The Greatest Among Them

Navy Slotback Andre Byrd

Take a look across the field of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Witness the cool, serene dawn before an August scrimmage, or the pulsating lead-up to an October homecoming game. Whether amidst the season of glory or the quiet spring evening, the field brims with the stories of our country's ongoing legacy.

Past and present, the stories are alive in each moment. Even the prosaic sounding battlefield names inscribed on the stadium walls reverberate for all who behold the sight: Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Inchon. Enduring Freedom.

The battlefield memorials and class monuments aren't the only testaments to the American way of life in this place. The players, warming up, have stories too. Drawn from across the country, they represent not only the best and brightest in the land, but the very virtues upon which so much of America is based.

There is Ricky Dobbs: the mayor of Douglassville. Strong-willed and filled with an infectious enthusiasm, he's the dreamer in all of us, and seems destined for the Oval Office. Laughing in the sun with his teammates, he takes each snap from Eric Douglass. The talented newcomer who embodies resiliency on the field and in the classroom, Douglass is the emerging leader who reminds us what persistence is all about.

The list of players and stories spreads out across the field. Black and white. Californians and Texans. Hawaiians and Ohioans. Former prep stars and high school class presidents. They are the writers. Their stories: the chapters in the anthology of a brotherhood known as Navy football.

There is one more story to add to this anthology, and one more player to add to the ongoing list of extraordinary young men whose lives play out on these pages.

Hold your gaze to the players on the field. Look carefully, because at 5-foot-7, 153-pounds, slotback Andre Byrd is the smallest of Navy's players. Yet he is by no means the least – neither in ability, nor in faith. In fact, in this latter asset – perhaps the greatest of all human virtues – Byrd stands out as a giant amongst his teammates, and the greatest of all those called to a Higher purpose.

Andre Byrd is a young man on a mission for God, and he is no longer content to keep his amazing story of faith, love and redemption a secret.

"I'm coming out with it because people need to hear it," Byrd said.

"I know that (my story) will help people know that they are not alone, and help to show people what God has done in my life," added the senior slotback. "I just can't keep it to myself any longer."

Byrd's story began some 21 years ago when his mother, Gwendolyn, was pregnant with him. She was also abusing drugs, including cocaine. While Andre was born free of any complications due to his mother's addition, Gwendolyn's drug use didn't stop with his birth. She continued to abuse drugs for the next two years, including during subsequent pregnancies with Andre's two younger brothers.

It was only a matter of time until her abuse was detected. After doctors discovered traces of cocaine in her system following the birth of Andre's youngest brother, Gwendolyn was faced with the prospect of losing her children to the state of Florida. It was then, Andre said, that God intervened, healing his mother of her addiction and bringing her back to the faith.

"She cried out to God that she truly wanted Him to change her life, and from that point on she was instantly healed from drug addiction," Byrd said.

His father was not so lucky. The late Andre Byrd never fully overcame his own drug addiction, and was in and out of the Byrd family picture as Andre and his brothers and sister grew up.

"When I was like seven or eight I didn't know why he would leave for awhile or could never keep a job," explained Navy's Byrd, whose full name is Andre Emanuel Byrd II. "As we got older and got into high school we knew what was going on, and why he would ask for money and stuff like that."

If having a husband who was in and out of her and her children's lives took a toll on Gwendolyn, she didn't show it. Recovered from her own drug addiction, she raised Andre and his two brothers and sister while also going back to school to get her bachelor's and master's degrees. Not only that, but she supported several family friends and relatives who were forced to move in with the Byrd family after their own struggles, all the while staying loyal to her husband and their broken marriage. Through it all Gwendolyn kept an unconquerable faith that God would support not only her but her family, and trusted in Him to give her the strength she needed to continue to be an example for her children. That example, said Andre, did not go unheeded.

"She taught me a lot and I just learned a lot from the way she lived and depended on God," said Andre. "For her to go through 20 or 25 years of what she went through she had to have something Higher in her life. I saw that and ran with it."

The seeds of Andre's faith had been planted by his mother's resilient example, but it would take more tragedy and hardship for the Jacksonville native to come full circle in his relationship with God and the realization of his own purpose in life.

Those hardships began from Day 1 at Navy. Admitting that he "never wanted to go to the Academy" while in high school, Andre nevertheless signed with Navy after failing to get another Division I FBS scholarship offer. His plebe year was a series of constant struggles. From the workload in school to the stresses of football, Andre slowly lost interest in his faith.

"I didn't pray or go to church or do a lot of stuff just because of the college experience and the things in my life," he said. "I was spiritually on a downfall at that point."

Things would get worse before they got better.

After making it through the first part of plebe year Andre had reason to be hopeful. He was impressive in spring practices, and even drew whispers of being the "next Reggie Campbell" – a label owed as much to his quickness and speed as his comparable size to the former Navy playmaker. But just as things were looking up, tragedy struck again. Still dealing with a drug addiction, the elder Andre Byrd passed away after suffering a heart attack at the end of Andre's freshman year.

"It affected me a lot," said Byrd. "Obviously it was plebe year and you're going through a hard time with the stuff at the Academy and football, but then with my Dad passing away it contributed to (my downward spiral)."

Pain and grief came first, but they were soon followed by guilt and questioning. Knowing about his father's lifelong struggle with drug addiction was hard enough for Andre, but wondering whether or not he and his siblings were ever able to communicate their love for their father is something that still pains Andre to this day.

"I don't know if I ever truly forgave my dad before he died, and that was one of the things that I regret," Byrd said. "He truly loved (our family) so much, and I know it hurt him to know or to even think that his kids didn't love him."

"It was like his time ran out before I had a chance to show him," Byrd added. "He probably knew it deep down in his heart, but we never really showed him that we loved him or forgave him for the things that happened in our lives."

Andre stayed at the Academy, but his sophomore year was another bumpy road. "I didn't want to play football at all," he said, adding that, "there were a lot of times when I said I was going to quit football." He didn't quit, but he was far from the star that many envisioned him becoming. He registered just one carry in 2008, and continued to drift farther away from both his family and his faith.

God had other plans for Byrd, although it would take one more family tragedy for him to finally recognize his calling in life.

"I didn't really have a strong faith in God until last summer, when things started changing for me in my life," Byrd recalled. "My grandmother was passing away… she was dying of cancer."

With his father already gone and his grandmother passing away, Andre realized that it was finally time to get his life in order if he was going to help care for the rest of his family. "I needed to be a leader in the family," he said. "I knew in order for me to do that I was going to have to get right with God."

Andre's grandmother passed away soon after his revelation, with Andre getting the call about her death while with a friend who was, at the time, trying to convince Andre to come back to the church. Realizing the timing of his grandmother's death was no coincidence, Andre recommitted his life to Christ.

It wasn't easy at first. "I had to give up a lot of things in my life," Byrd recalled.

"I was addicted to porn," he said. "That was one of the big things. Second of all I had to give up things like real thuggish rap music and things like that. I had to distance myself from a couple friends. It has been a process, but now I'm just really living for God."

Living for God has become all the more important for Andre within the past month, especially since he has learned of his mother's drug addiction. Sensing the time had come to tell Andre of her own struggle, Gwendolyn confided her story to Andre at the end of Andre's junior year. For Byrd, the realization that God not only cured his mother of addiction but also protected him and his brothers in the womb is further proof of God's guiding hand in his life.

"With something like that you just think it has to be God," Byrd said.

Byrd doesn't just credit God with keeping him safe in his mother's womb while she was abusing cocaine, but said that there is "no doubt" that God spared his life during a childhood car accident. Pulling into their driveway in Jacksonville, Florida, Gwendolyn and her children were sideswiped by a car going nearly 80 miles per hour.

"None of us had our seatbelts on," Byrd recalled. "I literally flipped in the car for what felt like forever. The car actually hit us and then hit the house. It went into the house – that's how fast it was going."

"To have nobody seriously injured in that, it has got to be God," he concluded. "Knowing that He let me live this long, (I know) I have to have a purpose in my life. I have to use every bit of my time to do what God wants me to do."

Figuring out how to best put that purpose into action has been a learning experience for Andre, who said he has only been "like this" since the summer began. Fortunately, he has had teammates within the Navy ‘brotherhood' who've had similar calls to conversion. Andre credits starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs, as well as former linebacker Ross Pospisil, with helping him find the courage to live and practice his faith.

"Just seeing them inspires me," Byrd said. "This is pretty new to me, but I can see in them that if they can do it, I can do it. It's good to have brothers with you that are along for the ride with you and are going through the same things that you're going through."

Andre said that society can only benefit from athletes speaking about their faith and living out the tenants of that faith. Saying many Midshipmen at the Academy are in particular need of a sense of purpose and compassion, Andre hopes his example of overcoming hardship can help others find the strength to overcome their own personal demons and struggles.

"I know there are a lot of people -- especially here -- that need Jesus and really need that comfort and love in their life," said Byrd. "A lot of people search for love and search for purpose or why they are here in life. I'm just trying to get out to people that if they search for God, He will show you what you are here for in life."

Byrd knows that when it comes to athletes talking about their faith, many remain skeptical. But he remains outspoken in his insistence that coming out about God can only lead to good. He said the examples of other famous athletes, including former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, have been instrumental in helping people change their lives for the better.

"If you look at Tim Tebow -- he is so popular and he has a platform to influence a lot of people," Byrd said. "People are going to listen to him just because of who he is."

"Nowadays in the news – and especially with black athletes – we're always in the news for crime and criminals and rape and all that stuff," he added. "It's just good to see someone who is an athlete who is doing the right thing."

Andre also said that it's especially important for athletes at the Naval Academy to be vocal about their faith, and pointed to the misconception many outsiders have of Midshipmen football players as a reason why.

"(Some people) have a bad outlook on varsity athletes," Byrd began. "It's good for people to see somebody who is doing something good in the community or in their faith and trying to stand up for something."

"Instead of standing up for drugs or doing the wrong thing, they stand up for the right things," he added.

Byrd's relationship with God hasn't just given him a sense of purpose off the field, but has also brought him peace of mind on it. With renewed vigor to use his platform as a football player to spread a message of hope and forgiveness, he has changed his mind as to what it means to be a contributor on the gridiron.

"I realized this summer that I'm on the football team for a reason," Byrd said. "It doesn't matter how many plays or snaps I play. It's how I'm going to show that Christ is the Lord of my life. How am I going to show my attitude or how hard I've worked? How am I going to inspire other people? That's what matters."

That doesn't mean that Byrd is planning on riding the bench. He had another strong spring this past April, and is listed second on the depth chart at one of two slotbacks spots. He's hopeful that he'll be able to contribute to the team's success as an every-down player in 2010, and said the exposure can only help him in his mission for Christ. "My message is the same, but it just gives me more of a platform or visibility," Byrd said. "I'm definitely trying to be a starter and work hard this year so I can play a big role on the team."

As for what the future holds, Byrd is leaving it in God's hands. Byrd hopes to enter the fleet as a surface warfare officer following graduation, but has also begun to explore naval opportunities as a chaplain. Whatever path he chooses to follow in the Navy, he's insistent that his mission for God will continue well beyond the next few years.

"I want to be a preacher," he said, adding that he is "the type of person who wants to go to other countries and do mission trips."

Take a look at the field of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial stadium. Under the fading lights of a cold November evening, witness the band of brothers singing the Blue and Gold. Arm-in-arm, their chapters in the anthology of Navy football may be drawing to a close, but their stories in life are just beginning. Who stands among them? A future President? Executives? Doctors and Admirals, war heroes and fathers?

Time alone will tell, but amidst their towering presences stands one 5-foot-7 young man who could rightly be called the greatest among them.

Adam Nettina is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Sports Editor of the Utah Statesman. You can follow him online at twitter.com/AdamNettina

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