Dennis Byrd, who authored an inspirational tale of walking again after being paralyzed during an NFL game, died Saturday in a car crash near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The former Jets defensive end had turned 50 earlier in the month.
According to an Oklahoma Highway Police report (via Tulsa World), Byrd was killed when a 17-year-old driver veered into an oncoming lane, striking Byrd’s Hummer. The teenager and a 12-year-old in Byrd’s car were taken to a local hospital and were listed as being in critical condition. Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene.
A four-year starter at the University of Tulsa, Byrd was selected by the Jets in the second round of the 1989 draft. By 1992, he had recorded 27 sacks in his first three seasons and was considered to have a bright future in the NFL, but tragedy struck in a game against the Chiefs in November of that year.
As Byrd prepared for another sack, charging toward Kansas City quarterback Dave Krieg, he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau. Byrd ducked his head just before impact, and he wound up breaking a vertebra in his neck and suffering paralysis.
Byrd’s career was over, but his fight to regain movement in his lower body had just begun. Remarkably, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Oklahoma native was able to walk again by the Jets’ 1993 season opener, and he offered an emotional halftime speech to the Meadowlands crowd.
“The hardest part of everything I’ve been through is knowing I can’t play again,” Byrd said shortly thereafter, according to The Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro. “That’s the only thing I’ve ever broken down and cried about. Not that I might not be able to walk again but that I wouldn’t be able to play. You’ll never know how that feels until you crawl into my shoes. It’s not just the game. It’s the locker room, it’s the players, it’s the cheers, it’s the crispness of playing on a fall afternoon. It’s been hard to deal with.
“There was nothing that could have spoiled that  day for me, not one thing,” Byrd added. “It meant so much to me to come back and walk on that field.”
He told his story in a book, “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd,” which was subsequently turned into a 1994 made-for-TV movie starring Peter Berg. In 2012, the Jets retired his No. 90 jersey during a halftime ceremony at MetLife Stadium.
In January 2011, Byrd sent then-Jets head coach Rex Ryan the tattered jersey that had been pulled off him after he was paralyzed, along with a note of support before his former team took on the Patriots in the playoffs. Ryan invited Byrd to speak to his team before that game, and several players credited him with inspiring a stunning upset at New England that propelled the team to the AFC championship game.
“There’s a side where a man’s will counts for a tremendous amount,” Byrd said before that game. “And that’s what we talked about and I shared with the team: You have a body, a mind and a will. What we talked about was the will.”
“He’s a testament to hard work,” a former Tulsa teammate, Jerry Ostroski, said Saturday, the Tulsa World reported. “He wasn’t a guy that was born with tremendous size. He worked hard in the weight room, gained weight, got big, had a high motor. He turned himself into a second-round draft pick in the NFL.
“His injury was tough on him,” Ostroski added. “He did a tremendous amount of work to be able to walk again, but he was in a lot of pain, and it was hard on him. Over the years, as he got a little older, it was rougher on him.”
In recent years, Byrd had helped coach high school football in Oklahoma and continued his public speaking. He leaves behind a wife and four children.
“We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’ wife Angela, their children and the entire Byrd family,” Tulsa Athletic Director Derrick Gragg said in a statement. “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.”