RALEIGH — First in line. Finish the race. Those two sayings push former North Carolina State University defensive back Jarvis Byrd.
Byrd thought his football career was over. Not once, not twice, but at least three times. The Pahokee, Florida native tore his right anterior cruciate ligament as a true freshman in 2009 forcing him to redshirt the 2010 season. He then tore his right ACL the following summer and missed the next season.
In 2013 Byrd was back on the field, a veteran in the NCSU secondary, but it happened again. At Wake Forest, he tore his left ACL for a second time. Even then, Bryd couldn’t sit back and wonder what if.
The NCAA granted Byrd a sixth year and he played in nine game for the Wolfpack in 2014. However, by the end of the season, Byrd was out of uniform, on the sidelines, cheering his teammates to the finish line.
Byrd had every reason to hang up his cleats. He earned his degree in December, got an almost unheard of sixth year from the NCAA, and put his body on the line more than once. Monday at the NCSU Pro Day, there was Byrd, first in line, going through drills with his teammates one more time.
With just 23 games under his belt, Byrd probably won’t be high on any NFL General Managers draft boards. That doesn’t matter. He went through the drills just like everyone else, hoping for a shot – be it a long shot – but a shot at his dream.
Before he decided to train for pro day, Byrd was ready to call it quits. He was back in Florida and started working on his resume, preparing for the real world, actively pursuing a 9 to 5 gig. But he had a thought.
“Something just told me, just finish the race,” Byrd said. “I had to finish the race. If it’s meant for me to get picked up by a team, I will, if not I can live with that because I finished the race. I would rather finish it then live with regrets.”
Byrd, who only registered six tackles in 2014, admitted he would have regretted not at least giving it one last try. Back in Florida he sat up at nights, football on his mind, trying to determine if he was done or had more left in the tank. It was a similar position he found himself in prior to last season. After a three-win 2013 season by the Wolfpack, Byrd was contemplating what to do about his future. He decided he still wanted to play. The NCAA allowed him another year and the Pack nation welcomed him back.
He changed numbers (from 14, to 9, to 1) and was looked at as the leader in the secondary, even if he didn’t know how much he would see the field. Turns out, that wasn’t much. Again, only nine games in 2014.
But there was still a dream to chase.
Byrd can remember like yesterday when he started playing football – at the age of 5. He even remembers his first touchdown. With the ultimate goal only one step away, there was no way he could not take another shot. He looked fluid in the on-field drills, with almost flawless footwork. Quick steps, smooth cuts in and out of his breaks, like he’s never had an injury in his life.
“I felt great, man,” Byrd said. “That was my first time doing defensive back drills in a long time.”
Byrd returned to Raleigh three months ago to train with NCSU strength and conditioning coach Dantonio Burnette. Long hours in the weight room, much less time on the field, not wanting to put too more pressure on his knees. But once he got on the field, in front of representatives from more than a dozen NFL teams, Byrd was ready to roll.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Byrd said with the confidence and swagger you expect from a football player from the Sunshine State. “This what I do on the field. I can perform on the field, backpedal and break, that’s the easy part.”
The physical part is easy. With injuries like Byrd suffered, especially multiple times, the mental aspect takes over. He admitted during the season he thought about it a lot. But he trust his training and had no worries when it was time to perform. The night before Pro Day, Byrd barely slept. He set his alarm before he laid down at 10 p.m., but was up at midnight and again at 4 a.m. and had been up since, excitement, not nerves, in his stomach.
The few scouts he spoke with told him he looked good running drills, not showing favoritism to either knee. The ones who knew his story made sure to tell him how remarkable it was that he was on the field at all. Heading into pro day, if the scouts didn’t know Byrd, they did by the end of the day.
When it was time for the defensive backs to work out, Byrd shed his shirt and jumped to the front of the line. He was enthusiastic, smiling the entire time, encouraging other guys the whole way.
“That’s just me, man,” Byrd said. “I’m a natural born leader, I just like to go first. I was raised that way. My uncle always told me to lead the line, don’t ever be a follower.”
Athletes could follow Bryd’s lead and the example he has set. While many of his former teammates talked about taking the next day off, Byrd plans on being back at the Murphy Center, getting stronger, better, ready for the next step.
“I don’t have time to take days off,” Byrd said. “You prepare what you pray for. I prayed to get picked up by a team, so I have to continue with the process and continue to put work in.”
At the end of the day, Byrd is the longest of longshots. He doesn’t have a lot of games on film, and NFL teams tend to shy away from guys with multiple ACL injuries. But from his outlook on the entire situation, if anyone can defy the odds, it’s Jarvis Byrd. And if not, he’s OK with that as well.
“It’s a blessing, nothing but God right there. Everything that I’ve been through and suffered from. To be able to come out here and show them I can still run and move, I’ve just grateful for the opportunity.”