Unasked question haunts Byner after the game


October 29, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD,N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Emerging from the shower, Earnest Byner made his way through the gaggle of reporters gathered at his locker. No one said a word. Byner sat down on a wooden stool, his face to the wall. Everyone stared at his wide, muscular back. No one wanted to ask the question.

Byner dug into a brown leather bag at the foot of his locker, came up with a bottle of baby oil and rubbed some on his chest. He put the bottle back in the bag, turned and shared a mumble and a laugh with Gerald Riggs at the next locker. He stood up, still facing the wall, and began dressing.

No one said a word. No one wanted to ask the question. We all pretended we were simply showing him courtesy, allowing him to dress before he talked. The truth was that there was only one question to ask, and it was a fastball at the chin no one wanted to throw. What happened, Earnest? What happened on that play?

The Redskins had just lost to the Giants again, see, and it might not have happened had Byner not let a touchdown pass bounce away from him with seven minutes left. The Redskins were down four. Byner was open in the end zone. Stan Humphries hit him in the chest with a perfect pass. The ball bounced into the air and Greg Jackson intercepted. The Giants wound up winning by 11.

Humphries bought into the blame by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown with four minutes left, sealing the victory. But he never would have been throwing had Byner not blown the catch. No, the game ended right there. The Redskins had a chance to take the lead, putting the unbeaten Giants in a difficult spot, and Byner let the chance slip away.

Now he was standing in front of his locker and pulling on a blue sweater and a pair of olive pants, and everyone was watching the back of his head and the gold chain bobbing around his neck. Across the aisle, a reserve tight end, John Brandes, was talking softly into a microphone. "We were right there," he was saying, "right there."

For Byner, the most frustrating aspect of the situation was, no doubt, that was it was not the first time he'd been in it. He is a tough, able 28-year-old who has rushed for more than 3,500 yards in seven pro seasons, but his career has been jinxed by mistakes of the highest profile. It is, alas, that for which he is best known.

The worst error was three years ago, when he fumbled just as he crossed the goal line with a touchdown that would have tied the AFC championship game in the last minute. He was playing for the Cleveland Browns then. He also was assessed back-to-back personal fouls in a wild-card game against Houston, short-circuiting a rally. And in his second game as a Redskin last year, his late fumble turned a win into a loss against the Eagles.

Atoning for such football sins is difficult, but Byner could have grabbed at least a paragraph of absolution yesterday. The Redskins were working into an upset. Everyone could feel it. The Giants had jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first half and almost blown the game open, but the Redskins had held on, steadied themselves and come back. The stadium had quieted to a whisper in the cool, windy evening.

Humphries led the offense to a field goal before halftime, then a touchdown on the first series of the second half. The Giants were leaving the tight end wide-open. Byner and Riggs were finding holes to run through, slipping out of the backfield to catch screens. Humphries was cool and accurate. The Giants' fine defense was being sliced and diced.

Barely holding on, the Giants went for a fourth-and-one at the Washington 44 early in the fourth quarter. The Redskins held, their sideline erupted and their offense moved right down the field again, Humphries completing his eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th passes in a row. On second-and-goal at the 3, Humphries dropped back, waited for the play to open up, began drifting to his right, saw Byner come open and released the ball.

"It is a pass you need to make sure you put touch on," Humphries said later, attempting to deflect a little of the blame from Byner, insinuating that perhaps his pass was too hard to handle. He was just being kind. The pass was perfect. Anyone who draws a paycheck in the NFL should have caught it. The Redskins should have made the Giants beat them, not hand the game over.

As the Giants celebrated the interception and the crowd roared in relief, Byner stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, disbelieving. Slowly, he made his way over to the bench and sat down by himself. No one said a word to him for a few seconds. Finally, Jim Lachey came over, slapped his knee and sat down beside him. Kelvin Bryant came over and punched his shoulder pads, encouraging him.

"There was more to this game than that one play," Lachey said later, "but if we had gone ahead and scored when we were down there, I think it would have had a big impact on the outcome. I didn't really see what happened. I just saw Stan throw the pass, and then I saw the guy intercept."

What happened on the play? There wasn't much Byner could say. The pass hit him in the chest. He didn't catch it. It was a mistake. He is human. What was he supposed to say? That he should have caught it? Everyone knew that. That he felt bad? Everyone knew that.

No, there wasn't much he could say. So he didn't. He grabbed his brown leather bag, turned and walked right through the crowd of reporters. Then he was gone, out the door, on the bus. No one ever asked the question.

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