N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was blinking back a few tears Saturday after the Wolfpack’s season opener.
It wasn’t so much about Brissett rallying the Wolfpack to a 24-23 comeback victory over Georgia Southern. It was more about safety Jarvis Byrd, a teammate, a good friend from Florida, and all that Byrd endured in being able to play and be a part of it.
“He’s an inspiration,” Brissett said. “When you’ve got a player on your team who’s been through what he’s been through, and still has a smile on his face, that’s a great person ”
That’s when Brissett had to pause for a few seconds, beginning to tear up.
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“We’re from the same neighborhood and I love him,” Brissett said. “I’m so proud of him. He’s been through a lot.”
For Byrd, “a lot” means recovering from three anterior cruciate ligament injuries. He missed all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, then suffered the third knee injury last season against Wake Forest – another season-ender and in Byrd’s mind a career-ender.
“I was done,” Byrd said. “After I got hurt in the Wake Forest game, I told everybody I was done with football. There was no reason in coming back off a third ACL injury.
“But I ended up watching the bowl games and seeing guys out there making plays. I know when I’m healthy that’s what I can do – make plays.”
To play another season, Byrd had to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. That was approved, but he had to once again complete the grueling rehabilitation that comes with an ACL injury.
Byrd, a graduate student, said he was behind in his rehab and only practiced four or five times in preseason camp. He wasn’t sure about how much – if any – he might be able to play in the opener.
With the Wolfpack quickly needing help, needing more experience in the lineup and more leadership on the field, coach Dave Doeren turned to Byrd.
Byrd nearly had an interception early in the second quarter, but dropped the ball. “It was too easy, I missed the layup,” he said.
That was one of several mistakes the Wolfpack had in falling behind 17-3 in the opening half. Byrd said the team was flat and Doeren let the players hear about it at halftime.
“He said you’ve got to lay it all on the line and if you really want to win, you’ll come together and play hard as a team and win this game,” Byrd said.
Doeren challenged the defense to shut out Georgia Southern in the second half. The Eagles had two field goals, but the Wolfpack defense forced a fumble at the N.C. State 1 in the fourth quarter. The offense then moved 99 yards for a touchdown to pull within 20-17.
“To get that stop at the 1-yard line, that’s big-time football,” Brissett said.
After the Eagles took a 23-17 lead, Brissett completed eight of nine rapid-fire throws in a 75-yard drive for the winning score. It came on a 35-yard pass to Matt Dayes down the right sideline, Dayes stretching out this left arm with the ball to break the plane of the goal line inside the pylon.
“We were going so fast they couldn’t line up,” Brissett said. “We were just getting the ball out and spreading the ball around and letting the playmakers make plays.
“We just fought through it in this game. We said, ‘Not anymore.’ We were going to win. We finished.”
The Wolfpack needed more one defensive stop. On fourth down, a Georgia Southern pass was broken up on a hit by Byrd, who jarred the ball loose from wide receiver B.J. Johnson.
“I put the boom on him,” Byrd said. “I just let it all out.”
Byrd said he was in tears, letting it all out, when he returned to the bench, that the play made it all worthwhile – the decision to come back, rehab the knee, try to play football again. As Doeren put it, “It was great karma for the warrior.”
Byrd, all smiles after the game, said he was proud of his teammates, proud to get the victory.
“To make a stop and win the game, it made it all worth it,” he said. “This is some story, and this book is still being written.”