Rex Ryan became emotional Wednesday when he was asked about former Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd, who died at 50 last week in a head-on crash in Oklahoma.
Byrd was one of the most inspirational figures in NFL history. He broke his neck when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau while attempting to sack Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg on Nov. 29, 1992. Byrd broke his neck and doctors said he would never walk again. But he beat the odds and walked several weeks later.
In January, 2011, Ryan was preparing for an AFC road playoff game against the Patriots when Byrd sent him the Jets No. 90 jersey that he had been wearing the day he was hurt. Byrd said the jersey, which had to be cut off his body, was a symbol of perseverance and he wanted it to inspire the Jets in their big game against the favored Pats.
"I'm a fan of football, so I really admired him from afar," Ryan said. "When he got paralyzed, I was aware of that. The way he came in my life, I got a package from him. I was sitting back and thinking, 'Dennis Byrd? This is interesting'. It was his jersey that they cut off. That was amazing.
"I read the letter and I'm like, 'Shoot, I need him to speak to our team'."
So Rex asked Byrd to address the Jets at the team hotel on the night before the AFC division playoff game. Ryan showed them a highlight film of Byrd's career, which was cut short by the tragic injury when Byrd was 26. The players weren't aware that Byrd was in the hotel.
Then Ryan called him forward and Byrd addressed the team, his voice breaking and his No. 90 jersey in hand.
"He was amazing," Ryan recalled Wednesday. "He inspired me and he inspired the whole team, too."
Byrd told the players that a man has a body, a mind and a spirit. He said there were times when his body and mind will tell him something is impossible, but their spirit will prevail, leading the mind and body. He told them he would trade every earthly possession he had for one more game, one more play.
The ballroom was silent and players were sobbing when Byrd was finished. They hung the No. 90 jersey outside the locker room before the game in New England and the captains brought a new jersey with his name and number attached for the coin toss.
The Jets stunned the Tom Brady-led Patriots, 28-21, advancing to the AFC title game. It is generally regarded as the second-biggest win in Jets history, after the Joe Namath-led win in Super Bowl III.
Ryan was asked where Byrd's jersey is now. "I couldn't accept it, no way," he said. "I think the Jets have it."