The NFL lost a true hero this weekend.
Four years ago this month, former Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd retired his number 90 jersey in an emotional ceremony commemorating his courageous recovery from a devastating injury.
On Nov. 29, 1992, at a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Byrd collided with a teammate on the field and broke his back. His spinal injury was so bad that not only did it end his career but doctors predicted he might never walk again.
But just a few months later Byrd was walking. A year after he broke the C-5 vertebra he walked onto the Meadowlands green as the Jets’ honorary captain. His story was told in a TV movie starring Peter Berg called "Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story," based on his autobiography published in 1993.
On Saturday, Byrd was involved in another collision from which he would not rise.
Byrd, 50, was killed in a two-car head-on crash on an Oklahoma highway, just a few miles from his home. A 17-year-old driver in a 2000 Ford Explorer is believed to have veered into the oncoming lane striking Byrd’s 2004 Hummer, police said.
Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene. The teen driver and the 12-year-old passenger in Byrd’s vehicle were taken to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa and are in critical condition.
"We are all devastated by the untimely loss of Dennis Byrd," New York Jets Owner Woody Johnson said in a news release late Saturday. "Soft-spoken and strong-willed, the inspiration he provided to all not only by his play on the field but from the way he overcame life's obstacles was remarkable by any measure."
He is survived by his wife Angela and their four children. They had who stood by him during the dedication of his jersey at MetLife stadium on October 28, 2012, when he delivered an emotional and inspiring speech.
''I learned to be a man in Oklahoma, and I grew to be a man in New York,” Byrd, the 6-foot-five, 270 pound second-round draft pick to the Jets in 1989, said with tears in his eyes.
Each year, a Jets player is selected by his teammates for the Dennis Byrd Most Inspirational Player Award.
''I really have loved coaching football and working with kids, talking about the lessons I've learned as an athlete and the journey as someone with a disability,'' Byrd said in 2012. ''Football has always been, for me, a cornerpost of strength and a way to accomplish things in life, whether it's on the field or just in maintaining a quality of life. All those lessons—dedication, perseverance, teamwork—they all dovetail nicely into living a blessed life.”