Of the factors that led to Kevin Byard being selected to the Middle Tennessee State football team, most were beyond his control.
For one thing, the MTSU coaching staff had the foresight to offer him a scholarship. Most other Division I programs — including the Power Fives — didn’t lift a finger. The closest Byard came to was the SEC in Kentucky, who invited him to visit because they were interested in him as a wide receiver, and then decided not to offer a scholarship anyway.
Whoops, eh, Britain?
“I wanted to be with the SEC,” Byard said. “…But when I knew that wasn’t going to work, MT was always there.
“Things are developing in mysterious ways.”
Since becoming an All-Pro defenseman for the Tennessee Titans, Byard has continued to represent the varsity, where he played for four seasons through 2015, and continued to give back to the Nashville area where he thrived.
One of the best and most popular players in Blue Raiders history has become one of the Titans’ best and most popular players, making the following decision as simple and obvious as it is justified:
MTSU retires Byard’s #20 jersey number.
He becomes only the second MTSU football player to receive this honor, alongside 1960s quarterback Teddy Morris, whose No. 14 was retired.
MTSU Coach Rick Stockstill and other university officials honored Byard with an announcement after practice at the Titans’ training camp Thursday. The ceremony is scheduled for September 30 during MTSU’s home game against UTSA.
“This honor is based on what he did here,” Stockstill said The Tennessee. “It has nothing to do with what he did with the Titans. That makes it even more special for me. …
“For me, it’s not just based on ‘What I did between the white lines.’ That’s all he’s done in his five years here, how he’s represented this university, this program and how he’s represented himself and his family.”
When the star ratings are wrong
Byard was a four-year starter at MTSU. He remains the program’s all-time leader in interceptions (19) and interception return yards (377). The Titans got themselves a bargain by picking Byard in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
In the last five seasons, Byard has not missed a game while serving as quarterback on the Titans’ defense. Coach Mike Vrabel often points to him as an example to younger players of what it takes to be successful in the NFL, to the point that Vrabel has sometimes asked Byard not to speak up in practice so teammates can focus more on themselves have to leave themselves.
“He’s the embodiment of what it means to be a Titan,” said Amani Hooker, a Titan security companion, of Byard. “He comes and works every day with high expectations. He has high standards for himself and he lives them.”
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It’s funny to think that Byard – one of the NFL’s best safety guards – was so overlooked as a recruit despite being a celebrated high school player. He received All-State Honors for Martin Luther King Jr. High School near Atlanta.
But college coaches questioned his abilities. They questioned his speed. They saw him more as a wide receiver, and since he was only 5-foot-11, that wasn’t a good thing.
He was a two-star player ranked No. 117 on Georgia’s overall prospects in 2011, which had a lot to do with Byard not attending the recruiting camps where players were spotted. Those camps cost time and money—two things he didn’t have much of at the time.
Byard was the second oldest of seven children. When he was in the ninth grade, Byard’s mother, Artina Stanley, moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta amid a divorce. Kevin helped take care of his younger brothers and sisters while his mother worked. Mature beyond his age, he went to school and practiced and then came home and helped with the cooking and cleaning.
“I think that’s part of him,” Stockstill said.
A special honor
For Byard, MTSU’s honor personally comes at a difficult time. His mother died earlier this summer.
“Some days are tough,” Byard said at the start of the training camp.
Thursday’s MTSU announcement was originally scheduled for mandatory minicamp in June, but was delayed when Byard returned home.
He has said he wants to dedicate not just this season — but every day — to her memory.
“It might sound weird,” he said, “but I talk to my mom a lot and I can pretty much hear her voice saying, ‘Just keep your foot on the gas.’ I will do that every day.”
A father of two, Byard certainly made his mother proud. He is one of Middle Tennessee’s most beloved and beloved football players of all time. This is no coincidence, as anyone who has spent time with him will understand.
In the early, scary days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I looked for different sports characters to give inspirational words.
Guess who ascended from the Titans?
Earlier this summer, Byard was a special guest at the Middle Tennessee High School Sports Awards sponsored by The Tennessee‘s USA TODAY network.
After an onstage Q&A with advice for participating athletes, Byard stayed around and posed for photos with honorees.
Byard was the Titans’ 2020 nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. In July 2020, he was named spokesman for the United Way of Greater Nashville.
He and his wife Clarke founded the Byard Family Legacy Fund to help those in need. Last August, they unveiled a Davidson County Department of Children’s Safe Room for children in state custody for abuse or neglect.
“I’m obviously successful now,” Byard said last year, “but at the same time I’m attracted to people who aren’t always at their best in life.”
In Stockstill’s words, “[Byard]set a very good example for a lot of people.”
That is still the case today.
Reach Tennessee sports columnist Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.