Dennis Byrd could have been one of the best defensive ends in New York Jets’ history.
Had Byrd played longer in the National Football League, he would have been in the same stratosphere as Muhammad Wilkerson, Jeff Lageman, Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, and Mark Gastineau.
Byrd got off to a great start in his football career. His unstoppable chop-swim technique helped him rack up 13.0 sacks in 1990 alone.
By the time Byrd entered his fourth NFL season in 1992, he had a combined 27.0 sacks and was on pace for more.
Alas, unspeakable tragedy struck when a freak injury left Byrd paralyzed from the neck down in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 29, 1992.
It was one of the most harrowing career-ending injuries in league history along with those of Mike Utley, Johnny Knox, and Joe Theismann.
This is Dennis Byrd’s inspirational football story.
Early Life and College Days with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Dennis DeWayne Byrd was born to parents Dan and Nancy in Oklahoma City, OK on October 5, 1966. He has four siblings.
According to The New York Times‘s Timothy W. Smith, Byrd was brought into the world by the same obstetrician who delivered Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench.
Byrd experienced tragedy at an early age. He nearly died due to a lung disorder that ailed him when he was just two years old.
Dennis was a mischievous child. His father, Dan, who sold insurance for a living and did youth ministry work on the side, once saw him and his friend play “Cowboys and Indians” with actual fire arrows.
The Byrd kids hopped in the family station wagon to help their dad minister to other children. Dennis got a kick out of doing one of the ministry puppet shoes with his dad, per The New York Times.
Before long, the two boys set the tree in the yard on fire. To Dan Byrd’s horror, he saw his son and the other boy spraying the tree with a hose.
Byrd and his siblings grew up in hard times in rural Oklahoma. When he reached adolescence, he and his family lived in a trailer without any water supply.
Consequently, Dennis and his brothers took baths at the nearby high school. The local church provided them with food on occasion.
When Dennis Byrd suited up for the NFL’s New York Jets in the early 1990s, he kept a jar with dirt from his old neighborhood to remind himself of those hard times.
When Dennis’s family settled in the Mustang area, sports became a focal point of his young life. He loved football so much, he told his mom, Nancy, that he wanted to play in the NFL someday.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we will be releasing our inaugural Hall of Fame Inductees every day for the next 10 days! Our 1st member of the 2018 Mustang HS Athletics Hall of Fame is DENNIS BYRD! @TulsaFootball @nyjets @BFeldo14 @jacobunruh @MikeBrownTW @1BroncoFootball @EyeAmTruth pic.twitter.com/pzU2xY8DEa
— MHS Bronco Sports (@MHSBroncoSports) March 6, 2018
Byrd attended Mustang High School in Mustang, OK. He suited up for Mustang Broncos head football coach Charles Carpenter.
Dennis’s high school gridiron career got off to an inauspicious start.
The school counselor reached out to Carpenter and referred him to the three Byrd brothers: Dan, Doug, and Dennis.
Dan and Doug stood roughly 6’4″ and weighed roughly 220 pounds. They easily dwarfed their youngest brother, a skinny freshman who was only 5’6″ and weighed just 147 pounds.
A Horrible Physical Specimen
Carpenter described Dennis Byrd as a horrible physical specimen who regularly forgot plays when he played wide receiver for the Broncos as a sophomore in 1982.
Byrd did not let that deter him one bit. He hit the weights like a madman before his junior season. Dennis had grown to an impressive 6’5″ and 215 pounds by the time he entered his senior year in 1984.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane defensive coordinator Bill Young recruited Byrd during that year, per Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas.
Byrd decided to remain in-state and commit to Tulsa. When he accepted a scholarship from the Golden Hurricane, his father, Dan, wept because he thought he would never see the day any of his five kids attend college.
Dennis suited up for Tulsa Golden Hurricane head football coaches Don Morton, George Henshaw, and David Rader from 1985 to 1988.
When Byrd first set foot on campus soil in the fall of 1985, he filled out a questionnaire from the athletics department. He replied, “Going to Six Flags,” was his most unforgettable experience before college, per Vrentas.
To say that Dennis Byrd was enthusiastic about football was a massive understatement.
According to Vrentas, Byrd once defied his coach’s orders and checked back into a blowout game with an injured ankle just so he could help prevent a goal-line stand by the opponent during his college days.
An Average Team
Tulsa was an average team with Byrd on its defensive line. The Golden Hurricane averaged just five wins per year from 1985 to 1988 and extended their Bowl drought to twelve years.
Byrd, a four-year starter, had 321 tackles and 20.0 sacks during his college football career. At the time he played his final down, Byrd became the program’s all-time leader in career sacks.
To nobody’s surprise, Byrd became an honorable mention All-American in his senior season in 1988.
Dennis Byrd was on pace to become one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers when he joined the New York Jets one year later.
Unfortunately, Byrd’s promising pro football career ended due to a freak accident on the gridiron in his fourth season with the Jets.
Pro Football Career
The New York Jets chose Dennis Byrd with the 42nd overall selection of the 1989 NFL Draft.
Byrd told Randy Lange of the Jets’ official website in 2012 he wore No. 90 in the pro football ranks as a tribute to his older brother, Dan.
Dan Byrd wore No. 90 when he played high school football. Although Dennis never wore that number at Mustang High School or Tulsa, he seized the opportunity when it was available the first time he walked into the Jets’ locker room in 1989.
“Then as I wore that number and made it mine for four years playing there in New York, those things become special to a guy,” Byrd told Lange. “They’re your colors, your stripes, your number. It grows with you.”
Some pundits thought Byrd could become the successor of legendary Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, who hung up his cleats following the 1988 NFL season.
Dennis Byrd was up to the daunting challenge early in his pro football career.
Although Byrd did not start a single game as a rookie, he still recorded an impressive 7.0 sacks off the bench in the 1989 NFL campaign.
Byrd upped the ante when first-year Jets head coach Bruce Coslet made him one of his starting defensive ends the following season.
With Pete Carroll calling the shots for the Jets’ defense, Byrd had 13.0 sacks during his breakout 1990 NFL campaign.
A Secret Weapon
Byrd’s secret weapon was the unstoppable chop-swim technique that allowed him to plow through blockers and get to the quarterback with relative ease.
None of the other Jets pass rushers could duplicate Byrd’s move.
Despite Byrd’s best efforts on the defensive line, the Jets averaged just five wins in his first two pro football seasons. New York missed the postseason for the sixth time in the past eight years.
Dennis Byrd got his eventual speaking career off the ground during his playing days in the Big Apple.
Byrd and his teammates spoke at a school assembly in the Bronx in the aftermath of 10-year-old Jessica Guzman’s murder.
Jets defensive end Marvin Washington, Byrd’s roommate on the road and in local hotels, remembered him breaking down and wailing during the assembly. Byrd urged his Jets teammates to do something for Guzman’s cause.
90 days until week 1 vs Baltimore
#90 is a special # in @nyjets history b/c of Dennis Byrd
#90 was never issued again after Byrd was paralyzed in '92 then officially retired in '12
— New York Jets History (@nyjetshistory) June 13, 2022
Byrd launched a fund that raised money for a $15,000 scholarship for less fortunate children who want to enroll at the school. According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, sixty-five families benefited from the said scholarship in the next two years.
Although Byrd’s sack production dipped in 1991 (he had 7.0 in his third season), the Jets won eight games and snuck into the postseason for the first time since the 1986 NFL campaign.
Unfortunately, the Jets lost to Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers in the 1991 AFC Wild Card Game, 17-10. It was the only postseason appearance of Dennis Byrd’s four-year NFL career.
In the summer of Byrd’s second season with the Jets, he was the featured celebrity guest on a Manhattan cruise whose proceeds went to the charity Forward Face, an organization that assisted individuals with craniofacial issues.
Fast forward one year later, Byrd and his wife Angela went on the same tour, though the organizers tapped a different celebrity guest.
Byrd displayed his generosity during the cruise. He bid $250 on a football card that belonged to seven-year-old Stephen Bonventre, a kid with a craniofacial disorder, during an auction on board.
Byrd continued supporting other notable charities in the New York area. He attended a Survivors of the Shield dinner five times in 1991. The charity benefited the families of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty, per Sports Illustrated.
Byrd showed his soft side to a blind woman who was part of a Hellen Keller Services for the Blind group that showed up at Jets training camp in the summer of 1991.
The woman sat on the grass because her legs were disabled. Byrd saw her, sat beside her, and introduced himself.
The blind woman felt Byrd’s helmet during their introduction. The latter then took his helmet off and put in the woman, who let out a loud scream.
Onlookers thought the woman was scared. It turned out she was ecstatic. Byrd and the woman hugged for a good five minutes.
We celebrate #Jets Ring of Honor member, Dennis Byrd, who would've turned 50 today. #90 played DL for the #NYJets from '89-'92, amassing 28 SCKs and 110 TKLs. Paralyzed during a game, Byrd would walk again and served as an inspiration inside and out of football. #JetsLegends pic.twitter.com/AGsvqEuIfh
— NYJetsStan (@jets_stan) October 5, 2020
Love of the Game
Byrd’s enthusiasm for football was off the charts. Defensive tackle Paul Frase noticed it during their time together in Jets green and white.
“He was the one in every few thousand that loves football to the point of loving training camp,” Frase told Vrentas in the fall of 2016.
Dennis Byrd wasn’t just generous with his money. He was also generous with his time to football fans.
Byrd showed up late to a defensive line film meeting during that same training camp he met the blind woman. His reason: it took him forty-five minutes to sign every autograph request at Jets training camp in 1991.
“The day I don’t have time to sign an autograph for a kid is the day I get out of football,” Byrd told King that year.
The only time Byrd turned down a charity request was when he had to accompany his young daughter, Ashtin, to an Ice Capades show.
Dennis Byrd rose from relative obscurity and made Jets franchise history after just three pro football seasons.
As of the 2012 NFL season, Byrd’s 27.0 sacks through his first three seasons ranked third in team history behind Gastineau’s 33.0 sacks from 1979 to 1981 and John Abraham’s 27.5 sacks from 2000 to 2002, per Lange.
Dennis Byrd was in a good position to set more franchise records in subsequent years. Alas, Byrd’s promising NFL career was tragically cut short in the fall of 1992.
The night before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 29, 1992, Byrd and his roommate Marvin Washington prayed inside their Marriott Glennpointe hotel.
After the two Jets defensive linemen said their prayers, they watched the movie A League of Their Own on cable television, talked for another hour, and finally went to bed, per Sports Illustrated.
Washington noticed Byrd rolling a small leather sack that contained hair and trinkets from his wife and young daughter. The sack also contained his mother’s jewelry.
“Other guys talk about doing things for their family, but when you’re around them, you can tell that’s just words,” Washington told King in December 1992. “Dennis lives it. He lives for his family.”
Brock Sunderland, son of Jets scout Marv Sunderland, also had a first-hand glimpse of Dennis Byrd’s love for his family.
Byrd once treated Brock to ice cream when the boy was 10 years old tagging along with his dad, Marv, to Giants Stadium.
When Brock became a Jets ball boy at training camp the following year, he saw Byrd sitting by his locker and kissing a photo of his wife and daughter daily.
Brock Sunderland eventually became a pro scout for the New York Jets in 2007. He is currently the general manager of the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Edmonton Eskimos.
The night with Washington was Dennis Byrd’s final memorable moment before unspeakable tragedy struck the following day.
Byrd and fellow Jets defensive lineman Scott Mersereau converged on Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg in the opening moments of the third quarter.
Krieg scrambled and managed to avoid the impending sack. Once Krieg got out of the way, Byrd rammed into Merserau’s chest. Byrd fractured his vertebra and damaged his spine as a result of the collision.
As Byrd lay on the gridiron, Jets, linebacker Kyle Clifton encouraged him to get up. Byrd told him he could not. He knew he was paralyzed the moment he fell to the ground.
The injury hindered Byrd’s bodily movement below his neck. The only body part he could move was his right bicep, per Vrentas.
Emergency responders cut Byrd’s Jets uniform, carried him off the field on a stretcher, and took him to Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City.
As Byrd rode in the ambulance, he told his wife, Angela, that he knew his pro football career was over. All he wanted was to hold his daughters once more.
In the aftermath of Byrd’s injury, Coslet wondered why flashier players and not those of Byrd’s caliber and character consistently made headlines.
“We always hear about the flashy guys and the druggies and the big stars, but not guys like Dennis,” Coslet told King on December 14, 1992. “It’s a damn shame people didn’t get to know about him until this happened.”
Not only did the Jets lose the game 23-7, but they also lost one of their marquee defensive linemen.
Dennis Byrd underwent a delicate seven-hour surgery at Lennox Hill Hospital, per King.
Byrd’s injury was the latest in a string of tragedies that struck the Jets organization in the 1992 NFL season. Worse, they all happened within a span of just five days.
Burglars broke into safety Erik McMillan’s residence and held him and his girlfriend at gunpoint on November 24, 1992.
Wide receiver, Al Toon, who had not fully recovered from the devastating effects of his ninth career concussion, retired three days later.
Dennis Byrd played in his final NFL down just two days after Toon hung up his cleats.
While Byrd was recovering in his hospital room, he drew strength from Romans 8:18, which says, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
The Bible verse, which was written on a white cardboard sign that hung from his hospital room ceiling, was the first thing he saw in the morning.
New president Bill Clinton even called Byrd in the aftermath of his injury. Clinton was impressed after Byrd told him he was the one who had more problems than he did.
While well-wishers came in droves, Byrd’s manager Rick Schaeffer had to weed through hundreds of media requests daily. Local members of the press even tried to send tape recorders to Byrd’s hospital room so they could get a quote from him.
Dennis Byrd finished his four-year NFL career with 28.0 sacks in fifty-seven games for the New York Jets from 1989 to 1992.
Byrd co-authored a book with Michael D’Orso entitled Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd just one month after the tragic game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane defensive coordinator Bill Young, who had recruited eighteen-year-old Dennis Byrd in 1984, kept a copy of the book in his office bookshelf in subsequent years, per Vrentas.
A movie entitled Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story opened in theaters across the country in 1994.
Post-Football Life and Death
More than nine months after his devastating career-ending injury, Dennis Byrd took the field as a former Jets player for the team’s season opener against the Denver Broncos on September 5, 1993.
Remarkably, Byrd limped onto the gridiron without any assistance. He thanked the Jets organization and its fans for their support and affection.
Byrd felt the lingering effects of his career-ending injury against the Chiefs during retirement.
He had Brown-Sequard syndrome, a condition in which the spinal cord damage had different effects on each of his body’s hemispheres. Byrd also walked with a cane.
However, he already drove his pickup truck just four months after his freak injury, per The New York Times.
In 2002, Byrd told the Tulsa World (via SI.com) that he only had 20 percent of his previous strength and muscle mass levels from his playing days with the Jets.
Byrd could no longer throw a football. Instead, he sculpted clay figures to hone his motor skills. He was so good, his friends thought his skill level was on par with those of several big-name sculptors.
Bonding with a Former Teammate
Byrd and former Jets teammate, Jeff Lageman, were hunting partners for more than a decade well into the early 2000s.
Byrd convinced Lageman to join him on a hunting trip in the winter of 1993. The latter, who was not fond of the great outdoors, soon relented.
The two men forged a tight friendship while Byrd was recovering at Lennox Hill Hospital.
Lageman had a torn ACL at the time. He brought sodas and Italian delicacies into Byrd’s room without doctors knowing it.
Byrd and Lageman went hunting in New Mexico several months later. The former used a walking stick with his body oblivious to the frigid Albuquerque night chill.
During one of their most recent hunting trips, Byrd spilled his guts to Lageman. Byrd told him if he had a chance to start his gridiron career with a clean slate, he would do it.
“He could never find anything to fill that void,” Lageman told Vrentas in 2016.
Not a Coach
As the years went by, Dennis Byrd hardly visited his college alma mater, the University of Tulsa. According to Vrentas, Byrd typically watched games unannounced wearing a baseball cap so he could keep a low profile.
Dan Bitson, Tulsa’s director of player development, told Vrentas in 2016 Byrd downplayed rumors he would join the Tulsa Golden Hurricane as an assistant coach.
Bitson, who was Byrd’s college teammate, said Dennis’s traumatic injury with the Jets made him lose interest in football.
Indeed, it was a far cry from the man who once returned to the game against his coach’s orders in college just so the opposing team would not score a touchdown.
Byrd spoke to the Jets players at their team hotel in January 2011 prior to their AFC Divisional Round game against the New England Patriots.
Before that moment, he sent a box containing the jersey he wore against the Chiefs almost nineteen years earlier to Jets pro scout, Brock Sunderland.
It included a note that read, “If I could come back from that, you can certainly go to New England and win.”
Jets head coach Rex Ryan felt Byrd’s words—not his—would carry more weight in his team’s locker room before the big game. With that, Ryan invited Dennis Byrd to do the Jets’ pre-game pep talk.
Byrd obliged and showed up for his first NFL game since the 1993 season opener against the Broncos.
Before the Jets beat the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs, they carried Dennis Byrd's jersey to midfield pre-game.
R.I.P. Dennis Byrd. pic.twitter.com/0QctKM745V
— Mackenzie Kraemer (@MackNova) October 16, 2016
After Byrd fired up the Jets, New York’s four team captains brought his tattered jersey onto the field for the opening coin toss.
Thanks to Byrd’s inspiring words, the revitalized Jets beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, 28-21.
The New York Jets retired Dennis Byrd’s No. 90 jersey during a halftime ceremony of a game against the Miami Dolphins in the fall of 2012.
When the Jets hung Byrd’s jersey high in the rafters of Giants Stadium, it was one month shy of the 20th anniversary of his devastating career-ending injury against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 29, 1992.
“It’s been a tremendous honor to be recognized by the Jets, to have that number retired,” Byrd said (via NewYorkJets.com). “It’s meant a lot to me as a player and it means a great deal to me as I’ve been retired.”
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the New York Metropolitan area that weekend. Byrd and Scott Mersereau, the teammate whom he’d plowed into against the Chiefs in 1992, were stranded in a New Jersey hotel.
The two former teammates wound up reminiscing on old times at a Hackensack, NJ restaurant, per Vrentas.
According to Lange, Dennis Byrd became a motivational speaker, minister, and youth football coach during his retirement years. Byrd also had a brief career as a CBS Sports color commentator working with James Brown.
Dennis told Lange he had always been passionate about using football as a platform for teaching life lessons to children.
Byrd coached the defensive linemen of Lincoln Christian High School in Tulsa, OK. One of his players was future Pittsburg State Gorillas defensive lineman Joe Uzzel.
When Uzzel reached the college ranks in 2011, he used Byrd’s famous chop-swim technique. It was a throwback to the 1990 NFL season when Dennis Byrd recorded a career-high 13.0 sacks.
In a similar fashion, nobody could stop Uzzel when he played for Pittsburg State. He told observers he learned his pass-rushing techniques from his high school defensive line coach, Dennis Byrd.
Death and Legacy
Sadly, Dennis Byrd was killed in a two-vehicle crash in his home state of Oklahoma on October 15, 2016. He had turned 50 years old just ten days earlier.
A report from Tulsa World (via NewYorkJets.com) mentioned a 17-year-old teenager drove a 2000 Ford Explorer that crossed over into the opposite lane and struck Byrd’s 2004 Hummer H2 on Oklahoma Route 88. Byrd was killed on impact.
Dan Dunkel, a 66-year-old local, pulled over near Byrd’s wrecked Hummer H2 shortly afterward.
He told his wife to call 911 while he made his way to the wreckage. After Dunkel opened the door and sifted through metal shards, he found Byrd’s 12-year-old son, Zach. Dunkel promptly pulled the boy out.
Dunkel then went to the vehicle’s driver’s side but the door was closed tightly. He reached in, anyway, and felt Dennis Byrd was not breathing anymore.
Byrd’s Hummer H2 soon burst into flames. Zach bade his father goodbye several seconds later.
When Byrd’s former Jets teammates found out about his death, they were stricken with grief.
“I just dropped on the floor and started crying,” Scott Mersereau, the Jets defensive lineman who bore the brunt of the collision with Byrd on November 29, 1992, told Sports Illustrated.
Byrd left behind his wife, Angela, daughters, Ashtin, Haley, and Lauren, and his son, Zach.
The New York Jets created the Byrd Award in 1992. They give the accolade to the team’s most inspirational player as voted by his teammates.
Byrd was the inaugural recipient following his career-ending injury in the fall of 1992. Other past winners include Ronnie Lott, Wayne Chrebet, Pepper Johnson, Curtis Martin, Chad Pennington, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve McLendon, and Frank Gore.