Jets' Byrd takes first giant steps 2 1/2 months after injury, defensive end beating odds

February 12, 1993|By Timothy W. Smith | Timothy W. Smith,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Dennis Byrd steadied himself on his crutches at the doorway of the conference room at Mount Sinai Hospital yesterday afternoon. He stood there for a moment -- flanked by his wife, Angela, and his therapists -- to gather his nerves. Then, leaning on his crutches, Byrd gingerly put one foot in front of the other and walked the 15 feet to a chair in the front of the room to take his seat next to his wife.

The scene held the wonderment of Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. It embodied the joy of a baby's first step. Because just 2 1/2 months ago, Byrd, a Jets defensive end, fractured his neck during a game and was left partly paralyzed, with his doctors saying there was little chance of his walking again.

"I knew I could do it," Byrd said. "I can't say that I'm amazed because it's something I had set in my heart to accomplish. It feels great. I'm recapturing a part of my life that I so deeply wanted to have back. One of these days I'm going to throw these crutches away. That's my next goal."

Byrd, who is down to 240 pounds from the 270 when he was injured on Nov. 29, moved from his seat to the podium two feet away with minimal assistance from his wife and therapist.

"I'm very glad to be here standing before you today," he said. "I'm glad to be standing anywhere today."

Byrd stood there, without his crutches, for about 15 minutes, tearfully thanking his doctors, therapists, teammates and the Jets' owner, Leon Hess, for their support. Then he sat down next to his wife, smiled and grasped her hand.

"With proper supervision and care, I believe in a few months he'll be walking without a single thing," said Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, the head of the rehabilitation department at Mount Sinai Hospital, where Byrd has been undergoing rehabilitation.

Byrd was to leave Mount Sinai today to return to his home outside of Tulsa, Okla. He will continue his rehabilitation at St. John's Medical Facility in Tulsa, which is about a 20-minute drive from his home. As for his future, Byrd said he will work with his lawyer, Rick Schaeffer, to help set up a camp near Tulsa for children with spinal cord injuries. He is also awaiting the birth of his second child in August.

Byrd played for the Jets for four seasons before his career-ending injury, and yesterday he expressed regret that his legacy could not have been more appropriate.

"I'm devastated and totally crushed that I'll never be able to play the game anymore," Byrd said. "I would have liked to have left them with something athletic, something of that nature."

Byrd's near-miraculous recovery from a spinal cord injury is legacy enough for Ragnarsson. He described Byrd's recovery over the 10-week period since the injury as remarkable.

"The right side of his body is still stronger than the left," Ragnarsson said. "But with what he has he can do everything for himself. He needs nobody to do anything for him. He's able to use his right hand quite well and his left hand is coming along quite well.

"I think this is truly spectacular."

In the two months that Byrd has been at the hospital undergoing rehabilitation, Ragnarsson has been cautious in his prognosis.

Just last month, at Byrd's first news conference, Ragnarsson said he was encouraged by Byrd's progress but thought it was unlikely that Byrd would make a full recovery. At that news conference, Angela Byrd said that despite what the doctors said, she was confident that her husband would walk again.

"I told you so," Angela Byrd said yesterday, smiling.

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