Dennis Byrd, the former New York Jets defensive lineman who defied predictions and walked again after suffering a broken neck in a 1992 NFL game, died on Saturday in a road accident in Oklahoma, US media reported.
Byrd, 50, was involved in a two-vehicle collision that “sent two others to the hospital in critical condition,” the Tulsa World reported, saying he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Byrd broke the C5 vertebra in his neck in a Jets game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, 1992, when he collided with teammate Scott Mersereau as both raced toward quarterback Dave Krieg.
“An eerie silence gripped the stadium as Jets doctors and trainers attended to Byrd for seven minutes,” according to a New York Times article about the game.
“Hopes were raised when Byrd moved his left arm. A few of his teammates drifted over to talk to him and hold his hand, then slowly they began to realize just how seriously injured he was,” it said.
Three days after Byrd was injured, he underwent a seven-hour operation at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan to stabilize his spine.
At the time, doctors thought it could take two years to determine whether he would be able to regain use of the lower half of his body, although they were already encouraged that Byrd had been able to flex his ankles, move some toes and make his calf muscles contract.
However, by the end of January 1993, Byrd had made extensive progress in a therapy program at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Weeks later, using crutches, he appeared for an emotional news conference to mark the end of his rehabilitation program at Mount Sinai.
Byrd made an emotional return to the Jets’ Meadowlands stadium for the team’s opening game in 1993 and walked to the middle of the field as an honorary captain for the coin toss.
He wrote a memoir, Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd, detailing his recovery that included a heavy reliance on his faith, and was the subject of a made-for-television movie, Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.
After his official retirement in 1993, Byrd became a motivational speaker and later a television commentator before moving back to his native Oklahoma.
The Jets retired his number 90 in 2012.
He played for the University of Tulsa before the Jets drafted him in the second round in 1989, and Derrick Gragg, the university’s vice president and director of athletics, said in a statement that Byrd “exemplified true determination, tremendous heart and humility throughout his life.”
“He overcame great personal adversity after a life-altering injury on the football field,” Gragg added. “We know that Dennis touched numerous lives and will be missed by many.”
Byrd, who lived in rural Talala, Oklahoma, is survived by his wife, Angela, and four children.
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