Jets' nightmare has dream ending Byrd's progress, win over Bills cap emotional week

December 07, 1992|By Rich Cimini | Rich Cimini,Newsday

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. BTC — ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Marvin Washington walked off th field alone, away from the celebration at midfield. Washington, Dennis Byrd's best friend, pulled off his helmet and glanced at the gray sky. He took a deep breath.

"It's a relief," Washington said seconds after the New York Jets defeated the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills, 24-17. "We've been waiting for a week to exhale. Now we can. I just wish Dennis was here to enjoy it."

But he was here.

Inspired by the spirit and courage of their partially paralyzed teammate, who watched yesterday's game with his wife and parents in his private room at a Manhattan hospital, the emotionally charged Jets pulled off one of the season's biggest upsets.

Just when it appeared the Jets were ripe for another last-minute loss to their nemesis, safety Brian Washington delivered their biggest play of the season -- a 23-yard interception return for the winning touchdown with 1:41 left.

Tragedy to triumph in a span of seven days. In the aftermath, the Jets rejoiced as though someone had opened an emotional spigot.

Quarterback Browning Nagle, who played a terrific game, described the team as "a snowball, packed in and then exploding with emotion."

Defensive tackle Mario Johnson, who wept openly last week after Byrd was carried off the field with a broken neck, was effusive. "This is like a fairy tale," he said. "But you know what? It's not a fairy tale. It's the real deal."

Moments after Brian Washington made a second interception, picking off Jim Kelly's Hail Mary pass with 11 seconds left, the Jets staged a celebration reminiscent of last season's playoff-clinching win in Miami.

In the tunnel, wide receiver Chris Burkett hugged safety Lonnie Young with such force that Young, on crutches with a knee injury, almost fell over. Nagle proudly held the game ball, telling .. everyone how it got doused by a fan's beer as he trotted off the field.

Moments later, the players crammed into a side room off the locker room, like fraternity brothers trying to squeeze into a phone booth. Team president Steve Gutman called Byrd's hospital room, and about a dozen players formed a line to talk with their fallen teammate. Gutman, Bruce Coslet and owner Leon Hess also chatted with Byrd, who postponed an X-ray session so he could watch the fourth quarter.

"I can't really describe it," Coslet said minutes later. "Am I on the ground? I'm walking like six inches off the ground. My moonwalk is working good.

"We've come back from tremendous adversity," said the coach, who, just five days ago, called his team "an open wound.

"I mean, we're beat up emotionally and physically, but we come and do this. It's just unbelievable. If somebody was writing a TV script, they couldn't quite come up with this."

He's right. Stories like this could kill the art of fiction. This wasn't supposed to happen. The Jets (4-9) had lost 10 straight to the Bills (9-4) dating to 1987. They had a Swiss-cheese lineup, missing four injured starters. They had nothing going for them. The oddsmakers made the Jets a 17-point underdog.

"You can't put a point spread on the human spirit," tight end

Mark Boyer said.

Privately, the coaching staff wondered how the players would respond after a week that included hospital visits, medical updates and tear-filled prayer vigils.

Defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, worried about his players' focus, delivered a rousing speech the night before the game. It wasn't necessary. "Great fire-up speech," Brian Washington, tongue-in-cheek, told Carroll in the hotel. "As if we needed it."

The Jets already had been uplifted by Saturday's medical report, which brought the first positive news of Byrd's rehabilitation. Byrd, who underwent a seven-hour spinal operation Wednesday, moved his toes for the first time since the injury. His teammates were tickled by Byrd's feat, and they took the enthusiasm to the field.

Led by Brad Baxter (98 yards, two touchdowns), Nagle (14-for-22, 176 yards) and the defense, the Jets took a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter. The Bills tied it early in the quarter and got the ball back with 1:53 to play, and it had the makings of another heart-breaking loss. It happened Oct. 26, when the Bills scored the game-winner with 51 seconds left. "In the back of your mind, you're going, 'Oh, no, not again,' " Boyer said. "Then I thought, 'No, we're going to win this one.' "

From his 18, Kelly threw over the middle to Andre Reed, but Washington stepped in front, made like a running back and scored the winning touchdown.

Washington was mobbed by his teammates in the end zone, and that's when he thought of Byrd, in a hospital room 450 miles away, probably yelling and carrying on just like always.

The last player out of the locker room was nose tackle Scott Mersereau, the player who collided with Byrd in last week's horrifying game. A week ago, Mersereau was near tears. Yesterday, he was thankful.

"This win is great," Mersereau said as he walked to the team bus, "but it doesn't compare to how we felt [Saturday] when we heard that Dennis moved his toes. That was a feeling of incredible joy."

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