There are two men who embody the New York Jets. One is “Broadway Joe” Namath; his guarantee (and fulfillment) of a Super Bowl III victory in 1969 was the first moment—the only moment—the poor Jets were truly on top of the world.
Then there’s Dennis Byrd, who died over the weekend in a car accident at just 50 years old. He was on the Jets from 1989 to 1992, with the team going 4-12 in his first season and again going 4-12 in his final one. Not all 4-12 seasons are alike though, because 1989 offered the promise of Byrd (who went on to record 28 sacks and a safety in just 40 career starts) and the 1992 season included the most horrifying moment in franchise history, when the defensive end collided with a teammate and broke his neck. Soon a Jets spokesman reported that Byrd was “paralyzed from the waist down and has no use of his legs and partial use of his arms.”
“For that number to be seen as an inspirational number, I gotta tell you something: I still am that kid, 26 years old, running up and down the field living his dream.”
Years later, Byrd said he never doubted that he would walk again and just knew that there would be “a lot of work.” The doctors sure had their concerns though, estimating it would take two years even to determine if Byrd would ever regain the use of his lower body, making it all the more mind-blowing that he was walking with crutches just months later. Indeed, he strode onto the field on September 5, 1993 as the New York Jets’ honorary captain, less than a year after it seemed he might never walk at all.
Of course, Byrd’s story didn’t have a perfect ending: He never again played football and, in classic Jets fashion, the team responded to this incredibly rousing moment by continuing a streak of eight straight seasons without a winning record, a run that finally ended in 1997.
Yet Byrd still contributed to one of the great moments in franchise history. When the they made the playoffs after the 2010 season, he sent the team the #90 jersey that had been cut off his body all those years ago before the Jets took on the New England Patriots… and for damn near the first time since the days of Namath, the universe smiled on the Jets as quarterback Mark Sanchez (a.k.a. “The Sanchize”) led the team past Brady and Belichick, inspiring dreams of a new golden era.
Of course, everyone who’s seen the Butt Fumble knows a new golden era did not follow. But for that day at least, the Jets were on to top again and no one appreciated it more than Byrd. As he said: “For that number to be seen as an inspirational number, I gotta tell you something: I still am that kid, 26 years old, running up and down the field living his dream.”
Below, listen to his retirement speech about how “men are built.”