Life is fragile and can change for each of us in an instant. I share this with you because someone I respect and admire died Saturday morning at just 50 years old. Dennis Byrd was killed in a two car crash near his Oklahoma home. I’d like to honor his legacy by passing on what I learned from him and his example.
On November 29, 1992 NY Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd collided with a teammate and shattered a vertebrae in his neck. Partially paralyzed, doctors told him he’d probably never walk again. After three months of rehab he began taking his first steps. Three months later, on May 24th Dennis Byrd spoke at my college graduation. It was one of his first public appearances. I remember it like it was yesterday. In my mind I can still see #90 slowly and carefully walking across the graduation platform in the Meadowlands Arena that day.
When Byrd began speaking about his journey he was moved to tears as were the rest of us. He shared with us a very similar message he later began sharing as a professional speaker. I’m paraphrasing based on memory a couple of the most powerful takeaways…
Byrd began by telling us how the experience of recovering from paralysis shaped him as a man and taught him about the contrast between the fragility of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit. He shared with us the biggest lesson we can all learn which is that you should never doubt your capacity to achieve miracles with faith and hard work and the faith and hard work of others. Byrd also spoke about how staff in the hospital and the other patients he met there who may never walk again are far more impressive than he. (Pretty humble for a guy who was back on his feet just months after being told he’d never walk again.)
What struck me the most was his comment about the three things we all possess. A person is equipped with a body, a mind and a spirit. He explained that there are times in a person’s life that their body will tell them it can’t continue on. There will be other times that a person’s mind will tell them that the task before them is too difficult to accomplish. But those two things don’t matter. Because an individual’s will and spirit will tell them they can do it and that will make the mind and body follow along.
Byrd wasn’t yet a professional speaker at that time but our other speaker was. Holocaust survivor Dr. Ellie Wiesel also spoke but if you asked me today, I couldn’t recall a single thing the Nobel Prize winner said. Not that Wiesel wasn’t insightful, he just didn’t make me feel anything.
Byrd made me feel something that day. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. He gave me a lasting gift on my graduation day. A reminder of the power of the human spirit. Proof that there’s nothing stronger that a person’s will. I often find myself replaying his speech in my head over and over again. Never more so than this weekend after hearing of his tragic death.
I’ve deliberately waited to post about my experience from Blue Ribbon Walk. It was an emotional experience and I’ve been processing it all for the past month. With Dennis Byrd’s passing this weekend, I’ve gotten a lot of clarity about what I want to share with you from my walk.
Through the process of creating Blue Ribbon Walk I was introduced to Mary Black Andrews, the widow of Charlie Black. (Trooper Black was the first state trooper killed in the line of duty in Maine.) Mary and her son were kind enough to speak at the opening ceremonies for our event. Mary initially offered to walk the first mile and the last, then something happened on September 10th when she arrived for the event… Her will and her spirit kicked into overdrive. Months away from her 80th birthday Mary walked eight miles on the first day and about 12 on the second day. She was walking to honor her late husband but I don’t think it was her legs or her mind that carried her. it was her spirit.
I learned a lot from Mary over the course of those two days. Dennis Byrd and Mary Black Andrews are both powerful testimony to the fact that when you have a big enough reason why, your spirit will always find a way how and your mind and body will follow.
Our test can become our testimony. Dennis Byrd touched far more lives after his accident than he ever could have had his career continued as a professional athlete. Byrd leaves behind a huge legacy. He also leaves behind a wife and four children. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.