2007 ACC Football Legend: NC State's Dennis Byrd
Nov. 1, 2007
By Wilt Browning
Something unexpected has happened in the life of Dennis Byrd in this first decade of a new millennium. He has been rediscovered.
"I guess you could say that," said Byrd who admits that he has been somewhat mystified that his remarkable career as one of the forces in Atlantic Coast Conference football 40 years ago has been revisited more than once.
First, his alma mater, North Carolina State, called him home to witness the retirement of his uniform number, 77, in 2002. Then earlier this year, Byrd was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. The ring was barely in place on his large finger when he learned that he is one of a dozen former players representing the 12 ACC schools who will be honored in the conference's 2007 Legends class at the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship in Jacksonville, Fla., later this month.
"I never cared much for publicity when I was playing, but this is nice," said the first football player named All-ACC three years in a row.
For three straight years, from 1965-1967, Byrd was a major force in the college game as the sport's premier defensive lineman, and two times was chosen as a consensus All-American. He was a defensive player so dominant that he never saw an offense - not even his own - that could make him back off.
Like the fifth game of the 1967 season, Byrd's senior year, when fifth-ranked NC State retreated to the locker room at halftime of a game at Maryland trailing the Terrapins, 3-0.
"True story," Byrd said with a strong laugh.
"Our offense wasn't doing anything. But we (the defense) were playing our usual game. Defense was the name of the game for us and that's really why we won, and we were doing our job against Maryland. Our offense had turned the ball over to Maryland on our own 20, and we held them to just a field goal.
"So, we're sitting around in the defensive room at halftime and somebody asks what's happening with our offense. And somebody said, `I don't know. Let's go over to the offensive side and ask them.'"
Most of the offensive coaches had begun to return to the playing field when the Wolfpack defense, including several emotional leaders such as Chuck Amato, entered the room.
"I went over to one of my best friends, Steve Warren, who played on the offensive line and I sat down beside him," Byrd said. "`Steve,' I said, `what's wrong with the offense?'
"`I don't know, Dennis,' he said to me. `We just don't have it today, I guess.'"
I slapped him.
One slap led to another and suddenly throughout the cramped little meeting room offensive players were squaring off against defensive players. "Punches were being thrown and some pushing and shoving," Byrd said in retelling the story.
According to Byrd, the State offense returned to work in the second half perhaps a bit more bruised, but with fire in their eyes. After being shut out through the first two quarters, the Wolfpack scored 31 points in the second half and won going away, 31-9.
"Steve and I are still the best of friends," Byrd said. "He came in for my induction (into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame)."
Now 61 years old, Byrd no longer is as mobile as he once was. He has undergone knee replacements and hip replacements and in all has endured seven such surgeries. And though he tries not to dwell on it, each labored step these days is a reminder of what might have been.
It was arguable NC State's most shining moment on the national college football scene. With a defense anchored by the likes of Byrd and Amato, and with Jim Donnan quarterbacking an offense that scored enough points, the Wolfpack was considered a bona fide contender for the national championship.
But late in the game against Duke, the seventh State victory of the year, Byrd felt a sharp pain in his right knee.
"I had never been hurt in my life," he said. "So, I have wondered over the years if I really knew how to handle an injury. Could I have played better than I did with the pain? Was there a way to stay effective with the bum knee?"
Questions no one, including Byrd, can answer. Answers that, from this vantage point, would change nothing.
With Byrd sidelined with the knee injury, State continued its roll briefly, defeating Virginia, 30-8, to remain undefeated eight games into the season.
"I tried to come back in the next game against Penn State," Byrd remembers. "I was in on one play and that was it. I was worthless." State suffered its first loss of the season in the unhappy trip to Happy Valley, 13-8, and national championship aspirations ended there.
"I came back against Clemson (in the final regular season game of the year) and actually played about three-quarters of the game," he said. "But I was just kind of dragging my leg all day."
It had been suggested over the years that, but for Byrd's knee injury in the Duke game, NC State might have been college football's king for a year.
"So many what-ifs," said Byrd wistfully. "But it's an interesting thing. Who knows what would have happened? But for our team, it was defense. That's what it was all about. That's the way we won games. We just didn't let people score very much against us."
Indeed, the 1967 Wolfpack team yielded just 94 points in 11 games including the Liberty Bowl victory over Georgia. Of those points, 27 came in the two back-to-back losses to Penn State and Clemson without a healthy Dennis Byrd.
Still, there seemed to be football yet to play for the star defender. The Boston Patriots made him the sixth player chosen in the draft, and he played through one season and into a second before returning home to a teaching and coaching career.
"I was never the same after the knee injury, and today I can hardly walk," said Byrd in a sad lament.
Though the years have passed, national champions have come and gone, and the game has changed in some ways, Dennis Byrd said that being remembered brings a special kind of emotional lift.
"I never thought much about these things all those years," he said. "It never occurred to me that my number would be retired at State; I didn't really know what the requirements were for getting into the Hall of Fame, and now I'm one of the players they're going to honor in a few weeks.
"That's pretty nice."
It's just about enough to make the steps a bit easier.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
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