NEW YORK -- The distance from the doorway to his seat in front of this hospital boardroom wasn't long. Maybe 30 feet. Forty, tops. Measuring each tiny step with the aid of crutches, it took Dennis Byrd almost a minute to cover the territory.
But no one was rushing him. Reporters sat mesmerized during the packed news conference yesterday at Mount Sinai Medical Center, knowing that Byrd's journey from the door to his chair could not be counted in seconds. It had taken almost 11 weeks, really. Some might say 11 miraculous weeks. And he felt the weight of all eyes upon him.
"I've walked farther with much greater ease," said Byrd, the Jets' fourth-year defensive end who was left partially paralyzed by a broken neck Nov. 29. "It feels great. I'm recapturing a part of my life I wanted so dearly to have back. One of these days I'm going to throw the crutches aside and I'll be walking without them. That's my next step."
Actually, the next step comes today, when Byrd will be discharged from Mount Sinai and flies home to Tulsa, Okla. As always, his wife, Angela, will be with him, along with their 2-year-old daughter, Ashtin.
There was no way Byrd was going to leave without giving a firsthand look at how far he has come. Or without giving himself a chance to thank those who have helped him regain the use of his body.
"I'm very glad and very proud to be standing before you here," Byrd said when he took the podium, standing without the crutches this time. "Quite frankly, I'm glad to be standing anywhere."
Laughter filled the room, just as Byrd had planned it. "Obviously," he cracked, "that was written down." More laughs.
The seven hours of surgery to repair his fractured fifth cervical vertebra seemed farther away than Dec. 2. Byrd will begin his life as an outpatient at St. John's Medical Center on Monday, with daily therapy sessions similar to his routine at
Mount Sinai. But he will begin and end each day at home with his family.
"It's a wonderful occasion. It truly is," said Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, chairman of the rehabilitation department at Mount Sinai. "As you can see, Dennis has made a remarkable recovery and he, indeed, is ready to go home. He has regained strength in virtually every muscle that used to be paralyzed. He really needs nobody to help him anymore, and that is truly spectacular."
Byrd took his first steps with the crutches about 2 1/2 weeks ago. "That, to me, symbolized a lot of freedom," he said. "It felt like steps of freedom because I could walk where I wanted to walk. I could do the things I wanted to do."
Someone asked Byrd if he was "amazed" by his progress. "I knew I could do it," he said. "This is something I set my goals to. I'm very grateful, very thankful, but I can't say I'm amazed."
Angela Byrd is probably the least amazed of all. A month ago, at Byrd's first news conference since the injury, Angela said: "Dennis is going to walk some day, I believe that. And everything's going to be wonderful again."
She was positively beaming yesterday as she followed Byrd and one of his therapists, Laurence Harding, into the room. When Angela was reminded of her prediction, she gushed: "Told you. I knew. I just knew Dennis would recover and would walk again."
On a recent Sunday night, Byrd was visiting with Angela and Ashtin at a Manhattan hotel. He surprised Angela and his mother-in-law when he stood up and announced, "Hey, let's go for a walk."
Said Byrd: "They stood on either side of me, and I put my arms around 'em, and we walked into the next room. That was as special a moment as I think I've had."
"That night, Ashtin was so excited," Angela said. " 'Are your legs better, daddy? Are your legs better?' "
When Byrd tried to talk about Patrick O'Leary and Martin Camins, the surgeons who repaired his spine, the words stuck in his throat for 30 seconds. "I don't know how to thank them for what they've done," he said.
Someone asked if Byrd would describe how dark his bleak moments were after the injury. "It's very difficult to explain unless you've been there," he said.
Angela and Dennis Byrd left the room yesterday the same way they entered. Walking together. They seemed ready to walk all the way back home to Oklahoma.