On the night of Jan. 15, 2011, Dennis Byrd stood before the New York Jets -- his old team -- and talked about the tattered jersey he held his hands. It was the jersey he wore on that fateful day in 1992, when he crashed into teammate Scott Mersereau with such force that his upper spinal column exploded, leaving him paralyzed on the field.
The jersey was removed from his body with scissors, and he saved it all those years because it inspired him during dark times. Now, on a cold New England night, Byrd was telling his story on the eve of the Jets' playoff game against the New England Patriots. The hotel ballroom was silent as Byrd, whose career was cut short at age 26, told the team he'd give just about anything for a chance to play one more down of football.
The next day, his jersey -- No. 90 -- was hung in the Jets' locker room at Gillette Stadium. The captains brought it out on the field for the coin toss and -- wouldn't you know it? -- they upset the Patriots for the franchise's biggest victory since Joe Namath and Super Bowl III. Afterward, several players were near tears as they recounted the impact of Byrd's speech.
"For him to be walking today is a miracle," linebacker Bart Scott said that night. "How can you not listen to a miracle?"
Dennis Byrd was a miracle.
He was a country kid from Oklahoma who went to the big city and charmed everybody he encountered. He was Huck Finn in shoulder pads, an aw-shucks guy who took the time to ask about your family and your job. He was so corny that he collected dirt from each stadium. He was on his way to a terrific career -- 28 sacks in four years -- before his neck was broken in a fluke collision with one of his closest friends.
There was another collision Saturday, on a highway in northeastern Oklahoma, where Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene because of massive injuries from a two-car accident. He was only 50 years old, a husband, a father of four and a grandfather. It's a devastating tragedy that affects generations of Jets players, coaches and fans. He affected so many lives, even people he never met.
Everybody was touched by Byrd. He was revered in his community, where he coached high school football after his injury, and he'll always be remembered as the most inspirational player to ever wear a Jets uniform. Years ago, the Jets created the Dennis Byrd Award, presented each year to the player who most embodies Byrd's spirit.
There will never be another Dennis Byrd.
He walked when the doctors said he'd probably never walk again, and he did it at a big news conference at his Manhattan hospital, where a young Jets beat writer wiped tears from his eyes because it was just about the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.
"He was a great teammate, a great friend," Paul Frase said by phone Saturday night after receiving a phone call from Byrd's wife, Angela. "He ate, drank and slept football. I even think he enjoyed training camp. We've all lost a very special person."
Byrd's celebrity grew after his injury. He gave motivational speeches, worked for a year as an NFL analyst for CBS and became the subject of a book and made-for-TV movie, "Rise and Walk." That wasn't Dennis. He didn't care for the spotlight, and he retreated to his lake house in Oklahoma, where he focused on his rehab and his family. He lost touch with his former teammates, which puzzled many of them.
In his last interview -- November 2012 -- Byrd told that young Jets writer, who wasn't so young anymore, that he felt bad about it and that he'd try harder to maintain relationships. He talked proudly about his young son, Zach, already a football fan with a New York Jets bed spread.
Zach, now 12, was a passenger in the car Saturday, but he apparently escaped without major injuries.
A few days after that interview, Byrd's number was retired by the Jets. Mersereau, who hadn't seen his friend in nearly 20 years, flew up from Florida to attend the halftime ceremony. When they saw each other, they both cried.
Byrd had that effect on people; he made you feel. Still does. If you go to MetLife Stadium, and you look real hard, you can find a few Byrd jerseys in the crowd.
The last time I saw him was that night in Foxborough, where he reconnected with the organization after more than a decade of separation. He was standing outside the locker room after the game, describing the smell of the field and the sound of the game. That old feeling -- that football feeling -- was racing through his system once again. He never got a chance to experience a win like that as a player.
He soaked it up for a few minutes before returning to his reality.
"I still have plenty to live for," he said before disappearing into the cold, dark night.