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No. 90, Defensive End, for the New York Mets…

Now that he’s signed [1] and assuming he’s sound [2], Chris Young will become the first Young — not counting former Cy Youngs — to tip his cap to applause at a Mets Home Opener since Anthony Young [3] did so eighteen years ago. We were all younger then, but the defining characteristic of AY’s career was middle-aged.

Young had lost his final fourteen decisions of 1992, which wasn’t exactly to his credit, but you could look past it to a point. The first seven losses (which followed a pair of April wins) were from when he was a starter. Manager Jeff Torborg pulled Anthony from the rotation in late June and threw him into the bullpen, where decisions can be something of a crapshoot. He soon found himself filling in as closer during John Franco’s midseason stay on the DL. If AY wasn’t compiling W’s, at least he wasn’t getting his S kicked.

Anthony Young was actually pretty decent in the summer of ’92. He racked up a dozen saves in a two-month span and entered September with an overall record of 2-9…an almost unnoticeable 0-2 since exiting the rotation. Young’s losing streak wasn’t over, but it could be said to have stabilized. It took a rash of September lousiness to restart, in earnest, the avalanche of AY L’s. He blew five saves and turned every one of them into losses on his own ledger, finishing 1992 at 2-14, the last fourteen coming in a row, putting him five short of Craig Anderson’s Met record for uninterrupted futility and nine away from Cliff Curtis’s most dubious major league mark, both of which he’d eventually surpass with sagging colors.

No, it wasn’t much fun to be Young and a Met at that particular juncture.

But that was 1992, which was granted an enormous mulligan on every Mets fan’s scorecard when 1993 rolled around. We showed up at Shea on April 5 and we applauded every Mets who tipped a cap our way that Opening Day, no matter how poorly they had acquitted themselves the season before. On a crisp, hopeful Monday like that, Anthony Young wasn’t about to be booed for having lost fourteen decisions in a row. No Met was openly reviled, and that included a starting lineup that time would reveal as 55.5% rogues gallery:

Coleman LF
Fernandez SS
Murray 1B
Bonilla RF
Johnson 3B
Orsulak CF
Kent 2B
Hundley C
Gooden P

We the home fans of Shea Stadium cheered Vince Coleman. That’s all you needed to know about our generous (or perhaps addled) state of mind. That’s all you needed to know about how good a year that was no more than a couple of weeks from definitively spiraling into what we now ruefully recall as Nineteen Ninety-Three looked at first sight. No Met could do wrong that April afternoon, not during the game in which Doc would four-hit the newborn Colorado Rockies 3-0, and certainly not during the pregame introductions.

Those were more of a highlight than usual, thanks to the presence of someone we couldn’t have expected to see up and around so soon after witnessing how he was laid out a mere eighteen weeks earlier. It looked bad on replay and the diagnosis that followed it was much worse.

The events of November 29, 1992, as reported by the Times’s Tim Smith in the next day’s paper [4]:

The Jets’ miserable season lost most of its meaning 23 seconds into the third quarter of the team’s game with Kansas City at Giants Stadium this afternoon. At that moment, defensive end Dennis Byrd crashed to the field after a collision with a teammate, tackle Scott Mersereau, as they converged toward Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg.

An eerie silence gripped the stadium as Jets doctors and trainers attended to Byrd for seven minutes. 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.

Paralyzed in his lower body, Byrd was strapped to a specially designed board for players who suffer spinal injuries and placed onto a cart and taken off the field through the west end of the stadium. He was then taken to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, where he went through a battery of neurological tests and X-rays.

Frank Ramos, a spokesman for the Jets, said late last night that Byrd had suffered a fractured C-5 vertebra, which is commonly known as a broken neck, and that “he is paralyzed from the waist down and has no use of his legs and partial use of his arms.” He added that it usually takes 48 to 72 hours for an essentially definitive prognosis on whether such paralysis would be permanent.

The collision with Mersereau meant the end of Dennis Byrd’s football career, but he didn’t stay down in any other sense of the word. Byrd went about the business of rehabilitating and recovering as best he could. Turned out the best he could was phenomenal. We who attended the 1993 Mets’ Opener saw it first-hand when Byrd walked — walked — to home plate and accepted a framed Mets jersey with his number, 90, on it and was saluted as a “Met for life”.

Though the Jets hadn’t played in Flushing since 1983, this wasn’t Byrd’s first trip to Shea Stadium. In August 1992, he served as a judge on Banner Day. Now it was only fitting the lineman be presented with a veritable banner of his own. BYRD 90, in blue and orange on a white field of pinstripes, would do nicely.

The presentation, the Mets said [5], was “a way of saying thank you to Dennis and his wife, Angela, for the courage, determination and fortitude that he has displayed.”

No player drew greater applause that day at Shea than the one football player on hand, particularly after he told us [6], in his own twist on the classic George Carlin routine [7] regarding the differences between America’s favorite pastimes, “If it rains, we don’t have to play. And if I hit the ball over the fence, I get to walk around the bases.

“I can do that.”

It would be irresponsible to suggest Dennis Byrd’s words inspired the Mets that April afternoon. These were the 1993 Mets — they were capable of winning on 58 other occasions besides the Opener all by themselves. But still, what a pitch-perfect note from such a courageous defensive end. Of course the 1993 Mets won that day. Even the 1993 Mets of Coleman, Fernandez, Murray, Bonilla, Kent and Young (DNP on April 5; thirteen more consecutive losses in his immediate future) wouldn’t let down Dennis Byrd.

As you no doubt know, Byrd has been talking again in the last week. He mostly keeps to himself at his Oklahoma home, but he was so moved by his old football team’s efforts to make its way through the NFL playoffs that he sent its current coach the jersey he was wearing when he fell to the ground in November 1992. On the fifth anniversary of his career-ending hit, Rich Cimini of the Daily News visited Byrd in Owasso, Okla., and noticed that garment [8] was the one thing there that was not like all the others:

[E]verything is neatly understated, with only one, partially hidden reminder of that fateful day. There it is, clumped like a dust rag on one of the shelves his last jersey. Green, with white letters and numbers.

BYRD, 90.

The front of the jersey is tattered, cut in half from top to bottom. The doctors sliced it off Byrd’s then-paralyzed body as they transported him via ambulance from Giants Stadium to Lenox Hill Hospital.

“This brings back a lot of memories,” said Byrd, holding the jersey against his chest. “If I spend time thinking about it, I can be there on that day. I can remember the events of that day better than any other day in my life.”

He paused, perhaps remembering what it was like to be BYRD, 90. Finally, a smile appeared on his still-boyish face.

“I guess they weren’t too concerned with neatness,” he said, studying the doctors’ tailoring.

One assumes Byrd hadn’t bothered to frame this jersey since Cimini saw it in 1997. Maybe it was still balled up when Byrd stuck it in an envelope and sent it to Rex Ryan before the Jets played the Patriots in the AFC divisional round this past Sunday. Whatever its state before Ryan received it, it certainly took on a new life [9] prior the game in Foxborough. Ryan hung the jersey in the Jet locker room, had the team’s captains bring out a replica for the coin toss and somewhere in between, brought the man who used to wear BYRD 90 sixteen Sundays every fall to Foxborough to share his thoughts [10].

Dennis did the talking and the 2011 Jets listened intently. They uniformly reported Byrd and his jersey indeed inspired them before they went out and defeated their archrivals to advance to the AFC championship this Sunday in Pittsburgh…where Byrd himself will walk onto the field as honorary Jet captain [11]. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards was particularly affected by Byrd’s talk. Addressing the media after the victory over the Patriots, Edwards focused [12] on one particular sentiment Byrd expressed:

“‘I would trade anything for one play.’ He didn’t say ‘Another series.’ He didn’t say, ‘One game.’ He said…’One play.’ Do you know what one play is? One play lasts, maybe, six seconds on average. He’d trade his whole life for six seconds. That’s all it took for every guy in that room.”

When Jets 28 Patriots 21 went final, Edwards (who scored an important touchdown at New England but brought troubles of his own on himself [13] earlier this season) could be seen performing celebratory backflips on the Gillette Stadium grass. Those inclined to view any grand Jet gesture as excessive might have taken offense. I took it as a favor to Byrd — Dennis probably felt like doing his own cartwheels after the game, but since that’s a little out of his range, let’s say Braylon picked up a teammate and completed the play [14] for him.

It would be a great next chapter to this unexpected postseason sidebar if Byrd and his jersey were to join the Jets in Dallas two weeks from Sunday, but even in the world of the green and white, they have to play them one game at a time. Yet win or lose against the Steelers, isn’t it something that Dennis Byrd came off the bench on behalf of his old team? And isn’t it something that a tattered piece of cloth can hold so much meaning? “That jersey was an essential part of my recovery,” Byrd told Cimini [15] (now with ESPN) before the game at New England. “It helped me get my life back.”

“It’s been on my heart for a long time to send the jersey back,” Byrd elaborated [16] for Newsday’s Bob Glauber. “They had honored me by not re-issuing that number, and it’s a great honor. I wanted to return it and let it be what it is.”

For what it’s worth, no Met has played a regular-season game wearing No. 90, either.