Dennis Byrd was an agile mountain of a defensive tackle with unique abilities that he used during an All-America career at NC State under the guidance of Wolfpack coach Earle Edwards. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound tackle was the Wolfpack’s first two-time consensus All-America and the second Wolfpack player ever taken in the first round of the professional football draft, following star quarterback Roman Gabriel.
Byrd was a starter and first-team All-ACC selection from the moment he first became eligible as a sophomore in 1965, when he helped the Wolfpack win a share of the ACC Championship. He was also a member of the famed “White Shoes” defense that could have won another league title and had a chance to play for a national championship had Byrd not gotten hurt on an after-the-whistle hit late in the 1967 season.
Byrd was born in the North Carolina mountains near Marion, but moved with his family to textile town of Lincolnton at the age of 5, when his parents went looking for mill jobs. He played for local legend Von Ray Harris at Lincolnton High school, where he was the teammate of future Wolfpack offensive tackle Steve Warren. Both followed Harris’ son Ronnie to NC State to play football in the fall of 1964.
He sat out as a freshman under NCAA rules at the time, but was immediately inserted into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Only a significant knee injury late in his senior year could keep him out of opposing backfields. He plugged up the middle for teams trying to run the ball and could chase down quarterbacks trying to throw the ball. “By the end of the game, everybody in our line was calling him ‘Mr. Byrd,’” said Florida captain Bill Carr after a 1966 game between the Wolfpack and Gators. But don’t look for Byrd’s name in the NC State record books – sacks were not an official statistic kept during his college football career.
By the time he was a senior, Byrd knew he was bound for professional football and was confident he would be successful. However, he suffered an injury to his right knee against Duke in the Wolfpack’s eighth game of the season. He played in just one play in the undefeated Wolfpack’s loss at Penn State, a setback that cost Edwards’ team an ACC Championship and a shot at playing for the school’s first football national championship. Byrd played only sparingly in the regular-season finale loss to Clemson and in the Liberty Bowl win over Georgia, the first bowl victory in school history.
Byrd was taken as the No. 6 overall pick in the 1968 National Football League draft by the Boston Patriots and earned a starting job as a defensive end as a rookie. But his knee never fully recovered and his professional career lasted only two seasons. “I really did enjoy it, but I was just kind of out of my element as far as being in Boston and not knowing anybody up there,” Byrd said. “It wasn’t a bad experience, but being injured, I don’t think I was ever the same.”
After his playing career ended, Byrd became a high school teacher and coach. He was the head coach at West Lincoln High School and a long-time assistant at Northeastern High School near Elizabeth City, NC. He retired from teaching in 2001, and spends his free time now hunting and fishing near his home and on an annual month-long trip to Canada. His No. 77 jersey was retired by NC State in 2002.
by Tim Peeler
April 2, 2007
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