Bucknuts Mag Excerpts: The Uncrowned Heisman

Several great OSU performances have come against this week's football opponent, the Illinois Fighting Illini, but perhaps none as big as Keith Byars's record-breaking game in 1984. In this week's Bucknuts Magazine excerpts, we have a reprint of an article on Byars run in the Oct. 2004 issue, which talks about the big 1984 season Byars had and where he is now. Click the link to read.

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Headline: The Uncrowned Heisman Winner
(From Oct. 2004)

By Dave Biddle

It has been 20 years since Ohio State's last outright Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes have shared the conference title five times since then, but the 1984 squad was the last to win it without company.

The cornerstone of that team was tailback Keith Byars, a rare combination of size, power, speed and agility.

Byars turned in one of the best seasons in OSU history in 1984, rushing for 1,764 yards and scoring 24 touchdowns as the Buckeyes marched to the Rose Bowl.

"The whole season was a joy to play," Byars told Bucknuts the Magazine. "I remember us coming out of training camp and the mantra at Ohio State is always the same: Rose Bowl or bust. We were really focused. We were like, ‘No matter what happens this year, we're going to the Rose Bowl.' And that was our single focus, each and every person on the team. There was no doubt we were going to the Rose Bowl."

As talented as the Buckeyes were, it wasn't an easy road. They had senior quarterback Mike Tomczak, a solid offensive line, a pair of precocious freshmen in Cris Carter and Chris Spielman, and Byars. But there were plenty of roadblocks.

"At one point, we were No. 1 in the country, and then we had a tough loss against Purdue (28-23)," Byars said. "Then down 24 points against Illinois, we just never quit. That team was resilient."

In the 45-38 win over Illinois, Byars had one of the most memorable plays in recent OSU history when he rumbled 67 yards for a touchdown, despite losing a shoe at the Illinois' 40-yard line. Byars finished the game with a then-school record 274 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

But the Illinois game is Byars' second-favorite memory from that season. Ohio State defeated Michigan 21-6 behind three touchdowns from the dominant Byars.

"Things finally worked out that we were able to control our own destiny going into the Michigan game, which, growing up, that's the game," Byars said. "I grew up watching Archie Griffin and those guys play and the last game of the season always decided who was going to the Rose Bowl. That game in '84 was like that and that was just a great thrill and opportunity to have all the marbles land on that game. And being able to score three touchdowns and help my teammates, it was just a great, humble feeling to have."

Byars' success in 1984 did not take him by surprise. He was coming off a breakout sophomore season in '83 in which he rushed for 1,199 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. In fact, he set extremely high goals coming into the 1984 campaign. He hoped to be the top runner in the nation, leading a talented group that also included Auburn's Bo Jackson, Notre Dame's Allen Pinkett and Navy's Napoleon McCallum.

"Coming into my junior year, my goal on a personal level was to be a two-time Heisman Trophy running back," Byars said. "I had a big sophomore year and was really looking forward to my junior year. Not only myself, but the guys on the offensive line: Jim Lachey, Kirk Lowdermilk, Mark Krerowicz, all those guys. They would say, ‘We want to block for a Heisman Trophy winning running back.' That was something that was not just my goal to win a Heisman Trophy, it was the goal of the entire offense."

Byars liked the pressure of "carrying" the team.

"We had two new starters at the wide receiver spot in Mike Lanese – who was a hell of a player – and an incoming freshman by the name of Cris Carter," he said. "We knew we had to have success running the ball. Until Cris Carter matured and turned into the receiver that he was going to be and we knew what Mike could do, that was extra pressure on us to make sure we have a running game. And at Ohio State, a running game is not an option. You've got to have a running game. We knew what we were capable of going into that season."

Of course, Byars' Heisman dream was spoiled by Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who got the last word with his famous Hail Mary pass on the last play of a late-season game in a win over heavily-favored Miami.

"A little bit," Byars said, when asked if he still replays Flutie's pass in his mind. "But at the end of the day, I knew I had given everything I could give on a football field. It was one of those things where our season ended on a Saturday and the BC-Miami game was played the following Friday after Thanksgiving. All the voters were at home watching that game, eating turkey.

"I used to tease one of my ex-teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jerome Brown. Jerome Brown ended up dying in a car accident, but I used to tease him all the time when we were in Philadelphia, ‘All those tackles you had at the University of Miami, all those sacks, all those great plays you made, that's the one play you decided to take off? One more sack and I have a Heisman Trophy. You took that play off.' We used to laugh and joke about that all the time."

The Buckeyes went on to lose to USC 20-17 in the Rose Bowl and finished the '84 season with a 9-3 record (what else for an Earle Bruce team?).

Heading into his senior season in 1985, Byars broke a bone in his foot in preseason camp. He returned by midseason but re-injured the foot and missed most of the remainder of the season. It was more bad luck for the preseason Heisman favorite.

Instead of leaving Columbus with two Heismans, he would leave with none.

"The only disappointment from it was from the personal standpoint, but I've always been a team-oriented guy," Byars said of the broken foot. "That's like talking about my junior year, if I would have won the Heisman Trophy, it wouldn't have been ‘me,' it would have been ‘us.' I just felt the disappointment not just for myself, but for my teammates, because we knew we weren't going to have me after I broke my foot.

"But, I think overall, we had a good season. We won the Citrus Bowl (10-7 over BYU). We beat Iowa (22-13) who was No. 1 at the time. We had a tough loss up at Michigan (27-17). Wisconsin was a tough loss (12-7). But I have no regrets. I have always been sensitive about, ‘I wish I was healthy my whole senior year' you know, to get us back to the Rose Bowl and possible national championship. I thought very well that could have happened. We lost some great players from my junior year, but at Ohio State, you reload."

When Byars was at OSU, his position coach was a young man named Jim Tressel (who also coached quarterbacks and receivers). Tressel made a lasting impression on Byars.

"I've known Coach Tressel over 20 years and he's the same, but has only gotten better as time's gone by," Byars said. "It was a joy to play for him, seeing that he got his first opportunity at Ohio State 20 years ago. You could tell then how attention-to-detail oriented he was. He was such a student of the game, it made me a better student of the game. I didn't know it all as a college player, and Coach Tressel taught me some things about football that I didn't know, and it helped make me a better player. As far as studying film and what to look for, that carried over not just at Ohio State, but at the professional level as well.

"Tressel was the same way then as he is now, as far as how players respond around him. No matter how bad a situation looks, or how good it is, Tressel is ultra-cool. He's so cool; he's laid back and keeps things in prospective, and that makes it so much easier on the players. When Ohio State wins all those close games at the end, you know, fourth down, fourth quarter, those guys are prepared for it because you take on the personality of your head coach. Good or bad, that's the way football is. If you see your head coach isn't panicking in those situations, you won't panic. And that's why they won the national championship in 2002, that's why they were playing to get back there last year and that's why they're a strong contender to win it again this year. Coach Tressel keeps things in perspective. He expects and prepares his players to step up and make plays."

Tressel has coached a lot of good running backs over the years, but none better than Byars.

"Keith is one of those guys that … I've never coached one like him since," Tressel said. "He was a great running back and receiver. He caught over 40 balls his junior year when he rushed for over 1,700 yards – the year he was the runner-up for the Heisman. He could do some things that I've never seen anyone else do. I thought he was the best player in college football that year and Flutie had that miracle pass and got the Heisman."

Despite lingering affects from the broken foot, the Eagles thought enough of Byars to make him the 10th overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft.

Byars was happy to go in the top 10 but admits he was a little weary of his new coach in Philly. He wasn't quite sure what to think at first.

"Well, Buddy Ryan was the new head coach, and he was totally different, and I wasn't sure I wanted to play for him," Byars said. "He was very outspoken, totally different than Earle Bruce and Jim Tressel-types that I had been around. But I got to respect Buddy Ryan and love him as a head coach, because he taught me a lot about the game. He taught me how to play the game on the professional level. I loved the whole city of Philadelphia and the whole atmosphere of playing there.

"Just like I'll always be a Buckeye for life, I'll always be a Philadelphia Eagle. I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan – I still want them to do well – but I'm a die-hard Eagles fan. I have a special kinship with the fans there."

Byars was a game-breaker at Ohio State but reinvented himself in the NFL. He could still play tailback but ended up becoming a Pro Bowl fullback – just one of several positions he played.

"I think I still would have been a featured back in the pros if I hadn't broken my foot twice," Byars said. "The affects of that stayed with me a little bit, but I looked at myself as a football player first and football players play football. So, I didn't necessarily fall in love with a position on the football field. Anywhere you need me to go, that's where I'll play. You need me to play tailback, I'll play tailback. You need me at fullback, fullback. You know, H-back, tight end, whatever it is to help us win the football game, that's what I'll do."

Byars played seven seasons with Philadelphia, three with the Miami Dolphins, two with the New England Patriots and one with the New York Jets. There are a lot of teams in the league today that would like to have a versatile player like Byars on their roster.

"I watch the NFL now and a lot of teams are trying to find that hybrid type of position that I played," Byars said. "They'll call it an H-back/fullback. I didn't have to come out of the game. I could line up at wide receiver and go line up at the slot, I would line up on the line and play tight end, line up in the backfield and play tailback, fullback. A lot of teams today are still trying to find those types of mismatches. That was my niche. That's why (Bill) Parcells had a special place in his heart for me. He would be like, ‘I couldn't defend you all those years you played in Philadelphia and now I want you with me. I want you to give defensive coordinators headaches like you gave me.' So that's how we really struck up a good friendship and kinship together."

Parcells was Byars' coach in New England and New York.

Byars could even throw the football. He was one of the best at the halfback pass, finishing his NFL career with six touchdown passes.

"When he went into the NFL, Keith did what he had to do," Tressel said. "You know, he was a running back for a while, then he got a little bit older and he was an H-back, then he was a tight end. He played quite a few years and was always a team leader.

"And now that he's out, he's helping kids train. He's helping kids learn the right way to do things in the NFL. And he comes back here whenever we need him to be. Keith Byars is one of those special guys."

In addition to helping young athletes prepare for the next level, Byars – who resides in Boca Raton, Fla. – also owns his own business.

"I have an engineering company – mechanical and electrical," he said. "We work with aviation and water departments."

But, without question, golf is his favorite hobby.

"I play lots of golf," said Byars, who boasts a 10-handicap. "I play every day but Sunday. You just can't beat being out on the golf course."

Byars, originally from Dayton, is fourth on OSU's career rushing list with 3,200 yards. Ahead of him are Griffin (5,589), Eddie George (3,768) and Tim Spencer (3,553), who all had more rushing attempts than Byars.

"We have a strong tradition of running backs at Ohio State and I'm proud to be mentioned with those guys," Byars said.

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