Dennis Byrd making headlines on a Saturday was a way of life for Chris Thurmond in the mid 1980's when Byrd was a defensive linemen at Tulsa where Thurmond was coaching the defensive backs.
However, the headline this past Saturday was one Thurmond, the Owls' Defensive Coordinator, and countless others would prefer had never been written.
Byrd, 50, was killed in an accident on a highway not far from his home in near Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday, bring a sudden end to a life that had inspired many, first with his exploits on the field and perhaps even more so in his recovery from a spinal injury that cut short his NFL career.
Byrd had resolutely refused to believe the dire prognosis
from medical doctors after a collision with a teammate on a pass rush against
the Chiefs on November 29, 1992 caused severe damage to his neck and spinal
cord. He defined the odds to gain a level of mobility that allowed him to
return the following season to serve as an honorary captain in the Jets
He returned to Oklahoma to coach at the high school level
and also worked for a time as an analyst for CBS television. A devout
Christian, he was active on the speaking circuit while also devoting himself to
his wife and family.
"Football was a huge deal to Dennis and he played with so
much passion," Thurmond recalled. "One day in practice he missed a tackle,
punched the ground and broke his hand. That was the kind of passion that
he brought to the field every day. But he always had things in perspective--his
family, his spiritual life and all the other things that make you a
well-rounded person. "
Thurmond may not have coached Byrd at Tulsa, but as is
often the case, the shared experience of being on the same team creates a bond
that only grows stronger over the years.
"When I was coaching at Oklahoma, I'd run into him at various coaching functions or other events and it was always a special time when we did have a chance to visit," Thurmond noted. "After guys get done playing, when you meet it's not so much that you rehash all the things that happened. You become friends and you enjoy hearing about family and what they are doing now.
"It wasn't like we talked that often or kept up with each
other regularly, but I have incredible memories of him and remember some great
games he had against Oklahoma State and Arkansas. Every game he was a
difference maker," he added.
In the days since the news first broke, Thurmond has had
occasion to hear from former players from those Tulsa teams of the mid 1980's,
either to give him updates on arrangements or share a memory.
"Sometimes we over-emphasize the loss of someone because
they are a professional athlete or a celebrity of some kind. But this is
not that we lost a former great football player, the loss is that we lost
the type of person that he was because he influenced so many," Thurmond said.
"There have been so many guys who have called the last
couple of days to talk about him. He was unbelievably impactful."