The phone calls kept coming in to the New York Jet offices in Hempstead, N.Y., last week, and Doug Miller didn't always know what to say. "What can we do for Dennis?" the callers would ask. "Can we visit him? Can we send him something? Please, tell us something we can do." A dozen or more of those calls came from charities that Dennis Byrd had touched in his four seasons in New York, and Miller, a public relations assistant who coordinates the Jets' charity work, didn't know how to answer them. "Cross your fingers," he said, "and pray for him."
We never really noticed Dennis Byrd until last week, when he lay partially paralyzed in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "We always hear about the flashy guys and the druggies and the big stars, but not guys like Dennis," weary Jet coach Bruce Coslet said last Thursday. "It's a damn shame people didn't get to know about him until this happened."
The outpouring of tears and prayers for Byrd, who suffered a fractured vertebra in a collision with teammate Scott Mersereau during the Jet game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, seems amazing in hard-bitten Gotham. Before the injury Byrd was largely known as an average 26-year-old NFL defensive end. Cheerful and friendly, he was not the type of player to make the back-page tabloid headlines. Not like the Steve Howes, the Bobby Bonillas or the Lawrence Taylors.
Maybe the fallen Byrd captured so many hearts because of his matinee-idol looks. Or because people felt awful that another football player had been paralyzed. Or maybe it was something Byrd said when he was praying with some friends in his hospital room the night before he underwent a seven-hour operation to clear debris from his injured spinal column and stabilize his spine. "God, I know you did this for a reason," Byrd said. "I'm your messenger." Or maybe it was the message that Byrd's wife, Angela, sent by way of Jet kicker and family friend Cary Blanchard to the huge press contingent waiting for word, any word, on Dennis's condition. "Tell them Dennis says he's glad God chose him for this, because he has the strength to handle it," she said. "And tell them I'm glad God chose me as Dennis's partner."
His vision blurred by tears, Blanchard delivered the message.
When Miller is asked for information on a Jet player, he can usually come up with the name of the player's favorite charity. "Not Dennis," Miller says. "He didn't distinguish among them. His philosophy was, If anybody wants a piece of me, they can have it. Once, Dennis told me he was just a grown-up Boy Scout."
In 1990 Byrd was among a group of Jet players who went to a parochial school in the Bronx to speak at an assembly after a 10-year-old student at the school, Jessica Guzman, had been murdered. "You can't believe how much that visit affected Dennis," says Jet defensive end Marvin Washington, who also went to the assembly. "He broke down right there, crying, and he said, 'We have to do something.' " Byrd spearheaded a drive to establish a $15,000 scholarship fund to help needy children pay the tuition to attend the school. In two years 65 families have received assistance from the fund.
Two summers ago Byrd was the celebrity guest on a cruise around Manhattan that benefited Forward Face, a charity for people with craniofacial disorders. Last summer, when Dennis heard that Forward Face planned another cruise, with a different athlete as the celebrity magnet, he and Angela went along anyway. When an auction of sports-related items began during the cruise, Dennis was in the audience with seven-year-old Stephen Bonventre, who has such a disorder, seated on his lap. Stephen had a football "trading card" of himself, and Dennis got the boy's O.K. to include it in the auction. When the bidding opened on the card, Dennis shouted, "A hundred dollars!"
No one else made a bid, so Dennis said, "One fifty!"
The crowd cheered, but no one else made a bid.