"Football Lifer" Keith Byars Shares His Path from the Sandlot to the NFL
Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.
Keith Byars didn't start playing football the first time he asked his parents for permission.
Or the second time. Or the third time. Each time he asked permssion, his mother turned him down — in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade.
"I played sandlot football with the older guys," Byars said. "I’m playing with teenagers when I’m nine or 10, and I’m coming back with a busted lip and whatever. But I couldn’t play organized ball.
"When I got to sixth grade, I got both my parents in the living room. I asked if I can play and if they would sign the permission slip. Before my father could say anything, my mother said no."
So how did Byars convince his mom to let him play?
"I didn’t," he said. "In seventh grade, you didn’t need a permission slip. I just stayed after school and tried out for the team. When I said I made the team, my mother said ‘I didn’t sign a permission slip. How are you playing football?’ I told her I didn’t need one.
"And I told them, 'You always told me never to quit anything I started, so I can't quit.' My father was just sitting back and laughing when I said that."
Mrs. Byars learned to like the game. And even though her son was a bit unrefined, coaches soon saw his combination of size and speed made him special.
"When I showed up, they didn’t know where to play me," Byars said. "They told me they were going to put me on the line. I said I’ll play tight end, I don’t mind blocking some, but I want get the ball."
So they gave Byars the ball as a tight end — and he excelled. In his junior year, he transferred to Roth High School in Dayton, Ohio. When the coach saw Byars run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, he put him at running back.
"I was a Cleveland Browns fan and loved (Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end) Ozzie Newsome," Byars said. "But coach moved to me running back, and the rest is history."
Byars would go on to be a high school football star at Roth, eventually earning a scholarship to Ohio State.
"I was fortunate I had very supportive parents who went to every game," Byars said. "The first game my mother went to, she asked, 'Which one is Keith, and when do I yell?' But by the time I was graduating high school, she was diagramming plays. Guess who’s getting a scholarship to go to college? Yeah, at that point, she started to like football."
At Ohio State, Byars was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in his junior year. In 1986, he was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Byars played 13 years in the NFL at fullback and tight end. After seven seasons with the Eagles, he made the 1993 Pro Bowl with the Miami Dolphins, and reached Super Bowl XXXI as a member of the New England Patriots. He caught four passes for 42 yards and a touchdown in that game, but the Patriots lost 35-21 to the Green Bay Packers.
Byars retired after spending the 1998 season with the New York Jets. After his NFL playing career ended, he began coaching his son, Keith Jr., both in Pee Wee Football and at Boca Raton High School in Florida.
"The game of football was good to me, so I wanted to give back," Byars said.
His message to his players was a simple one.
"Number one was love the game," he said. "Everybody’s football career has an expiration date. When you love the game, live in the moment when you're playing it. High school football is a blast. Remember those moments, because they are priceless.
"Down in Florida, you could lose focus because you hear about guys getting scholarships here and there. Guys are talking about playing on Saturday and maybe even Sunday. But what about Friday night? This is special."
Nowadays, Byars is back in Dayton. He does a radio show for the local ESPN affiliate WING-AM and also broadcasts a high school game of the week every Friday.
"I love it," he said. "It’s going back to the grassroots. I’m a football lifer. I’ll be that old guy sitting in the top row of the stands watching high school football games."
Photo: AP/Hans Deryk
- High School Football
- Youth Football