DADE CITY — The moment Jamie Byrd coughed his first breath, his parents had a mutual understanding: their son would have better opportunities.
Sierra O'Neal, was just 16 years old; Jamie Sr., only 18. He rushed out of a sixth-period class at Pasco High to see the birth of his only son.
"Big Jamie was in the room when I delivered," O'Neal said. "Whatever arguments I had over the years, he was there to see his son brought into the world."
That meant everything to a girl whose father had been absent almost her entire life. And it was a big step for Jamie Sr., who resented the absence of a male role model in his. He has always been accessible to his son, O'Neal said.
Today, Jamie Jr. zips across Pasco's football field in a blaze of red and black. The junior wears No. 2 — a family tradition — and is classified as a vicious hitter by his coaches, just like his dad. In the classroom, Jamie Jr. maintains a B average, talks about the ACT and of earning a college degree, just like his mom.
"We're not living as a family but he stays with me and her," Jamie Sr. said. "I talk to him about my faults. He's one of those kids that listens, he feeds off that. He wants to hear it. He comes around me to hear me tell him what I did, to take him though my life. It's really working for him."
The challenge for his parents is to deflect the distractions from his hometown of Lacoochee, one of west central Florida's poorest communities, where crime and drug use is high..
"My biggest fear: there are so many temptations out there," O'Neal said. "The community we live in is trying times. We want him to stay focused these last two years whether it's college football or finding a major. I want him to have every opportunity to excel. I don't want his focus just to be football. I want it to be a career."
• • •
Jamie Jr. was just an infant in the fall of 1992, but has seen many replays of Pasco's state championship run. His father — a linebacker, safety and running back, just like his son — was one of many stars on that team.
Jamie Sr. believes he could have been a greater success, but the absence of a father during a critical time in his development was overwhelming.
"I had no guidance," Jamie Sr. said. "I had a super mother. I was spoiled. Things went my way. But they were my choices."
Jamie Sr.'s father was never in the picture, so he looked to his brother, Ralph, as a father figure. When Ralph went off to prison, the result of a drug conviction, Jamie Sr. was barely a teenager.
That's when Jamie Sr. lost his way. He was jailed on a marijuana drug charge, then failed his freshman year.
Jamie Sr. cleaned up his act enough to play football his final two years. He said he had college interest from schools such as South Carolina and Northwestern before bouncing around a pair of junior colleges. He returned home instead of sticking it out in college because he wanted more personal freedom.
"(Ralph) was the dude I looked up to," said Jamie Sr., who has owned a landscaping company the past four years. "For him to disappear weirded me out. I really wanted to be like him. That was my man in my life. …When I was young coming up, he was there. …He was my daddy. When he got took out of my life, I was distraught. It was the only male figure I knew. Guys in the street made me who I am."
• • •
O'Neal never knew her father either. But she was determined to make something out of her life.
"Having Jamie at a young age, he was my biggest inspiration," O'Neal said. "I felt like if I was able to have him, go to college and get a degree I would set the standard."
With the help of her family, O'Neal managed to raise Jamie Jr. while spending two years at Bethune-Cookman before coming home to finish her criminology degree at Saint Leo.
O'Neal landed a job working with parents and children at Healthy Families Pasco-Hernando, and at age 23, she decided she needed to go find her father, first calling him by phone.
"My dad left my mom at 13 months and went to Louisiana," O'Neal said. "…My first question was, 'Why?' …Ten years later he wasn't able to answer the question."
She took Jamie Jr. along at age 7 to meet his grandfather in Natalbany, La., a small town about 70 miles north of New Orleans.
"To me, it was more in your face," O'Neal said of the encounter. " 'You left my mom and you thought she would suffer, but look what came out of this,' " referring to her college degree and son.
O'Neal talks of her battle through single motherhood and her fight for a career, then thinks of her son.
"I made it," O'Neal said. "I look at Jamie and I say I want more and want better. He can't tell me you didn't do it. I have the papers. That's the way I want it to be."
• • •
Jamie Jr., 17, spends his lunches in Tom McHugh's office by choice. He sits across from the coach's desk, eats his lunch and flips through his math book.
It's the same during the team's study hour before practice begins, Jamie Jr. getting his work done.
It's a refreshing example for McHugh, who constantly preaches to his kids the right and wrong way to succeed. One alternative is on display at every Pasco home game, plenty of kids — now men — swallowed up by temptation.
"You come to the games and look at the south end zone on the west side," McHugh said. "The best football team in Pasco County is standing on the sideline. Those guys got caught up in not doing their school work and other things that society offers. Jamie's the most focused kid. Really, you don't have to tell him anything. But as an adult, you still have to finish the sentence."
Last week against Zephyrhills, Byrd never came off the field. On defense he had 11 tackles, a caused fumble and fumble recovery returned 42 yards for a touchdown. On offense, he scored three touchdowns on 74 yards rushing.
"He's the least dispensable person we have on our team," McHugh said. "There's guys more flashy and faster and they'll have stats. Everyone knows when Jamie's there it's like you have 12 men. With him, there's another level of confidence."
Jamie Jr. has heard the stories about his father and watched the films. In '92, Jamie Sr. rushed for three touchdowns in a 42-6 win over Gulf.
Some say they are carbon copies.
"I want to be like him," Jamie Jr. said, "but I want to be even better."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 421-3886.