Dennis Byrd, a former University of Tulsa football player whose NFL career ended after a neck injury, was killed in a two-vehicle collision on Oklahoma 88 north of Claremore on Saturday, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported.
The collision sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, according to Kelly Deal, operations director with Oologah Talala EMS.
A defensive standout from Mustang, Byrd is a member of TU’s Hall of Fame.
In a statement, TU athletic director Derrick Gragg said: “We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’ wife Angela, their children and the entire Byrd family. Dennis exemplified true determination, tremendous heart and humility throughout his life. He had a tremendous playing career at TU and professionally with the New York Jets. He overcame great personal adversity after a life-altering injury on the football field. We know that Dennis touched numerous lives and will be missed by many.”
Byrd became an NFL legend when he defied his doctor’s prognosis and walked within weeks after he broke his neck in the New York Jets’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, 1992.
“He’s a testament to hard work,” former TU teammate Jerry Ostroski said Saturday night. “That’s why he got to where he was. He made himself into the player he was. He wasn’t a guy born with tremendous size. He worked hard in the weight room, gained weight, got big, had a high motor. He turned himself into a second-round draft pick in the NFL.”
Byrd was the co-author of “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd,” and was the subject of a made-for-television film, “Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.”
“His injury was tough on him,” Ostroski said. “It was hard on him sometimes. He was in a lot of pain. He did a tremendous amount of work to be able to walk again, but he was in a lot of pain and it was hard on him. Over the years as he got a little older, it was rougher on him. You didn’t see him quite as much.”
Byrd played at TU in 1984-88 and was a four-year starter, compiling 321 tackles and 20 sacks. He was an honorable-mention All-American by the Football News after a senior season in which he recorded 108 tackles, 11 sacks and 35 quarterback hurries.
“When you look at where he came from and what his career ended up being, it symbolized Tulsa teams throughout that time,” Ostroski said. “It was blue-collar guys and hard workers, guys that went out and busted their tails and won a lot of football games through hard work. What he did and who he was symbolized where that program went.”
The football field at Lincoln Christian School is named after Byrd, who at one time coached there. Byrd also coached at Owasso.
The crash occurred about 11:15 a.m. between Oologah and Claremore near the Sageeyah community, according to an OHP report. A 17-year-old from Claremore driving a 2000 Ford Explorer northbound on Oklahoma 88 veered into the oncoming lane, striking a 2004 Hummer H2 driven by Byrd.
Byrd, 50, was pronounced dead at the scene due to massive injuries.
The 17-year-old driver and a 12-year-old passenger in Byrd’s vehicle were transported in critical condition to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, according to Deal.
Oklahoma 88 was closed at Lowry Road due to the incident. Troopers announced the road was reopened shortly after 5 p.m.
“Dennis was one of the most driven people I ever played with,” former TU teammate David Alexander said. “His first year (when he redshirted) he gave the starting offense fits. He always went hard, always full speed, preparing himself for his opportunity when he would be the starter. That’s why he was able to be so successful and play in the NFL.”
Late Saturday night, former TU football coach Dave Rader released a statement:
"Dennis Byrd was one of the most competitive people I have ever known. He was passionate about playing the game. He was compassionate in dealing with people. He was a man’s man. I will never forget visiting Dennis in his New York City hospital room a few days after his injury. Rick Dickson and I went to encourage him but he encouraged us. We had a hunch he just might walk again. I will never — never — forget, some 17 months later, Dennis WALKING to the podium at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Banquet held at the Mabee Center where he told his story, and gave testimony to his faith in Jesus. His influence on me was much greater than mine on him. We lift up his family — especially Zack and all the children and grandchildren at this time."
Staff writers Paris Burris, Kelly Hines and sports columnist Guerin Emig contributed to this report.