RESTRICTED: Walking on Air

On Nov. 29, 1992, Dennis Byrd’s professional football career came to a sudden shattering end in New York City when a collision during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs left him paralyzed from the neck down. Byrd, 27, a 270-lb. New York Jets defensive left end, had been hurtling toward opposing quarterback Dave Krieg when he slammed into what felt like a slab of granite. Dazed from the impact, Byrd lay immobile on the artificial turf of Giants Stadium, unaware that he had collided with his own teammate, 280-lb. right defensive tackle Scott Mersereau. Mersereau suffered a badly twisted ankle while Byrd splintered a vertebra in four places just below the neck. “Now I know how fragile life is and how close to the edge we live,” he says in his moving autobiography, Rise & Walk: The Trial & Triumph of Dennis Byrd, written with journalist Michael D’Orso and just published by HarperCollins. The following excerpt begins with the tragic moment of impact on that wintry afternoon.

I REMEMBER LYING THERE AND LOOKING UP AT THE SKY, THE tingling in my body subsiding, my eyes regaining their focus on the gray sky above me. I tried to get up. My head raised off the ground just enough for its weight to dislodge the bone chips randomly filling the space that had been my C-5 vertebra. I fell something give way. I heard it, too, a crunching at the top of my spine. And I knew I’d broken my neck.

I slowly settled my head back to the ground. Then I raised my right arm to unsnap my helmet. But instead of going where I willed it, my hand hit my face mask with a sickening clank. It’s a sound I’ll hear the rest of my life. Kyle Clifton, our middle linebacker, was the first to come over. “Let’s go, buddy,” he said, expecting me to jump to my feet. “Get up.”

“Kyle,” I said. “I can’t. I’m paralyzed.”

His face turned pale. He couldn’t say a word. Marvin Washington, my roommate and closest friend, knelt by my side. “Dennis,” he said softly, “what’s the matter?”

“I don’t have any feeling in my legs, Marvin,” I said. “I can’t feel my legs.”

He lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Just try, baby,” he hissed. “Try.”

Marvin knew. They all knew by then. I wasn’t grabbing a knee. I wasn’t squealing in pain about my shoulder. I wasn’t moving a muscle. That’s the most frightening sight in sports, an athlete who’s down and not moving.

By now Pepper Burruss, our assistant trainer, was beside me. “Hey, buddy,” he said. “Just be still here. I got you.” He locked his hands on the sides of my helmet, holding my head in place. Within seconds Bob Reese, our head trainer, came rushing over. “Bob, my neck’s broken. I’m scared. Am I going to be paralyzed?”

I caught a glimpse of all the Chiefs players, some with their helmets off, all with forlorn expressions that said, “Man, look what this game has done to this guy.” Dr. Jim Nicholas was there now. Every move counted. Bob Reese was calling for a back board and the cart. Jim was asking, “Can you move your legs? Can you move your arms?” I tried, but I couldn’t. I was intensely aware of what was going on from my shoulder pads up. Below, everything felt different.

I had been lying there seven minutes when they slid the yellow back board under me, cinched me down with ties, strapped down my helmet and lifted me on to the cart, with Pepper still holding my head. Then we drove toward the west end of the stadium, bumping over the turf.

My wife, Angela, was there, sobbing, as we pulled up to the ambulance. I still had my uniform on, from helmet to shoes, when we pulled out from beneath Giants Stadium. I could hear the siren. We raced toward Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital.

Pepper was gripping my helmet while team doctor Steve Nicholas, Jim’s son, cut the tape around my wrists and ankles, then slipped off my shoes and socks. He cut open my pants, jersey and shoulder pads. He could see I was having trouble breathing. The pads I had cinched so lightly before the game were squeezing muscles that could no longer resist them. Every time I was touched, I made a point that I could feel it. I was trying to convince myself that everything was going to be all right.

Ange must have told me she loved me a hundred times. She tried kissing my face but couldn’t because of the mask. I wasn’t thinking about football anymore. For the first time, I asked a question that would become the focal point of my entire life in the months to come. “Steve,” I said, “am I going to be able to walk again?”

His answer was dead honest. “Dennis, I don’t know.”

“Ange, I don’t care about football,” I said. “All I want now is to be able to hold you and Ashtin.”

Her eyes were wet with tears as she put her face as close to mine as she could, gripping my left hand and stroking it. “Don’t worry,” she said. ” We’ll hold you.” Then we prayed.

We were in the ambulance only 40 minutes before it pulled up to the emergency room at Lenox Hill. Then the doors opened, and everything began whirling around me. It felt like every hospital movie I’d ever seen, the patient lying on his back, the lights and ceiling tiles flashing by, the gurney being wheeled around one corner, then another. Ange was taken away and told to wait.

Pepper was turning on the cutler. The whine of that small saw as he lowered it to my helmet to slice off my face mask was almost excruciating. Chips and dust covered my face. Then, very gently, as carefully as if they were handling an egg, Steve and Pepper slid off the helmet.

By now the TVs were pumping steroids into my veins to stem the swelling in my spinal cord. There was no telling yet about the extent of damage, but it was critical to keep the swelling down in these first hours, because that can put pressure on the nerves and damage them permanently.

Steroids cut the swelling, but they also wrack the body with nausea. Within 15 minutes of the first dose I started throwing up. I couldn’t turn my head to empty my mouth and I couldn’t blow it out because my insides were paralyzed, too. So each time I was about to heave, I would tell Pepper and Steve and, ever so slightly, they would roll my body to one side and let the vomit run out onto their hands and arms.

A CAT scan of my head showed that the fifth cervical vertebra at the base of my neck was fractured. It was seven o’clock, more than four hours since I’d been on the field. Now I had a whole battery of doctors poking and pinching me. The combination of the medication, the retching and the sheer number of hours I had spent being put through tests had completely worn me out by the time I was wheeled up to an intensive-care room where Angela was waiting. “I’m right here,” Ange said, squeezing my hand. I wanted so badly to squeeze back. But I couldn’t.

Near 11:30, with only Angela and Pepper still with me, I was wheeled into a room filled with beeping equipment. “The doctors will be here soon,” a technician said. “They’re going to put your halo vest on.”

A halo vest.

My mind flashed to Marcus Anderson, my teammate at Tulsa who had broken his neck. I’d watched him live in a halo vest for six months. Once more I had to gather the strength to stay calm. They marked two spots on the edges of my forehead and two on the back of my skull. The anesthesiologists gave me a shot of xylocaine at each spot. Then they simply began screwing. I remember the metal pins crunching through my skin and bone. Not squeaking. Crunching.

I imagined the force it takes to twist a screw into a piece of wood, and I realized these men were using that same force to twist pieces of steel into my head. The thought of Frankenstein crossed my mind.

Then it was done. They pulled out the vest—a plastic shell lined with sheep’s wool and shaped like the chest armor worn by Roman centurions. They cinched it down so tightly I wasn’t sure I could breathe. Finally, they connected four metal rods from the vest to each of the screws. And that was it. My head was locked, totally immobile. My field of vision was framed by two metal bars.

It was 1 a.m. At last, this day was over. Ange was there as they laid me in bed. It was close to 3 before I finally fell asleep, haunted by a question that would wake me up in the middle of many nights to come. Was this really happening to me?

On Dec. 2, three days after his collision., Byrd underwent seven hours of surgery to repair his shattered spine. A team of six doctors grafted bone from the athlete’s hip to the vertebra that had burst upon impact and inserted three permanent steel plates to support his injured spinal column. He also received an infusion of an experimental drug, Sygen, that is currently being used to regenerate damaged nerve cells.

While the fact that Byrd had not completely severed his spinal cord greatly improved the chance that he might walk again, his physicians cautioned him that it could be years before they would know whether he would ever regain his mobility.

The four to six weeks following my surgery were going to be crucial. If I was ever going to walk again, I’d have to show some sign of voluntary movement in my feet. I was still helpless. I had to ask for everything. Could you prop that pillow under my shoulder? Could you wipe my nose? I couldn’t help thinking, Is this going to be my day, for the rest of my life? I’d prided myself on being a provider for Angela and Ashtin. Now, I provided nothing.

Monday—eight days after my accident—was the day I finally got to see my little girl. She had been told that Daddy had hurt his legs playing football and that he was in the hospital. After the surgery I was a pretty scary sight, especially to a 2-year-old. The staples running down the front of my neck looked like a hideous zipper. I was physically wasted, essentially unwashed, still in a lot of pain, and nauseated most of the day. It would have been frightening for Ashtin to see me like that. But now, after more than a week, we decided it was okay. I couldn’t wait any longer.

I heard her calling, “Daddy!” as she rushed up the hall. Then she came running into the room and scrambled onto the bed. She had the little doctor bag I’d bought her two weeks before. She opened it and went to work, taking my temperature, listening to my heart. She climbed into my lap and curled into the crook of my left arm. I couldn’t move that arm, but I could cradle Ashtin in it. I could kiss the top of her head. And I could have no doubt that this was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

After 10 days at Lenox Hill, it was time for me to move uptown to the rehabilitation unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center. There I would be under the care of Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, a specialist in physical rehabilitation. He told me when I arrived that I should hope for the best and expect the worst. I was totally dependent on the nurses to brush my hair, give me a sponge bath, shave me, feed me, empty my bladder with a catheter, empty my bowels with their fingers—all the “activities of daily living” that I was supposed to learn to do for myself. The only part of my body that I could control was my neck, and it was wrapped in a foam collar, weak from inactivity and wracked with pain and spasms from the surgery.

On my first day in the rehab room, I entered a world different from anything I’d ever known. Some people were wailing because they didn’t want to work as hard as their therapists were trying to make them. Others were wailing because they did, and because the pain was so great. I had two cards taped to the wall by my bed. One said, “I can’t”; the other said, “Never.” These were two phrases I would not allow myself to say or even think.

I had been at Mount Sinai 11 days when my wedding anniversary arrived, Dec. 20. A diamond tennis bracelet was wrapped and ready for Angela at my bedside. She arrived with a bottle of sparkling cider and two glasses, flowers and a package of Reese’s peanut-buttercups. She handed me a gift-wrapped box. Inside was a pair of blue silk boxer shorts and a green polo shirt. She helped me put them on. Then she drew the blinds. On the knob outside my door hung a Do Not Disturb sign she’d brought over from the hotel.

I’d never lost my sexual ability. Angela and I had spent some time cuddling and kissing since I’d come to Mount Sinai. We definitely knew I was still capable of love making, but we hadn’t actually tried it yet. We hadn’t had much opportunity to try it. But this night was ours. And I was glad Ange drew the blinds.

Now it was coming on Christmas, and each day it seemed God was blessing me with another gift. My legs were starling to gather strength. I had been able to move the big toe on my right foot. I could sit upright in a wheelchair for 45 minutes without feeling dizzy. I was able to hold my own brushes and silverware, thanks to thick foam handles. Though fear and doubt and depression were constantly beating at my door, I had more reason to hope than to despair.

Despite the limitations of my fingers, I’d begun to feel a tingling deep inside them. I would lie in bed at night and stare at my forefinger or my thumb telling it to work, talking to it as if it could hear me. Then, two nights before Christmas I was awakened by a buzzing in both my hands, and on Christmas Eve my finger moved. It was barely a wiggle, but my therapist, Joanne Giametta, was out of my room in a flash to let Dr. Ragnarsson know.

Just before New Year’s I asked my night nurse, Geneva, if we could go outside. She wrapped me up and we rolled out into the night. The cold and wind stung my face and neck, and it felt great. I could see my breath. I sucked some of the night air into my lungs and held it there. We were back inside in a matter of minutes. It hadn’t been long, but it was fantastic. The sky, the stars. This was the first time I’d looked up at the open sky since I’d been carried out on the cart at Giants Stadium.

In January; Byrd was able to lake his first tottering step, balancing himself at the end of a push cart, and on Feb. 12, nearly three months earlier than had been expected, Dennis Byrd flew home to Oklahoma.

Today, when I look back at where I was only months ago, and at all the blessings I’ve received throughout my life, how could I possibly ask, “Why me?” The miracle is that the Lord is with us when we break, and He can help make us whole. I’ve always believed that. And I always will.

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