Dennis Byrd, a former New York Jets defensive lineman who made an inspiring recovery from paralysis after a career-ending neck injury in 1992, died Saturday in a two-vehicle crash near Claremore, Oklahoma, the Tulsa World reported. Byrd was 50.
A 17-year-old boy driving a sport utility vehicle veered into the oncoming lane at about 11:15 a.m., striking an SUV driven by Byrd, who was pronounced dead at the scene, the World reported.
Against the Chiefs, on Nov. 29, 1992, Byrd and a teammate, Scott Mersereau, collided while chasing Kansas City quarterback Dave Krieg. Byrd broke a bone in his spine and could not move his lower body.
"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."
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.
But 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.
In August 1993, Byrd wheeled a golf cart onto the Jets' practice field to greet his teammates, the first time he had joined them in a group setting since his injury. By then, he was walking with only a slight limp and was still working to regain full use of his left hand.
A month later, he walked onto the Meadowlands field for the Jets' home opener, acting as an honorary captain.
The story of Byrd's recovery inspired an autobiography and a television movie, and the Jets have retired his No. 90.