LATE IN THE 1992 NFL season, Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd was partially paralyzed after colliding with a teammate in a game against the Chiefs. In the weeks after, SI asked me to write a story about why New York wept for Byrd, why the outpouring of emotion for him was so intense as he lay in a hospital bed, a halo brace screwed into his skull, trying to move a toe even one centimeter. "I am glad God chose me for this, because I have the strength to handle it," the humble native of Oklahoma City said, in a message delivered by his wife, Angela, to a waiting city.
Last Saturday, Byrd, 50, was killed in a head-on crash on Oklahoma Highway 88. He leaves behind Angela and four children—and a giving legacy on and off the field.
Byrd, who would regain the use of his legs, had an impressive 27 sacks in a three-year period before his injury. "As great a player as he was," friend and former teammate Marvin Washington said on Sunday, "he was a better person." Late for a team meeting once because he wouldn't stop signing autographs, Byrd said, "The day I don't have time to sign an autograph for a kid is the day I get out of football."
After my story appeared in SI, I got a letter from a minister in the South. He had read my piece the day he normally wrote his sermon. He stopped writing, then read my story from the pulpit instead. It's the highlight of my 36-year writing career. I owe it to the goodness of a man I barely knew.