“No bond is more meaningful, more productive, and more lasting than the relationship between parents and their children.” Those words sound like they could be ripped from a Hallmark card, but they actually belong to Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
It’s safe to say the 26-year-old is not your typical NFL player. For starters, very few can match his desire to give back.
Since coming to the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 2009, that desire has been on display in several community outreach efforts, both large and small. It’s also at the heart of Byrd’s latest project – the Legacy Experience.
Created by Byrd and his father, Gill, the Legacy Experience is a year-long series of activities created to strengthen the relationship between fathers and sons. The words above are some of the first participants in the program come across, setting the tone for what the Byrds hope are life-long lessons.
“When you can lay that foundation of the father-son relationship, I think it carries a legacy,” Jairus Byrd said. “It transcends, it keeps going.”
The goal of the Legacy Experience is to build an unbreakable bond between fathers and sons. Fundamental principles of football like discipline and hard work are central to the experience.
“It’s an opportunity to impact lives. I think that we’re doing something different. It’s something that’s been in both of our hearts,” Byrd said of his and his father’s motivation.
Participants in the Legacy Experience volunteer in their community, post monthly blogs on their relationship, take part in live online chats with the Byrds, and will soon complete “challenges,” which ask fathers and sons to spend time together. An example of one of the challenges would be dads helping their children with their homework.
“It’s other than just ‘hi, how you doing? How was school?’ ” Gill Byrd said this week.
The program, which is in its first year, has partnered with Mount Olive Baptist Church in Buffalo and First Bible Baptist Church in Rochester.
“We’re encouraging them to get out in the community, volunteer their time together,” Gill Byrd said this week. “We’re working with the churches saying, ‘what dads and sons are getting involved with volunteer work?’ That goes as credit to them being involved in the Legacy Experience.”
Those families who participate can earn prizes — Jairus Byrd has already given out tickets to Bills’ home games for those taking part — with the culmination of the program being a private football camp next year with Byrd and his father.
“We said, ‘how can it be different than any other camp?’ OK, you’ve got a father and son involved, that’s different. Let’s not start with the football camp, let’s end with the football camp, that’s different,” Gill Byrd said. “We felt it was imperative for us to do something different and part of that difference is we spend time and try to be involved in the lives of the fathers and the sons, more than just for one day.
“Instead of the football camp being in the beginning, we’re trying to stay in contact with the dads through the social media events we have, then at the end it’s ‘you’ve accomplished this,’ now let’s have a camp. It may be 10 dads and 20 kids standing at the end of all of this, and that’s OK, we want to have a great exclusive personalized camp with them.”
Fathers and sons interact with the Byrds on Jairus’ website — jairusbyrd31.com — and are part of a pilot program of sorts.
“This is the first [program] of its kind that I know of. We’re still learning and growing along the way. We’ve started small in just Buffalo and Rochester, but we’ve had people from across the country where we’ve lived call and say, ‘hey, how can I get involved?’” Gill Byrd said. “It’s imperative for us to have the churches involved. We have a weekly message that goes out to the dads and the sons, called a legacy moment, talking about maybe a bible verse, something that applies to being a father and being a son. We’re still developing and we’re still growing with this as well.”
A strong faith
It’s not a surprise that Christianity plays a part in the Legacy Experience. Faith is central to who Jairus and Gill Byrd are. Jairus is a frequent participant in the Bills’ weekly bible-study groups, which are led by team chaplain Fred Raines.
“His commitment to God is special for someone his age in the position that he’s in,” Gill Byrd said.
But in a locker room where 52 other players may not share the same beliefs, Jairus’ Christianity is not overt.
“It’s a personal relationship, so when you have guys from different backgrounds and different beliefs, I think it’s more about how you live your life,” Byrd said. “I’m not trying to go in the locker room and beat people over the head with a bible. I’m just going to live my life the way I choose to and the way I know God’s called me to. I’m not going to try and go in there and demand [things of people] or say things.”
A proud father
Gill Byrd watches Jairus’ progress from Chicago — where he’s in his fifth season as the Bears’ assistant defensive backs/safeties coach.
“I’m a dad, so of course I’m a Bills fan,” Gill Byrd said. “I’m on the internet trying to read everything I can about how they’re doing.”
Jairus’ development as a football player is special, but for Gill and his wife, Marilyn, it’s nothing compared to seeing the men their sons have become. Jairus’ brother, Gill Byrd II, graduated from New Mexico State with a degree in hotel-restaurant tourism after lettering for three years as a cornerback on the Aggies’ football team.
“I think every parent, you’re proud of your children as they grow up and become adults and take on those responsibilities that adults take on. Leaving boyhood and getting into manhood is a special feeling that a father has when you see your sons do that,” Gill said. “I have two sons and they both are taking on responsibilities and getting into the world.
“I’m more excited about Jairus the man than I am Jairus the football player, because you know as well as I do there’s a lot of great football players out there who aren’t great representatives and haven’t left boyhood. They’re still acting childish and never getting into manhood and taking on responsibilities.”
Gill Byrd was a four-time All-Pro as a member of the San Diego Chargers, with whom he spent his entire 11-year career. He still holds the Chargers’ record with 42 career interceptions.
“I pick his brain every now and then,” Jairus said, “but sometimes when we see each other, we just want to leave football alone.”
It’s obvious, though, that some of those lessons have been passed down. Gill has always been a huge influence in Jairus’ playing career, going back to when he was his Pop Warner coach in 2000. The elder Byrd’s ballhawking skills have been inherited by his son. Jairus Byrd finished his collegiate career at Oregon with 17 interceptions, tied for second most in school history. He hasn’t lost that ability to make plays in the NFL despite switching from cornerback to free safety.
An elite talent
Before the season, former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, now an analyst with NFL.com, labeled Byrd one of his five “blue chip” safeties in the league.
Through seven games, Byrd’s lived up to that description. He leads the Bills in interceptions (three) and forced fumbles (three, which also leads the NFL) and is second in tackles (44). Byrd has 16 interceptions in the first four seasons of his career — tied for third most in the league over that span — and 20 takeaways.
He followed in his dad’s Pro Bowl footsteps in his rookie year of 2009, following a season in which he intercepted nine passes. But Byrd wasn’t content to just play center field, picking off errant deep throws. Each offseason, he worked hard to become a more complete safety.
Asked what his focus was coming into this year, Byrd couldn’t pinpoint one single thing.
“Honestly, it was a lot of things,” he said. “It was a whole gamut, you know what I’m saying? Anticipation, a lot of different things. I wouldn’t really narrow down one thing, I’m always looking at the whole picture. … Mostly it was just being more well-rounded than the year before. I think the natural progression is you should always improve.”
The website Pro Football Focus, which grades every player on every play of the season, has him as the top-ranked safety in the league, with a 12.5 rating.
Not bad for a player in his contract year.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. But it’s something that I know it’ll be taken care of in due time,” Byrd said of his contract situation. “I’d love to stay here if everything works out.”
Byrd’s well on his way to writing his own legacy here in Buffalo on the field. He hopes to help others off the field write theirs, as well.