RALEIGH — One major knee injury was enough to teach Jarvis Byrd what football meant to him.
But two major knee injuries, which effectively cost Byrd the past three seasons at N.C. State?
“It made me love the game even more,” Byrd said.
Byrd, who will be senior, hasn’t been in the Wolfpack’s starting lineup since 2009, when he played cornerback as a true freshman, ironically because of injuries to players ahead of him.
That was three-and-a-half years and two torn anterior cruciate ligaments ago. To say Byrd, who was moved to free safety this spring by first-year coach Dave Doeren, is looking forward to Saturday’s spring game, would be a slight understatement.
“I can’t wait to be out there, back in the starting lineup,” Byrd said. “It’s just like a game to me. I’m going out there to give everything I got.”
Byrd is an undersized safety at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, but Doeren believes there’s an advantage in having strong cover skills at that position.
Byrd has embraced the change, and the chance to get back on the field. He has turned to Brandan Bishop, one of his best friends and the Wolfpack’s starting free safety for the past three seasons for advice.
Bishop believes Byrd can make the transition, just based on the sheer determination Byrd has shown to recover from the knee injuries.
“If there’s one guy to root for, it’s Jarvis,” Bishop said. “To see him go through what he has been through has been tough.
“I know what type of player he was when he came in and I know what he can still be and hopefully he can stay healthy.”
Injuries have cost Byrd all but four games during the 2012 season, but they also helped him gain a noticeable appreciation for the game.
“He loves football and he has lost football,” Doeren said. “Guys that lose the game truly understand how precious it is.”
For Byrd, it has been a double dose of reality. He started the final three games of the 2009 season at the boundary corner. With 9 minutes left in the third quarter of N.C. State’s 28-27 win over North Carolina on Nov. 28, 2009, Byrd suffered his first major knee injury.
UNC receiver Greg Little blocked Byrd from N.C. State’s 10-yard line to the goal line on a running play. Little had two years and 30 pounds on Byrd and he got the best of him.
“I was a young guy, I was looking at the quarterback and trying to time the snap and jam him up and impress the coaches,” Byrd said. “The guy just blew me off the ball. He was a mature player and I was just a little freshman.”
That was the last game of 2009. Byrd’s plan was to use 2010 to rehab and come back healthy for 2011.
He returned to practice in the spring of 2011 and won his starting spot. In July, about a week before training camp, Byrd’s plans were derailed.
In an informal workout, he tore the ACL in his left knee during the walk back from the end of the play to the huddle.
“I was just walking back and my left knee buckled in and out,” Byrd said. “I heard it pop. I remember thinking, ‘This can’t be real.’ ”
It was, and Byrd missed the 2011 season and the spring of 2012. He rushed back last August and but was passed on the depth chart at corner by younger, healthier players.
“I was never 100 percent,” Byrd said.
Byrd played in the first three games last season as a reserve corner in some nickel situations and also on special teams. Injury struck again, and again it was against UNC. He tore the quadriceps muscle in his right leg in the 43-35 loss to the Tar Heels on Oct. 27 and was done for the season.
The scars are noticeable, like caterpillars, on both of Byrd’s knees but he doesn’t wear knee braces. Byrd said he doesn’t worry about another injury. He’s not worried about the past, either, just another chance to get back on the field.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Byrd said. “It has made me a better man.”