On the Saturday night before the fateful game against the Chiefs, Byrd and Washington, roommates on the road and whenever the Jets stay in a local hotel the night before a home game, prayed together in their room at the Marriott Glenpointe, in Teaneck, N.J. Then they watched A League of Their Own on pay TV, and after that they talked for an hour before turning out the lights to go to sleep.
"I love you, Marvin," Byrd said.
"I love you, Dennis," Washington said.
"Every week we say that to each other before we go to sleep," Washington says.
It wasn't always that way. Washington, who is black, is from Dallas. Byrd, who is white, is from Mustang, Okla. Washington thought Byrd was some hick when Coslet assigned them to room together in 1990. But soon Washington and Byrd started getting along, and eventually they became inseparable.
Washington once noticed that when they prayed in their room the night before a game, Byrd would roll something around in his hands, as someone might finger a rosary. It was a tiny leather sack. Dennis told him it contained locks of hair and personal trinkets from Angela and Ashtin and jewelry that had belonged to his mother. "He does it so he can feel close to his family," Washington says. "He's the real deal, man. The genuine article. Other guys talk about doing things for their family, but when you're around them, you can tell that's just words. Dennis lives it. He lives for his family."
On Dec. 2, as the Jets were preparing for their first game without Byrd, it felt strange to Washington that the chair to his right in the defensive team's meeting room was empty. That was where Byrd usually sat. It felt strange when defensive line coach Greg Robinson opened the meeting by saying, "We still have games to play. Dennis would have wanted it this way." And it felt strange to Washington that he might have to room with somebody else the night before the Jets' game on Sunday. "Oh, I wouldn't do that," Coslet says. "He'll room alone the rest of the season, if that's what he wants."
Still, Washington seems to have come to grips with his football career again. "Life-threatening injuries can happen, and you're never prepared for it," he says. "We were totally unprepared for Dennis's injury. I was totally unprepared. You're watching it happen, and you can't believe it. You visit him in the hospital, and you can't believe it. You want to reach out to him, pull him out of that bed. And you can't. You're mad and you're scared and you're sad and you're angry.
"But this is what I do. It's what I do best. I don't have the hands to be a surgeon. I have the tools to be a football player. Football players hit people. That's my job."
"There's never been a season like this," Coslet says. "Not in history." The Jets, who made the playoffs last year and went undefeated in the 1992 preseason, were 3-9 entering Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills, who had beaten New York 10 straight times. But last month was especially brutal for the Jets. On Nov. 24 safety Erik McMillan's house was ransacked while McMillan and his girlfriend, Roxanne Garcia, were held at gunpoint. Three days later, three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Al Toon, who was still slurring his words three weeks after sustaining the ninth concussion of his pro career, retired. And then came the Byrd tragedy.