But walking off that field on Sunday to the cheers of the traveling Jets fans in the stands, many of the players were simply happy to be walking at all. Sunday, in fact, meant more then just a win over their biggest rival, it had become in a way a celebration of life.
And again this Sunday, the Jets captains will walk out onto the field and one of the honorary captains will be the man who inspired the victory in Foxboro. Dennis Byrd has been named an honorary captain by the team for Sunday in Heinz Field.
"The league allows every team to have one honorary captain, and it's great that we are going to have Dennis there," head coach Rex Ryan said. "He did such a tremendous job; he spoke from the heart and that meant a lot to our players. There are so many great guys in the past, and we are proud of all of our ex-players, but Dennis is a guy we want representing us this time."
Byrd's impact last Saturday is still being talked about by the Jets, such was the power of his words.
Last Saturday night at the team hotel, the Jets gathered for their regular team meeting. Head coach Rex Ryan has had motivational speakers come to this team before, using this time as a team to get them to focus on the task at hand. But the night before the game in New England as the team sat in their Providence, RI hotel, Ryan called on a former Jets defensive lineman to address the team.
It wasn't anything unusual as former players have addressed the team before but the fact that Byrd got to his feet to talk to the Jets is amazing in and of itself.
In his fourth year in the league, Byrd was paralyzed in a NFL game in 1992 when he broke his neck, laying motionless on the field. Closing in on a sack on Bills quarterback Steve Kreig, Byrd instead collided with a teammate, causing his neck to snap. He lay on the field without a movement as a silent stadium looked on, eventually being carted off the turf at The Meadowlands. His story became the center of the inspirational book Rise and Walk and his life was the subject of a movie.
After a black and white short film produced by the team told his story, Ryan introduced Byrd, who walked to take the microphone from Ryan on Saturday night. The address was simple and wasn't very long as Byrd talked simply about overcoming adversity.
"This is a critical point, an important point for the Jets and this organization for these young men. I want them to know that this is it. It's not looking to the future, it's not looking to next year or we need this piece or that piece or we'll be better when we do this," Byrd said of his address. "It's now. The talent is here, the coaching is here, the organizational commitment is here and it's time to do it."
The message hit home with the Jets, who said that they could have heard a pin drop during Byrd's speech. It was but a few minutes on Saturday evening, but the story resonated with the entire team. Some players, like safety Brodney Pool, were aware of the story but were still moved by Byrd's story.
"I saw the movie when I was growing up so I knew about Dennis Byrd and who he was," Pool said. "But to hear him tell you, right there, and realize that a man who was paralyzed playing the sport you played was there, walking and talking in front of you, well, it made you feel grateful for everything you have."
It was a tough story to hear and understand, said linebacker Bryan Thomas, who noted that he was simply thankful at the end of Sunday's game to be able to walk off the field. Thomas talked about how Byrd's story put everything in context for him and that he was moved by the courage of the former Jets lineman. It was an emotional night for Thomas, who was deeply touched by what he heard and saw from Byrd. He wasn't aware of the story of #90 but he said he now plans to read Byrd's book.
"It made me appreciate what I have, because I haven't had to overcome everything that Dennis Byrd has had to overcome," Thomas said. "He really just laid it out there for us, that we need to keep fighting and persevering like he did. He didn't choose his circumstances, but he fought to overcome them. That was the message he gave to us, to keep overcoming and fighting like he did."
Such was the power of his words that Byrd has been named an honorary captain for Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh.
"This is a time in the life of this organization where they have an opportunity to take that next step. Everything is here and it's in place," Byrd said. "I wanted to make sure that I at least did what I knew was in my heart and to just do anything that I could to let these young men know how important this moment is."
The moments on Sunday after the win over the Patriots was something that not a single player on the Jets will ever forget. A franchise as snake bitten as this one doesn't get many moments of unabashed joy, or pure exultation. But the weight of the weekend was tempered with the reality of Byrd's words.
"What he said, Saturday night, are things I will never, ever forget," Thomas said. "I'm at a loss for words."
And on Sunday, the impact of Byrd lives on as the Jets attempt as a franchise to stand on their own two feet and overcome adversity. A win would give a team forever seemingly burdened by the label of "Same Old Jets" for their ineptitude just their second ever Super Bowl appearance. It'd be a story not as remarkable as Byrd's resilience and triumph, but inspiring nonetheless. As the Jets honorary captain, Byrd is already inspiring the team to pursue what many see as an impossible dream.
"I wouldn't want it any other way. Hearing about his story for the first time really makes you understand how fortunate we are and how fragile your career is," quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "It can end at any moment. That was just a good reminder for us of how fortunate we are. His story definitely gave us inspiration last week, and it's just fitting that he's going to lead us out before the game."
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012