Earnest Byner takes the old-man jokes in stride, and after 12 years as a running back in the National Football League, he likes to think he's had the best laugh.
As the oldest player on the Ravens' roster, Byner can recite in his sleep the questions that dog him. How long before this guy breaks down? Hasn't he lost a few steps? Can't his team find someone quicker, younger, better?
Byner will answer those questions once again Sunday with his mere presence in the Ravens' backfield as the team opens its inaugural season at Memorial Stadium against the Oakland Raiders.
Not only will Byner begin his 13th season just two weeks shy of his 34th birthday, but he will do it as the Ravens' starting halfback. Coach Ted Marchibroda officially replaced Leroy Hoard with Byner yesterday.
How did Byner take the news? He was initially surprised, then elated. Then, he went out and turned in a typical Byner practice.
He ran plays with authority, finishing each carry with a burst of speed most 33-year-olds would envy. During the sprints at the end of practice, he outran everyone in his group, while clutching a football and running in zig-zag patterns to work on his cutting.
Then, he grabbed running coach Al Lavan for some extra pass-catching work in the hot sun, while the rest of his free teammates headed for the locker room. Lavan has grown accustomed to this. Byner pulls him aside two or three times a week for extra work.
"After all these years, Earnest still strives to be very good every day. He has the enthusiasm of a rookie coming to learn every day," Lavan said. "Bright eyes, mind open. That's a rare commodity. He isn't the physical player he was six or seven years ago, but he's every bit the mental player. And he's like a sponge, absorbing everything you tell him."
The doubters have been telling Byner to hang up his cleats for years. From the day the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 10th round out of East Carolina in 1984, people have questioned his talent. Is there a more underappreciated player who has produced nearly 12,000 yards of offense?
Byner begins the 1996 season with 7,314 rushing yards, and is one of six active players with more than 7,000. He has caught another 4,207 yards of passes, and scored 66 career touchdowns overall. Last year, he caught a career-high 61 passes.
He has done it all, having gone from a 20-carries-a-game runner to a third-down specialist. He has dealt with the low points, the lowest being the infamous fumble he lost on the goal line late in the 1988 AFC title game in Denver, when the Browns were one yard away from going to the Super Bowl.
He redeemed himself four years later by helping the Washington Redskins win a Super Bowl with one of his best individual seasons.
And he starts his 13th season under a familiar microscope. The Ravens have talked about upgrading their offensive backfield for months. Their halfback position is currently shared by three players -- Hoard, second-year man Earnest Hunter and Byner, the back who refuses to fade away.
"It seems like for my whole career, I've heard that we need somebody faster, younger, someone with fresh legs," Byner said. "It's always we need somebody better than Earnest Byner. I have nothing to prove. If you come out every day with something to prove as your motivation, you're a somewhat shallow individual. I come out here every day to work for this football team."
Playing football is more of a year-round chore than ever for Byner. Each off-season requires more running, more weightlifting, more desire to stay in prime condition. Training camp gets rougher each summer. And yet, Byner rarely misses a workout or a game, and he remains a perfectionist. Watch him drop a rare pass in practice. Then, watch him drop to the ground for 10 push-ups, his self-imposed punishment.
"It's all about preparation, being able to look at yourself objectively and say this is what I need to work on to get a little bit better," Byner said. "I'm never really happy with what I've done, no matter how good it is."
One of the reasons Byner is still around is the hope that that message will rub off on the Ravens' younger players. In two years, Byner's influence has helped him grow up fast in the NFL, Hunter said.
"There's no man I respect more on this team than him. No one prepares harder than E.B.," Hunter said. "Watching him, I get that first-hand experience of what it takes to be great in this league. I want to be that guy."
A devout Christian who is married with four daughters, Byner is merely following the example set by his late grandmother, who raised him in Milledgeville, Ga.
"I still yearn for her," said Byner, who will be thinking of her on Sunday. "My heart is always fond for her. I know she's at peace with God."
And as Byner lines up to begin another season, his coaches marvel at his staying power.
"It's no coincidence why he's had the career he's had," offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a true professional, a rock. He brings so much maturity, wisdom and leadership as a player. He's an inspiration to every guy on this football team."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
When Sunday, 1 p.m.
Site: Memorial Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Pub Date: 8/27/96