It would not be very much of a stretch to say that, in the modern era, he is the best college football never to have won a Heisman Trophy – not that it was his fault he didn't win one.
Born Aug. 14, 1963, Keith Alan Byars came to the Buckeyes out of Dayton Roth High School as a 6-2, 225-pound fullback prospect. He was an All-Ohio and All-America standout who piled up 3,511 yards during his prep career, averaging an almost unbelievable 11.5 yards per carry as a senior.
He helped Roth to a 28-4 record during his three-year varsity career, played basketball and led his high school team to a pair of state basketball titles, ran on the state championship 440-yard relay team in track, and batted .520 as a junior and .480 as a senior while playing centerfield in baseball. He was good enough at baseball that the Cincinnati Reds formally invited him to a tryout camp – twice.
After briefly thinking about playing his college ball at Pittsburgh – which had Dan Marino as its quarterback at the time – Byars decided to go to Ohio State. The clincher was when he visited a Cincinnati Bengals training camp in Wilmington and had a chance meeting with Archie Griffin.
"He told me, ‘If you are looking for a challenge and you want to be the best you can be and go against the top-flight competition every week, you need to be at Ohio State," Byars wrote in the book What It Means To Be A Buckeye.
With Tim Spencer firmly entrenched at tailback and Vaughn Broadnax the starting fullback, Byars didn't get much of a chance to play on offense as a freshman.
But his athletic ability was just too great to let languish on the bench, so he saw lots of action on special teams. He played in nine of OSU's 12 games during the 1982 season, but got only four carries for 17 yards to go along with his first career reception that went for 20 yards.
The following season, however, Spencer had graduated. And when no one stepped up to fill his shoes, OSU head coach Earle Bruce immediately switched Byars from in back of Broadnax on the depth chart to in back of his bruising fullback in the I-formation.
The change couldn't have worked out better as Byars rolled up 1,199 yards and scored 22 touchdowns for the Buckeyes.
He also began his career of producing highlight-reel big plays. In the team's 1984 Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh, Byars rushed for 73 yards, caught two passes for 21 more and scored on an 11-yard run. But it was his 99-yard kickoff return in the third quarter that electrified the crowd and helped spark the Buckeyes to a 28-23 victory.
The following season, Byars embarked upon one of the most outstanding seasons an Ohio State player has ever had. Beginning with a 22-14 win in the '84 season opener over Oregon State, Byars ran over, around and through nearly every defensive scheme opponents could think of to throw at him.
His star power was forever cemented during that season's game against Illinois. During the late afternoon contest at Ohio Stadium, the Illini moved out to a quick 24-0 lead that was so one-sided, several members of the media began scurrying through the OSU media guide to determine the most points scored by an Ohio State opponent.
But suddenly, the tide turned. Byars scored a couple of touchdowns to get the Buckeyes closer and was shown on the OSU bench by television cameras, saying, "We're coming back! We're coming back!"
Byars equaled Pete Johnson's school record that day by scoring five touchdowns, the most spectacular being a 67-yard sprint down the sideline during which he completely reversed field, lost one shoe and still outraced the Illinois secondary to the end zone. Fittingly, he scored his final TD with just 36 seconds to play, giving the Buckeyes a 45-38 victory in one of the most thrilling games ever played in the Horseshoe.
Byars rushed for 274 yards that day to establish a new single-game OSU record that was later broken by Eddie George, who piled up 314 yards against the Illini in 1995. However, Byars still holds the single-game mark for all-purpose yardage with 354 in that '84 contest. George had 346 against the Illini in '95.
Unfortunately, OSU suffered a pair of upsets that season – losing by five points to Purdue and by two to Wisconsin – but a 21-6 victory over Michigan propelled the Buckeyes into the Rose Bowl for the first time in five years. Byars rushed for 109 yards, but couldn't find the end zone against a tough Southern California defense and the Trojans sent Ohio State home with a 20-17 loss.
Still, Byars smashed every single-season rushing record on the OSU books. He totaled 1,764 yards and scored 22 TDs on the ground while adding 42 receptions for 479 yards and two more scores. He even returned eight kickoffs for an average of 24.8 per return.
The rushing total led the nation in 1984 and broke Griffin's single-season record of 1,695 yards set in 1974, his first Heisman season. Byars was a unanimous choice for the All-Big Ten and All-America squads and was voted the Big Ten's most valuable player.
But when the Heisman Trophy ballots were tabulated, the Ohio State star lost a close vote to Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose team had upset Miami (Fla.) on national television the same week that most Heisman ballots were mailed.
Flutie was a senior and part of the reasoning behind many voters' rationale was that Byars would get his Heisman the following year. It was not to be. Suffering a painful foot injury in fall camp that would plague him the entire season, Byars was limited to just four games in 1985 and rushed for only 208 yards and four TDs.
His loss contributed to a pair of late-season defeats to Wisconsin and Michigan, knocking the Buckeyes out of the Rose Bowl. They rebounded for a 10-7 win over BYU in the Citrus Bowl, but a hobbling Byars was limited to just 5 yards on two carries against the Cougars.
Nevertheless, when he finished his OSU career, his 3,200 yards made Byars the third all-time rusher in OSU history behind only Griffin (5,589, 1972-75) and Spencer (3,553, 1979-82). Since that time, he is still fourth with only George (3,768, 1992-95) moving past him.
Byars still ranks second all-time in career rushing touchdowns with 46 and his 336 carries in 1984 is still a single-season high. He is also one of only four Buckeyes ever with 300 or more career points. Kicker Mike Nugent (356, 2001-04), Johnson (348, 1973-76) and kicker Dan Stultz (342, 1997-2000) are the others.
Despite his injury, the Philadelphia Eagles still made Byars their first-round selection in the 1986 NFL draft. He played the first seven seasons of his 13-year pro career in Philadelphia and is credited with changing the philosophy of NFL coaches toward running backs as just runners to runners and pass receivers. From 1988-92, Byars averaged nearly 68 catches a season for the Eagles.
He switched to Miami in 1993 and played with the Dolphins for three years before being traded to New England midway through the '96 season. He appeared in Super Bowl XXXI for the Patriots that year and had four receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown in New England's 35-21 loss to Green Bay. He retired in 1998 after one season with the New York Jets.
For his 13-year pro career, Byars finished with 3,109 yards and 23 yards on the ground and another 5,661 yards and 31 TDs through the air. His 610 career receptions rank him among the top 40 all-time in the NFL and ahead of such Hall of Famers as Fred Biletnikoff, Lance Alworth, Kellen Winslow and John Stallworth.
During his playing days with the Eagles, Byars was named Humanitarian of the Year by Philadelphia Sports Writers Association and earned a 1991 community service award from the Big Brothers and Sisters of Philadelphia. He donated his time to the United Way throughout his NFL career and despite spending most of his time at his home in Miami, he continues to host a free youth football camp each year in his hometown of Dayton.
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