Ex-OSU, NFL star Byars cherishes ties to Dayton



MORAINE — Keith Byars always has made his presence felt.

On the football field, he was a star running back at Roth High, an All-American at Ohio State and an All-Pro in the NFL.

Off the field, he teamed for years with fellow pro Martin Bayless to put on the free Byars-Bayless football camp that brought scores of NFL players to Dayton and benefited thousands of Miami Valley youngsters.

Earlier this month, he joined several other former pro players as plaintiffs in a suit filed in federal court in Philadelphia that claims the NFL intentionally and fraudulently misrepresented and/or concealed neurological risks of repetitive trauma brain injury and concussions.

And early Thursday morning at the Mandalay Center, Byars — who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where he has coached high school football and now does a Miami Dolphins pregame radio show — was the keynote speaker at the annual Miami Valley Council Leadership Breakfast, a fundraiser for area Boy Scouts that helped bring in $176,403.

Yet, if you are looking for a moment in Byars’ life when he truly made an indelible impression, it had to be when he took his first college recruiting trip to Michigan at the request of Bo Schembechler.

Thursday, once he was sure the several hundred in attendance had finished their breakfasts, he gave a detailed account of that teenage trip that he called “the worst college visit of any I took.

“They gave me food I never heard of. Oysters. Porterhouse steak — what’s that? I’d been to Ponderosa and seen T-bones. But Porterhouse? They said it was the biggest steak. And shrimp cocktail. I said, ‘It’s not even cooked. Shouldn’t it be boiled or something?’

“But I shoveled it all in. Then as we’re going back to the hotel, I say, ‘Coach, you got to speed it up.’ But he’s explaining this and explaining that and I say, ‘No Coach, you’ve GOT to speed it up.’

“Well, he’d just pulled into the parking lot — in his brand new car — and well, there came all that food. I finally looked up at him and said, ‘Well, you still want me to come here?’ ”

The crowd roared with laughter.

In the 13 years the Scouts have put on this breakfast, they’ve had a variety of name speakers from Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit to Pete Rose, Steve Garvey and Jim Kelly.

But none of them shared any more of a heartfelt connection with them than did Byars, who is still Dayton through and through.

“You know that old African proverb about how it takes a village to raise a child? Well, my village is Dayton. There are a lot of people in this town who had a hand in helping me become who I am today. And wherever I go now I take Dayton with me.”

The only place he wears more visibly on his sleeve is Ohio State, where from 1982 through 1985 — even with being injured most of his senior season — he amassed 4,369 total yards, rushed for 3,200 and scored 50 touchdowns. His junior year he rushed for 1,764 yards and 22 TDs and finished second to Doug Flutie for the Heisman Trophy.

“My four years at Ohio State were the best years of my life,” he said. “I absolutely adored them.”

He spoke on several OSU topics Thursday, either to the crowd or privately afterward.

He supported ousted football coach Jim Tressel, praised new coach Urban Meyer and said of the players involved in the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal:

“I still don’t know what they did wrong. Although I cherish my Big Ten ring and think those guys don’t recognize how important they are, they still had the right to do with them what they wanted. They belonged to them.”

Some of his most glowing OSU memories went back to Woody Hayes. While Earle Bruce was his Bucks coach, Hayes was a bigger-than-life presence to him.

He told how Hayes initially “browbeat” him on the phone about looking at other colleges besides OSU. But he said when he went with his parents for his official OSU visit, Hayes sat down and talked to his mom and dad:

“After that, for my four years at Ohio State, every time I saw him or had a one-on-one conversation with him, he asked how my mother and father were. And he didn’t just say Mr. and Mrs. Byars, he’d say, ‘How’s Reggie and Margaret?’

“He made a real impression on me. He stressed how you have to be a difference maker not just on the football field, but in life. He wanted you to make an impact.” He said another of his coaches, Bill Parcells with the New England Patriots, hammered home the idea how you “don’t want to be a JAG. That means Just an Average Guy. ... And I’ve tried to use those lessons.”

After 13 seasons in the NFL, Byars knows the toll all the pounding takes on the players.

After watching one of the game’s greats from the 1960s, hall-of-fame tight end John Mackey, have inadequate medical care as he succumbed to dementia almost certainly brought on by football, Byars was spurred to act on what has become a recurring problem for many players after their careers have ended.

Having played much of his own career on one of the lousiest fields in the NFL (the Astroturf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium “was like playing on the parking lot outside,” he said Thursday), Byars was concussed more than once in a game.

That’s what got him involved in the lawsuit and when pressed Thursday he was reminded of one specific hit that left him “out of it.”

He told of running a sweep against Detroit and being hit near the sideline by a Lions linebacker who flattened him and caused his head to bounce off the Vet turf.

“I got up from muscle memory, I guess, but I was out on my feet,” Byars said. “In the huddle my teammate, Mike Quick, was talking to me but it sounded like he was calling me from down the street. I looked at him but I couldn’t hear. I was in a fog. But back then they just called it getting my bell rung and I played the rest of the game.

“I don’t know if I ever felt so out of it as I did that day.”

Well, except maybe for that recruitment meal in Michigan when he christened a coach’s car and made an impact that surely made Woody Hayes proud.

About the Author