Jeff Byers is a towering figure. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound redshirt senior left guard is a force to be reckoned with on a Trojan offensive line already stacked with giants.
Yet in the case of Byers, his actions and words speak much louder than his stature. In maturity and intelligence, this Trojan towers above his teammates.
While some players react to big plays with arrogance and taunting, the easygoing, modest Byers plays his part with stoic intensity. As a pivotal part of one of the most highly touted offensive units in college football, Byers understands the unglamorous nature of his position, which is arguably football’s most grueling.
“I don’t really pay attention to being in the national spotlight,” Byers said. “We just come out here and work hard everyday. As linemen, who really cares, you know? I could care less what people think of me or what people think of our O-line because it’s not a glorified position … We get dirty, we get bloody and that’s just what we are. Whether the country knows about us or not, who cares? We do our job because we love it.”
Despite his best efforts to ignore the spotlight, the sixth-year senior has inevitably found himself the center of attention as the team’s most veteran player. In his conduct both on and off the field, Byers seems more than up to the task of playing mentor.
“I do feel like an old man,” Byers joked, grinning broadly. “You know, Josh Pinkard and myself have been here a long time. And I mean, it’s good to have those guys. I remember when I was a young guy and we had the old guys, you look to them to work hard. Every young guy needs a little guidance and I’m more than willing to give it if they want it.”
Offensive line coach Pat Ruel praised the team leader for his willingness to guide younger players and suggested that his experience makes practicing with him “like having an extra coach on the field.”
Starting junior center Kristofer O’Dowd echoed Ruel’s sentiments, discussing how Byers’ own experience as a center helped him get to where he stands today.
“He was one of those guys when I was younger he’d kind of settle me down, put an arm over me and just tell me, ‘Everything’s going well, everything’s okay. Just be calm, collected and you’ll get better every day.’ And I’ve taken that to heart,” O’Dowd said.
Such a long and storied college career could not come without hardship, however, and the main reason why the 23-year-old Byers was able to return for this season is a difficult injury history. The senior was sidelined for the better part of two years starting in 2005, with hip and back injuries during a long stretch of bench time he referred to as the hardest part of his athletic career.
“When I was hurt and getting back, something that you love is taken away from you and it’s always hard to sit back on the sidelines and watch and know that you can’t be out there,” Byers said. “You get mind games played with yourself and you’re always questioning whether ‘Am I okay or am I not okay?’ It’s just a constant battle to say, ‘I got to keep going. I got to keep working.’”
The silver lining buried beneath the physical and psychological difficulties Byers faced on the bench was the chance it gave the fiercely intelligent student athlete to focus on an area in which football players rarely distinguish themselves: academics.
“I had a great opportunity when I was injured to get ahead in school, and Marshall’s one of the best programs in the country,” said Byers, a business administration major. “It just seemed like a natural fit. Business is something I want to do.”
When asked if he had ever been approached by his teammates for financial advice, Byers laughed, responding, “If we had any money, I think they might.”
Despite his everlasting modesty, Byers’ financial savvy has become the stuff of legend around the locker room. In a famous story, head coach Pete Carroll even asked Byers to explain the 2008 financial meltdown to his teammates — with what Ruel described as decidedly mixed results.
“He did a very nice job, but there were some guys in the room scratching their heads because he’s a little farther ahead than most of us are on that subject,” Ruel said, laughing. “But the fact of the matter is that Jeff’s very articulate and he’s very well-spoken, and he does a nice job of explaining things.”
Ruel also explained that Byers’ willingness to push his academics as far as his athletics is merely indicative of his driven personality.
“He’s always getting things done,” Ruel said emphatically. “He’s a doer. He’s either working on his M.B.A., he’s working on business ideas or he’s out here working on being an excellent football player. I mean, there’s no grass growing underneath this guy’s feet.”
Now, the always-advancing Byers, as big and strong as he’s ever been, heads into the 2009 football season with the benefit of a full offseason, something Carroll remarked Byers hadn’t had since before the seasons he was sidelined with injuries.
“He looks great. He’s in great shape. He feels great and hopefully he can have the good fortune of being healthy through camp and then it’ll be really obvious why coming back was the right thing to do and all,” Carroll said. “This is his first chance to really express his ability with the background of a good offseason.”
Even though he’s always moving forward, summer practice offered Byers a chance to reflect on his long career as a Trojan. The veteran said that his strongest memories spring not from any of the big games he participated in — Byers was even a starter in the 2004 national championship game — but rather out of the practice field where he spent long California afternoons with several generations of players.
“It’s incredible to think how many guys I’ve been blessed to play with that have moved on to bigger and better things,” Byers reminisced. “Sam Baker, Ryan Kalil, Deuce Lutui — all guys that are probably some day going to be All-Pros in the NFL. Reliving memories with those guys, you never get — these practice fields especially — you never get those days back.”
As for his future, the pragmatic Byers harbors dreams of playing at the next level, which Ruel suggested are well within reach. On his NFL goals, the lineman displayed one final bit of modesty, suggesting the place he wants to end up is “wherever anybody wants me.”
“I can only go out and play hard and do what I know how to do, which is hustle and finish and wherever that takes me, it takes me,” Byers said, smiling. “If the NFL wants me, I’ll go there. Of course it’s my goal and my dream. And you’ve got to stay healthy and you’ve got to play hard and it’s out of my control. All I can do is what I can do: work hard, play hard, finish. And we’ll see where that takes me.”