North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Sacks were not an official stat in football when Dennis Byrd came along in 1964, so it’s not known exactly how many times the 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive tackle got into opposing backfields and took down quarterbacks during his Hall of Fame career at NC State.
Numbers on a stat sheet, however, aren’t the only way to measure physical dominance, as Florida’s All-American center Bill Carr noted after the Wolfpack’s 17-10 loss to the Gators in 1966. “By the end of the game,” Carr said, “everybody on our line was calling him Mr. Byrd.”
Mr. Byrd couldn’t play on the varsity team as a freshman under NCAA rules at the time, but the Lincolnton High product became a starter from the first game of his sophomore season and went on to earn first-team All-ACC honors in each of his three college seasons.
He helped the Wolfpack to a share of the ACC championship in 1965, then — as the senior leader of State’s famed “White Shoes Defense” — he spearheaded a 1967 unit that held its first eight opponents to 10 points or fewer, including a 16-6 upset of No. 2 Houston at the Astrodome.
Coach Earle Edwards’ Wolfpack was as high as No. 4 in the nation that season and was on track to earn a Sugar Bowl bid and shot at the national title until Byrd suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the next two games. Close losses to Penn State and Clemson cost State both the ACC championship and its chance at national honors.
Still, the team finished on a high note by beating Georgia 14-7 in the Liberty Bowl for the first postseason victory in school history.
A two-time consensus All-American, Byrd became only the second Wolfpack player (after Roman Gabriel) to be chosen in the first round of a professional football league draft when he was taken No. 6 overall by the Boston Patriots of the old AFL. He started 14 games for the Patriots in 1968, a season that turned out to be the only one he played professionally because of a knee injury that cut short his career.
Byrd’s No. 77 is the only one worn by a defensive player to be retired by State. He was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, only a few months after his death from a heart attack at the age of 63.