NC State's Jarvis Byrd seizing his last shot

RALEIGH, N.C. -- No one expected Jarvis Byrd to still be here, and so NC State made plans for his jersey.

No. 9 never quite fit Byrd, anyway. He was wearing No. 14 when he won a starting job in the Wolfpack's secondary as a true freshman in 2009, and when he tore his ACL in that season finale, and when he fought his way back twice into the starting lineup -- and twice more, was felled by knee injuries. It was No. 14 he was wearing the previous time he was on a field, writhing in pain, assuming his career was done.

When his unlikely comeback began this spring, Byrd switched to No. 9, but that was short-lived. The number, which once belonged to NC State great Mario Williams, is being retired, so Byrd needed an alternative. Last week, coach Dave Doeren called him with a plan.

Doeren wanted a single player to don the No. 1 jersey this season. It would have a special meaning, he told his players on Monday.

"This guy's been through three ACL surgeries," Doeren told the team, "and he didn't have to come back.

"This guy loves the team.

"This guy has shown commitment from Day 1.

"This guy is unselfish.

"This guy is a leader."

The jersey went to Byrd, who earned it not with his play on the field but his determination off it. The room erupted in cheers.

He hasn't made it back yet, but this was a start.

"That was a big moment," Byrd said. "Something I'll always remember."

One of NC State's top recruits in 2009 out of Pahokee, Florida, Byrd won the starting cornerback job by November. He was wrapping up an impressive rookie campaign when in the third quarter of the season finale against rival North Carolina, he tore his right ACL.

The first knee injury was probably the easiest, because for an optimist like Byrd, who had never been seriously injured, it was easier to find hope in the unknown.

The rehab was slower than Byrd expected, but mostly, he remained upbeat. He accepted a redshirt for the 2010 season, with his sights set on a big 2011.

The ACL healed, but Byrd's psyche took longer. As he began his comeback, he was reluctant to make sharp cuts and test the knee. Looking back, that was his big mistake.

"When I had to break on the right [knee], I was scared to do it," Byrd said. "And I was just walking back to the huddle [in a summer 7-on-7 drill] when I tore my left ACL. It just popped."

The second one was the hardest, because Byrd realized how much he had to lose, how far he'd have to go and how long he'd be away from the game he loved. So much of the process of rebuilding the knee was familiar, but his optimism was muted.

"I had doubts about coming back," Byrd said. "But I had a bigger goal and purpose to overcome the second one. I felt like I was doing it for my team the second time around instead of myself. That gave me a new drive to overcome the second injury."

By the start of the 2012 season, he was back on the field, but again, his season ended early after he suffered a thigh injury against Virginia.

Back home, friends and family tried to offer encouragement, but that only hurt more. Byrd's family was struggling financially and visits were rare. He felt alone and thought it might be time to go home to Pahokee. Byrd called a friend who played for Florida Atlantic and asked about transferring, but his teammates at NC State weren't ready to say goodbye.

"I had a great group of friends here and those guys helped me get through it," Byrd said. "Anything I needed, they provided. Without them, I never would've made it."

By the time the 2013 season began, the darkest times seemed a distant memory, and Byrd, who switched from corner to safety, was once again a starter and a key member of first-year coach Doeren's new defensive scheme. Through four games, it looked like Byrd's story might have a happy ending.

On Oct. 5, game day against Wake Forest, the usually exuberant Byrd was down. He had friends on the Demon Deacons' sideline, which should've been enough to make it a big game, but he felt flat.

"I wasn't myself," Byrd said. "The sun was draining my energy, the turf was hot. Then I got a cheap shot on my leg and tore my left ACL again."

That should've been the end for Byrd. He had spent five years at NC State and been named a starter three times but played in just 14 games. He had never finished a season healthy.

Byrd told his family and coaches his career was over and told himself he was out of chances. But deep down, he couldn't believe it.

"I wasn't ready to be done," he said. "I went home and was thinking about it the whole time. I couldn't focus on school, on life in general. I was thinking about football all day long."

He had already gone to his senior banquet and said his goodbyes. He put off starting rehab following knee surgery because there was no rush to get back.

He checked in with teammates, who raved about how much stronger the team looked this season, and Byrd realized he didn't want to miss out. He went to Doeren and asked what it would take to get a sixth year of eligibility -- a rare exception that must be granted by the NCAA.

If Byrd wanted, he could return as a graduate assistant, Doeren said. He could still be around the team, help as a coach.

"But I was still thinking about football," Byrd said.

He applied for an appeal, and this spring, the NCAA accepted. He had one more shot to finish his career healthy. And so the process began again.

There were 5 a.m. wake-up calls to get to rehab and long days in the training room, film room and weight room. And there were plenty of people who wondered why he was doing all this in the first place.

"Some guys back home were like, 'What do you have to prove? [NFL] teams aren't looking at you anymore,' " Byrd said. "But for me, it's bigger than that. I'm not thinking about the NFL. I'm thinking about Jarvis Byrd and NC State and trying to get us back on the right track.

"If I'm able to push these guys and we're able to have a good year, I'll be happy. If I can play a whole season and walk out on senior day with my parents by my side, and I can walk out there healthy -- I've never had a healthy season -- I'm perfectly fine with that. I can live with myself without regrets and say I did what I wanted to do."

Byrd spent the spring game on the sideline, drawing up plays and coaching his younger teammates. But just putting on the jersey again felt good. The reluctance that followed past surgeries evaporated. Now, he had nothing to lose.

"I came back the first time and was cautious. The second time, it was like, 'If I get hurt again I may not have a shot,' " Byrd said. "Now, I don't care. I'm giving it all I've got. I just want to get back out there and play the game like I did when I was 6 years old. I want to play for the love of the game."

The process has been challenging. Byrd knows the pain is around each corner. During camp, his knee would swell after a few straight days of practice and he'd be relegated to the sideline again. During one practice, he turned sharply and heard a pop in his knee. He knew that it was simply scar tissue breaking up, but the fear still overwhelmed him. He has had to learn to fight through that fear.

There are no guarantees this season. Doeren said he's confident Byrd will contribute in some way. Byrd said he may not play the first few weeks, but trainers have told him he'll be full-go by the time ACC play begins at the end of September.

If his only impact this season is occasional special teams work, he said that's OK. If he can win a starting job for the fourth time, that will be even better. If he hurts the knee again and the dream ends without warning -- well, Byrd has been through that before.

"If it doesn't work out, I'll be OK with it. I gave it another shot," he said. "I never stopped going after what I really wanted. If I hadn't gone for that sixth year, I wouldn't have been OK with that. I would've always had that on my mind."

However Byrd's story ends isn't important. His teammates have seen the chapters written, one agonizing step at a time, and no matter what happens this season, that will have been his legacy at NC State. That's his real impact. That's why he'll be wearing No. 1 this season.

"I can live with myself without regrets," Byrd said. "I did what I wanted to do."