EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the 23-7 loss to the Kansa City Chiefs ended, all the New York Jets players walked off the field at Giants Stadium and through the gloomy tunnel to their locker room. Some walked faster than others. Some held their green helmets in their hands. Some wore their helmets. They were walking as easily as they always do. As easily as most people do. Without thinking about it.
All the Jets but one.
Dennis Byrd, his legs strapped to a yellow spine board, had come off the field staring up at the leaden sky from a flatbed cart. He had suffered what X-rays last night showed was a broken neck in a freakish collision with another Jets pass rusher, Scott Mersereau, early in the third quarter.
"Am I going to be paralyzed?" he kept asking the Jets' doctors and trainers. "Am I going to be paralyzed?"
Byrd, the Jets reported last night, had "no use of his legs" and "partial use of his arms" but was in "stable condition" at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
The spinal team decided against operating on Byrd last night and immobilized his neck and head in what is known as a halo vest. The aim of immobilization is to prevent further damage to the spinal cord, preventing what might be a temporary paralysis from turning into a permanent one.
But the doctors do plan to operate on Byrd in three to four days to stabilize the spinal cord at the level of the fifth cervical vertebra, where the injury occurred.
"Dennis is being well taken care of," Jets trainer Bob Reese told the team in the locker room after the game. "He's with his wife. There's no need to go to the hospital."
As Angela Byrd, the player's wife and the mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Ashtin, comforted her husband in the hospital last night, his teammates remembered how the 26-year-old defensive end out of Tulsa University had invited several Jets to his Point Lookout, N.Y., home Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner.
"That's one reason the players love this guy," said Mickey Rendine, the assistant equipment manager, his eyes misty. "He'll go over to the single guys, even the married guys, and ask them if they have some place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If they don't, he asks them to his house."
For those Jets who watched the Thanksgiving Day game between the Oilers and the Lions, the telecast featured Mike Utley, the Lions' honorary captain that day. Utley is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down ever since landing on his helmet while pass-blocking last season.
Now his Jets teammates feared that Dennis Byrd, able to move his arms but not his legs, might be paralyzed as Utley is.
"He was complaining he couldn't move his legs," Reese was saying now at the door to the trainer's room. "We asked him what happened and he said he hit his head, he couldn't remember exactly how. Immediately we went to his head and stabilized it. The doctors did some basic tests. He couldn't move his legs. We called for a backboard and transported him on the board."
Byrd had been flat on his back for seven minutes near the 18-yard line at the eastern end of Giants Stadium.
One of Byrd's best friends, defensive end Marvin Washington, ++ kept circling the scene. As the cart rolled away with Dr. Steve Nicholas and assistant trainer Pepper Burris accompanying Byrd, several teammates hurried over and gently touched him: James Hasty, Paul Frase, Brian Washington, Mike Brim, R.J. Kors and Washington.
Mersereau, slammed in the chest by Byrd's helmet a split second after trying to sack quarterback Dave Krieg, didn't realize Byrd was hurt.
"I had no knowledge of what was going on initially because I was gasping for air," said Mersereau, whose sternum was slammed by Byrd's helmet as they both missed Krieg when he stepped up to pass. "It wasn't until later, when I came off on the sidelines, that I saw them take him away. When I found out, my thoughts, my heart and my prayers went out to Dennis and his family."
Byrd is one of the most respected Jets players. As a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he is quietly involved in various community causes. He recently attended the Survivors of the Shield dinner for widows and children of slain police officers.
"Each and every day you step on the field you don't think you're going to get hurt, but you know there's a possibility," the Jets' Mike Brim said, his eyes lowered. "I could care less about these wins or losses, that's the farthest thing from my mind."
On the next play after Byrd's injury, the Jets' defensive unit appeared to be still thinking about him as Krieg collaborated with wide receiver Willie Davis on a 55-yard pass play that positioned the Chiefs' first touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
"What happened to Dennis had a great impact on anybody that was near him," said Pete Carroll, the Jets' defensive coordinator. "But because of that, yes, absolutely, we thought the Chiefs might go deep right away and we told the players that."
Asked if the Chiefs had "taken advantage" of the Jets' depression, coach Marty Schottenheimer replied, "I don't know the young man," meaning Byrd, "but I feel as badly about it as anybody -- and the answer to your question is, no."
But if the Chiefs had taken advantage of the situation, that's part of football. Just as paralysis is part of football. It's a violent game.
Mike Utley is in a wheelchair. Darryl Stingley, once a New England Patriots wide receiver but a quadriplegic ever since his 1978 collision with Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders, is in a wheelchair. Marc Buoniconti, once a Citadel linebacker, is in a wheelchair. Through the years, paralysis has put dozens, if not hundreds, of other college and high school football players in a wheelchair.
"You know it could happen to you," said Mo Lewis, a Jets linebacker. "But when it happens to a teammate, it's even more scary because it could've been you."
When all the Jets had showered and dressed yesterday, they walked out of their locker room as easily as they always do. As easily as most people do. Without thinking about it.
All but one.