Third-string but first-class, Ravens' Byner carries on

November 30, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

He could be angry over losing his job to an unreliable veteran and an unproven rookie, but that's not Earnest Byner.

He says he will be the first to know when it is time to retire, but that's probably not Earnest Byner, either.

He is a model teammate on one hand, a fierce competitor on the other. He is a player's player, a coach's player, the player you would want your son to be.

And next season, he probably will be gone.

The Ravens would miss him, miss him terribly. This is a team desperate for veteran leadership, and Byner is a walking definition of the term.

Owner Art Modell talks about keeping him in the organization after he retires, perhaps as a coach, perhaps in community relations.

It's a wonderful idea, but where Byner is needed most is in the locker room, on the practice field, on the sideline during games.

Alas, he's 35 now, completing his 14th NFL season. He's third on the Ravens' depth chart at running back, playing mostly on special teams.

He wants to spend more time with his wife, Tina, and four daughters -- Semeria, 14; Adriana, 12; Brandi, 6; and Kyara, 4.

Still, he's not ready to quit.

"I look at Marcus Allen and see what he's able to do," Byner said, referring to the 37-year-old Kansas City running back.

"He's counted on to do some things. He's basically the guy that ignites that offense. That continues to give me some hope.

"I know I can go out there and do the same type of thing. I look at that and say, 'Should I keep going?' For me, the answer is yes."

He wants to go out a winner. He wants to play in the new stadium. He wants to continue until his body tells him, "No more."

"That's one reason I work so hard -- I fear the time is coming. I know it's coming," Byner said.

So, he runs hills at Oregon Ridge Park in the off-season and pedals furiously on an exercise bike to keep his hamstrings strong as the season wears on.

Byner joined the Cleveland Browns in 1984 as a 10th-round draft pick from East Carolina. Nothing was given to him. And he will give nothing away.

"He's one of the great competitors that ever wore a uniform in the NFL," said Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer, Byner's first coach with the Browns.

He's also a religious man who maintains his own charitable foundation, buying and distributing turkey dinners every Thanksgiving.

Thus, it must have been difficult, if not impossible, for Byner to accept losing his starting job to Bam Morris, a man who is everything he is not.

Yet, that wasn't the case at all.

"God says love the sinner, but hate the sin," Byner said. "I love Bam. I told Bam that. I went over to his house about two weeks ago. I told him, 'I'm here for you, anytime you need anything.' That's the way I feel."

Alas, Byner probably can't help Morris, who might be headed to jail for possibly violating the probation of a drug arrest nearly two years ago.

But he found a willing student in rookie Jay Graham, the other Ravens back whose progress has reduced his playing time.

"He helps me a lot with little things, but then he also helps me with my mental preparation during the week," Graham said.

"I learn just from watching him, the way he practices and prepares. During games, he is always giving me suggestions and tips about reads and other things to look for.

"There are times when he doesn't say a thing because he wants me to learn from experience. For a rookie, I couldn't think of a better teacher, could you?"

Hardly, considering that Byner is sixth among active backs and 16th all-time in career rushing yardage -- and that he hasn't missed a game in nine years.

Coach Ted Marchibroda called Byner "sort of a special person to a football team." Still, Byner admits that this has been a frustrating season.

He averaged 15 carries during the Ravens' 3-1 start, when Morris was suspended. Since then, he has had a total of 16 carries, and the Ravens are 1-6-1.

The team's collapse isn't related to Byner's reduced playing time, not when the running game clearly is stronger with Morris and/or Graham.

Byner, however, believes he can still make plays, and finds it difficult "to know that God is going to work out whatever it is for my best.

"Saying that spiritually is easy. The difficult thing is actually living it," Byner said.

"I go through spurts of when it's OK, I'm really concentrating on trying to help the other guys get ready, trying to help them be prepared as possible. That helps take the emphasis off me. I use that in a lot of ways.

"Other times, I get somewhat introverted. Most of the times guy will see that. They kind of feel me. Michael Jackson, Vinny [Testaverde], they'll say, 'What's up, E. B.?' It kind of pulls me out."

"I want to be in there. I want to play. I'm depending on God being sufficient in the situation."

So, he gives maximum effort on special teams, saying, "It's part of what I do."

"He understands every role that is given to him," Marchibroda said. "He understands why it is given to him, though I'm not sure he likes it."

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