SB Nation

Scott Salmon | February 27, 2014

Crash Landed

Dennis Byrd was the forty-second pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. The New York Jets selected the defensive end out of the University of Tulsa in the second round, and for three years, he was a terror for opposing offenses.

In those first three years, Byrd accumulated 27 sacks, the third best three-year record in team history. Only Mark Gastineau, who had 33.5 sacks from 1979-1981, and John Abraham, who had 27.5 sacks from 2000-2002 boast a better record.

And then, on November 29, 1992, it all came to a crashing end.

The team was playing at home in the Meadowlands, at Giants Stadium. They were facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs in the thirteenth game of the season, and at that point, they were 3-8. Bruce Coslet was the head coach, and Pete Carroll the defensive coordinator. It was the last year of both Freeman McNeill and Al Toon. It would also be Byrd’s last game, although he didn’t know it yet.

Early in the third quarter, Byrd blitzed quarterback Dave Krieg, as did Scott Mersereau. Krieg managed to get out of the way at the last moment, and Byrd went flying into Mersereau. The crown of Byrd’s helmet smashed into Mersereau’s chest with a defeaning crack, immediately shattering a vertebrae in Byrd’s back, and cracking three of Mersereau’s.

"It was the right time to send the jersey back. It looked and felt to me that the style of that team resonates with me, [the style] that I loved and enjoyed so much, was really beginning to show itself again. I made the decision to send a letter and send that jersey back... that and the fact that I just hate the Patriots." -Dennis Byrd

As Mersereau ran to the sideline, gasping for air, Byrd lay motionless on the ground. He tried to take his helmet off, but realized there was no feeling in his arm. He laid there, paralyzed, as the stadium fell deathly quiet. Although Byrd was finally able to move an arm, he couldn’t move his legs. For seven long minutes, trainers and doctors hovered over Byrd, cut his jersey off, and carted him off to the hospital.

The team assumed the worst, and thought he would be paralyzed for life. Although they considered announcing as such in a press release, Carroll implored them not to do so. He knew deep down what they didn’t, that a medical miracle and Byrd’s sheer will would allow him to walk again.

Byrd’s rehabilitation still continues today, and he can’t walk without difficulty. But, most importantly, he can walk. Unbelievably, despite shattering his C-5 vertebrae, Byrd was able to walk onto the grass at Giants Stadium, the same field he had been injured on, before the 1993 home opener against the Denver Broncos.

Then, seventeen years later, in 2010, the Jets were to face off against the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Game. It was an impossible task; they had lost earlier in the season 45-3 in a crushing defeat. And yet, Byrd, watching the team play from his home in Oklahoma, wasn’t ready to give up, just like he never gave up on his ability to walk again. Byrd mailed his tattered jersey, the one that had been cut off his limp body on the Meadowland turf, to Rex Ryan, the team’s head coach. Ryan, inspired by Byrd, invited him to talk to the team before the game. In an upset for the ages, the New York Jets defeated the New England Patriots 28-21.

Two years later, the team decided to retire Byrd’s jersey, #90. It is the fifth number the team has officially retired, after Joe Namath, Don Maynard, Joe Klecko, and Curtis Martin.

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