous Tulsa-based Church on the Move. "I've worked with many people who had difficulties like the one Dennis had to overcome," George says. "Most of them recovered physically, but almost all of them carried emotional scars from their experiences that lingered for years. Dennis has recovered emotionally, better than anyone I've ever known."
Byrd attributes that plainly to the work of God in his life. He credits his parents with instilling the spiritual basis that sustained him through his darkest moments. Dan and Helen Byrd were raised in the traditions of the Pentecostal faith and passed it on to their five children. Daily prayer was common for Byrd, who won All-State football honors during his senior year at Mustang High School when he set a state record by making 39 sacks.
But he says his relationship with God was never as deep as it became on the day he was left with a lifeless shell for a body and had no one else he could count on for a way out. His prayer today remains what it was in the beginning. "My personal belief is that God is going to use me to be a continued witness," he says. "How he does that, I don't know. But what I have to do is just be faithful and continue to trust in him and trust in his word and claim his word in my life."
Byrd maintained a furious pace during the first several years of his recovery, speaking at Fellowship of Christian Athletes functions and being honored by groups all over the country. He worked an abbreviated gig as an NFL analyst for CBS, dabbled briefly in the oil industry, started a foundation with his wife to fund spinal cord research and even coached high school football on a volunteer basis during the 1995 season at Owasso, where he and his family have resided for the past dozen years. Dave Rader, who coached him both as an assistant and one year as head coach at TU, remembers Byrd's return as keynote speaker for the Tulsa-area FCA banquet at the Mabee Center in 1993 as an unforgettable experience. "He walked up the stairs to the podium on his own power. I can still see him climbing those steps," Rader said. "It was a tremendous night. There's probably still a tape of that somwhere. There's no telling how many FCA Huddle groups watched the video, all across the country."
For the last several years, Byrd has slowed down his life to a manageable pace. He closed down his foundation because he says, "the mere paperwork required to maintain a 501(C)(3) status was becoming a full-time, 9-to-5 job every day of the week." He has turned inward to his family and guards his privacy jealously. "I hate telling people, 'No,' but for the health of my family, I've had to do it. They are the physical priority in my life. If I'm off taking care of other people's children and letting my own children and family fall apart, that's a very poor leadership model," he says. "I have to first lead my wife and lead my children. Everything else comes after that. That's where I'm at and it shows in my family life. I have a tremendous relationship with my wife and I have an incredible relationship with my children. I'm thankful for that."
But Byrd still enjoys sharing his testimony. He loves children and loves talking to them about life and football. During the past two years, he's done his primary speaking through Church on the Move's oneighty youth ministry, as part of a program George calls "football squad nights." Various local high school football teams are bused to the church in East Tulsa for a night of food and fun. Byrd shows a highlight of his football career and then speaks briefly, but George says the best moment is when he drags his chair into a circle in the middle of the room and permits the young athletes to ask him any question they want to ask. At those moments, Byrd wouldn't be anywhere else. "I love kids, and I love football," he says.