WBUR

Former Pro On Harvard NFL Health Study: ‘Long Time Coming’

WESTBOROUGH, Mass. — On a VHS copy of old highlights from the Buffalo Bills’ 1964 season, there’s one that Butch Byrd, who was a rookie that year, still vividly remembers:

Butch Byrd’s team portrait from the Bills’ 1969 season. He holds Buffalo’s record for career interceptions (40). (Courtesy)

Butch Byrd’s team portrait from the Bills’ 1969 season. (Courtesy)

Announcer: “Byrd short circuits an apparent Charger touchdown drive with this interception, and the Bills are on the way.”

“My first interception, 78 yards. Oh yeah, I’ll never forget that one,” Byrd said while watching the footage.

He went on to earn the Bills’ record for career interceptions — 40 of them — a record he still holds.

And playing defense as a cornerback, he was also known for his hits, especially helmet-to-helmet ones.

“The ear hole in the helmet is right here, so you’d slam him in the head, right in the ear hole, and that would knock him out,” Byrd recalled. “And that was accepted play. That was the way the game was played.”

But in the ensuing decades, Byrd said, league leaders came to know better.

The New York native, who settled with his wife and kids in Westborough 26 years ago, is president of the New England former players chapter of the NFL Players Association. He welcomes the $100 million study the association has commissioned Harvard to conduct.

The study’s researchers will examine all aspects of former pro football players’ health, including chronic bone and joint pain, mental health and, of course, neurological disease stemming from repeat concussions.

Butch Byrd in his first season with the Buffalo Bills, 1964, when the team went on to win the first of two consecutive AFL championships (Courtesy)

Butch Byrd in his first season with the Buffalo Bills, 1964, when the team went on to win the first of two consecutive AFL championships (Courtesy)

“It’s a long time coming,” Byrd said. “I’m critical of the NFL in this aspect, only because they knew something was wrong way before it came to light. And, in fact, they went through a cover-up.”

Byrd hopes the research will help current and former players, including members of the association who are suffering mentally, financially and physically.

“The shape they’re in, some of these guys, I mean they’re beat up, I mean can’t walk, hardly walk, legs are busted up, the backs are hurting,” he said.

Byrd considered himself lucky in his football days. He said he was knocked out cold “only” three times — all in high school and college. He’ll never forget the one time as a Boston University running back against the University of Connecticut when, a few minutes after regaining consciousness, the coach put him back in the game.

“I was in a fog. Everything was spinning and so forth. And so I ran out into the huddle, and the quarterback was calling the signals. And I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Now knowing the dangers, Byrd realizes how truly lucky he is. At 71 years old, his memory is good. He still runs and lift weights. In the last decade he suffered a heart attack and stroke, but doctors ruled out football as the cause. He does, however, suffer occasional pain from a cracked vertebra and nerve damage from a hard hit.

On Wednesday, Butch Byrd stands in front of memorabilia in his Westborough home. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Butch Byrd stands in front of memorabilia in his Westborough home. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

The Harvard study will examine former players who are generally healthy as well as those who are sick. Researchers want to know why some have faired better than others.

“From the days I played, the guys are bigger, they’re faster, they’re hitting each other harder,” Byrd reflected.

He hopes the research will lead to better, more protective helmets and gear, and even more caution on the field. Ultimately he wants the game to carry on.

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