Keith Byars was a revolutionary NFL running back in the 80s, with a new-millineum skill set. He turned the traditional, gritty fullback position into a glamorous job, where he not only got to tote the rock for short TD’s and smash opposing defenders with crushing blocks, but catch as many balls as his QB could throw at him out of the backfield.
By the time his career was in full swing Byars was more of a tight end than a genuine running back. People forget how lethal he was as a runner before his destiny switched.
Cruising down memory lane had me thinking back to a quarter –century ago, before Byars made his NFL mark as a potent weapon for all-time greats Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins) and Randall Cunningham (Philadelphia). In 1984, I was a fifth grade valedictorian and Byars was a fleet-footed, powerful Heisman Trophy candidate for the Ohio State Buckeyes. That season, Byars rushed for a then school record 1764 yards and 22 touchdowns. In one game against Illinois, he broke Archie Griffin's single game school record for rushing with 274 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Byars also led the team in receiving. His 2441 all-purpose yards is still a single-season record, and his blocking was super official as well.
Byars was named the 1984 Big Ten MVP. He finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy vote to Doug Flutie, whose mythical Hail Mary win over Miami sealed the deal.
Byars' Heisman runner-up junior season put him in a prime position to win it as a senior in 1985, but a broken foot suffered in the preseason thwarted those plans. He missed the majority of his senior season and his attempts to come back prematurely led to further complications with the injury. After several corrective surgeries it was clear Byars would never be the same dominating workhorse ball-toter he had been, but the dopest ballers find a way to take adversity and flip it into achieving success in another way.
Despite his injury, Byars was selected in the middle of the first round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and went on to a long and productive career in pro football as one of the game’s deadliest and most reliable pass-catchers.
Philadelphia HC Buddy Ryan told the media Byars was a “medical reject” just to scare other GM’s off.
During his career, Byars helped expand the responsibilities and offensive opportunities of capable fullbacks and was considered one of the toughest sticks in the league. He did it all, and he was the consummate team player. He was unorthodox, strong as an ox and fresh out the box with one-handed grabs. In 1990, Byars also completed four out of four passes for four touchdowns. In 1993 the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder made his first Pro Bowl.
Byars paved the way for multi-poppin’, big-body backs such as Tom Rathman and Larry Centers; burly fullbacks who could provide aerial excellence as well as the old school ground and pound contributions. Centers is probably the greatest receiving fullback of all-time. He set a record with 101 catches in 1995, followed that up with 99 the next season and he finished his career with more catches than Steve Largent, Shannon Sharpe and Michael Irvin.
In 1990, Byars became “Lethal Weapon” Randall Cunningham’s primary target and had his best statistical season snagging 81 passes for over 819 yards. For the eight seasons between 1988 and 1995, he averaged 62 catches and 588 yards per year. Byars finished his 13 NFL seasons with 8,770 yards from scrimmage and 54 touchdowns, playing for the Eagles, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.
When asked what he was most proud of during his career, Byars said, "Giving everything I had on every play I was out there... I never took a play off; never ran out of bounds..."
Keith Byars is official, old school NFL royalty and his impact on the game is worthy of reflection as we set off this 2014-15 NFL season with more TSL Throwback Attack’s.