Jets' Byrd puts emotion in motion in visit to camp

August 05, 1993|By Gary Myers | Gary Myers,New York Daily News

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- At 3:09 p.m. yesterday, a few minutes after the New York Jets began their afternoon workout, Bruce Coslet blew his whistle and yelled, "Everybody up," the signal for players to rally around him in the middle of the field.

One player took it literally. And that could easily provide the emotional jump-start to this Jets season that holds so much promise.

Dennis Byrd, eight months and five days after he was partially paralyzed, was back for a camp visit. He was standing Commentary

up and waiting next to Coslet for his ex-teammates, who streamed toward him, nearly overwhelming him with hollering and hugs.

Early in his rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Hospital in December, Byrd confided to friends that his training camp goal was to arrive at practice, put his feet up, have an iced tea and get all over the players.

Mission accomplished.

Byrd entered the practice field driving a golf cart, holding an iced tea with a little No. 90 umbrella inside a Jets glass, a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He was wearing a tank top and shorts and sneakers and looked perfectly prepared for a day at the beach. But it was no day at the beach. Meeting with the whole team was an emotional barrier that needed to be overcome.

"Coming here today was harder than the preparation for any game," Byrd said. "I was much more nervous than I ever could have imagined."

He did fine. He evoked laughter in a four-minute talk with his

ex-teammates forming a circle around him. He said he only came out because he knew Jeff Lageman was finally going to practice. He kidded Leonard Marshall about taking his position and how Marshall and Scott Mersereau would have to clear the way for Marvin Washington and Lageman to get all the sacks. And jabbed Jeff Criswell and Dave Cadigan, who skipped a spring minicamp, for being at practice.

He finished up by telling the players how much he missed the game and that he would pay to be back on the practice field with them.

"He said how lucky we are and how fortunate we are to be where we are and don't forget it," Rob Moore said. "He was the same old Dennis. He just can't play football with us anymore. When I saw him, I automatically went back to the day it happened and I thought about how I felt that day. It felt really good to see him come out and be a part of it."

For so many years, the summer months has meant football to Byrd. Getting his body ready to play. And now that he is months removed from the injury, the void created by not playing is sinking in.

"In the beginning, I focused so much on my recovery, on getting better, that I didn't worry about that so much. It wasn't really an aspect of my life that I would have to deal with," Byrd said. "But now, it's been extremely difficult. Coming here with the flavor, the atmosphere, it's difficult. But many people would love to be in the shoes I'm in today. I'm very fortunate to be in these shoes."

He spent time at practice speaking to a man in a wheelchair and left the field to chants of "Dennis, Dennis, Dennis." He walks with a limp, but unaided. He said his left hand is the most physically impaired part of his body.

"The goal I've set is I would like to attain the strength that I was at before I was injured," he said. "They are sentimental goals, really, sort of a last act of defiance toward this injury. I want to get better than I was. It will take a lot of work."

Byrd admitted he was shocked "to be able to walk in here as easily as I have," but was encouraged "from the day I first moved my toe."

He was asked if he planned to run someday. "Absolutely," he said. "I already jogged a few steps. I took the garbage out the other night and I jogged back about 10 yards."

When he was in town in June, Byrd and Lageman went fishing, a competition Lageman said he won. That was the easy part.

"It was hard to pull the boat back to the dock because it was steep, so we took it to the marina where it was flat," Lageman said. "The dock was shaking from the boats in the water. He's always bitching about me acting like his mother. I said, 'Don't fall in, you stupid sucker.' I didn't want him to drag me in the water."

Byrd has become a hero. But in Lageman's eyes, "To put him on a pedestal is not fair to him," and he certainly doesn't look at Byrd any differently. "We're friends," he said.

Byrd has made a lot of friends. And a whole bunch were surrounding him yesterday afternoon at midfield. "I wish I had a bullhorn so I could coach a little bit," he said.

No need. Dennis Byrd has already done enough.

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