GREEN BAY – The pass was overthrown. Emanuel Byrd could tell as he sprinted up the seam. He was going to have to work for this catch, and likely pay a price. The Green Bay Packers tight end wasn’t wearing pads last week during rookie orientation. For Byrd, putting his body on the line is a risk. He’s one serious injury from his football dream ending, but maybe only a few spectacular practice reps from years of perseverance being rewarded.
Inside the Don Hutson Center, instincts took over. “Just see ball,” Byrd said, “and go get ball.” He used every bit of his raw athleticism that first attracted the Packers, leaping above the secondary. A safety undercut his legs, crashing Byrd to the turf. Without pads to absorb his fall, Byrd landed with an uncomfortable thud.
A day later, Byrd ambled through the Packers' locker room. He was still sore from his catch, still smarting from the fall. But he wasn’t about to complain.
“Just some bumps and bruises,” Byrd said.
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Indeed, Byrd has overcome much worse. Off the field, his life has been one tragedy after another. He watched his mother, Peggy Joyce Byrd, die when he was 6 years old. The aunt who raised him, Claudia Marshall, died hours before a game his junior year at Marshall. Byrd said he knew his father, but he wasn’t actively part of his life.
Each loss left a scar. He carries memories every day of the women who guided his path to the Packers. Byrd has a tattoo of his mom over his heart. The name “Claudia” is written across his back.
On the surface, one seems disconnected from the other. Losing a mother and the aunt who became a mother figure lingers well beyond bumps and bruises. Just know, Byrd doesn’t struggle drawing parallels. He brings the lessons of his childhood onto the football field.
“Those things that I learned in life at an early age,” Byrd said, “helped me to become the football player that I am. So I just use those morals and those things — those lessons that I learned along the way — to keep me going when things get tough. Everybody can do good when things are going good. It’s when adversity hits that shows what kind of man you are.”
Byrd remembers his mother slumping into her chair, then onto the living room floor. He remembers dialing 911 with his brother, who is one year older. He remembers dialing a second time, because the sound of a 6- and 7-year-old on the phone didn’t signal an emergency.
“They thought we were playing,” Byrd said.
This was no prank. Peggy Joyce Byrd had just arrived home from an overnight shift at Procter & Gamble. She was taking her children to the movies later that day, Byrd remembers. When Peggy wasn’t working, she liked catching up with her daughter and two sons at the theater.
After being picked up from his aunt’s house, Byrd quickly recognized his mother was struggling to breathe. She swerved while driving home, he remembers. Then she slumped into her chair.
Peggy developed acute asthma after giving birth to her second child, Byrd’s older brother Roscoe. In her living room, Byrd remembers his mother asking him to fetch her medicine. She asked Roscoe to bring some water. Their 14-year-old sister, Stephanie, was down the road, getting her hair done.
Unable to convey the emergency to 911 responders, the Byrd boys made enough commotion to catch the attention of a neighbor riding a bicycle by their house. Claudia arrived around the same time as paramedics, taking the boys with her. Fifteen minutes later, Byrd said, they got the call.
Peggy, 37, never made it to the hospital.
“She passed right in front of us,” Byrd said.
Their world could’ve stopped there. Claudia made sure it didn’t. She took her sister’s children into her home, raised them as her own. It was Claudia who introduced the Byrd boys to football, shuttling them to the local Boys & Girls Club in Albany, Ga.
Byrd’s love for football grew over the years. He was a high school quarterback, playing behind an offensive line Roscoe anchored. Both committed to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham but, when the program briefly disbanded in 2014, Roscoe transferred to Georgia Southern.
Byrd spent two years at Georgia Military College, two hours north of Albany. It was an unplanned detour, but time he eventually came to appreciate. Claudia, twice a breast cancer survivor, learned the cancer returned in her jaw not long after Byrd graduated from Georgia Military. A dentist noticed a spot in the back of her gum. Eventually, Byrd said, it would swell to the size of a golf ball.
He spent seven months home with his aunt, savoring his time before leaving for Marshall. On the day Byrd was to arrive on campus, Claudia had surgery.
Claudia was clear to Byrd: She wanted him to go to school.
Later that fall, Byrd was in Boca Raton, Fla., preparing for a game against Florida Atlantic. He couldn’t sleep inside the team hotel. A cousin called with the news around 3 a.m. Claudia didn’t make it through the night. Finally, the cancer was too much.
“I’ll never forget the knock on the hotel door,” Marshall co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Todd Goebbel said, “and the tears rolling down his eyes. She was kind of the angel behind him that kept looking over him and his brother, and kind of last of the family, to be quite honest with you. Man, it broke my heart.”
Here’s where life crosses over onto the football field. A person’s character is revealed. Given hours to absorb a crushing loss, not to mention almost no sleep overnight, nobody would have blamed Byrd if he chose to take a week off.
Byrd, thinking of his aunt, played anyway.
He had just one catch for 21 yards against FAU, but to this day Goebbel hasn’t forgotten his presence on the field. Marshall won 33-17 that afternoon, extending what would become a seven-game winning streak. Byrd said coaches limited his snaps, not wanting to overextend him.
The wonder is how he got through the game at all.
“I think everything he does,” Goebbel said, “is to honor the people he loves.”
By any measure, Byrd was a long shot to get this far. Never mind the personal losses. Byrd wasn’t a tight end until college. He wasn’t drafted. His first team, the Kansas City Chiefs, cut him days into training camp. The Packers cut him after last year’s preseason finale.
Even then, Byrd said, he kept believing. He kept working out. Kept going to the gym every night. The Packers signed him to their practice squad in November. He was promoted to the active roster before their finale in Detroit.
Byrd caught two passes for 31 yards against the Lions. One catch, perhaps, for each guardian angel. The lessons his aunt imparted are always with him.
“Even though you don’t want to hear those things at an early age,” Byrd said, “she kept it real with us. Even if she passed away, she can always be with us. At the same time, I just wanted to honor her. That just allowed me to have that drive to try to be the best person and athlete I can be while I’m still here on this earth.”
After football, Byrd plans to give back. He sees so many kids going through similar situations, losing parents early. Perhaps they don’t have a Claudia, someone to guide them. Maybe he’ll coach. Maybe he’ll teach.
Either way, he can be the father figure he lacked.
For now, those plans are on hold. This offseason, Byrd figures to get his shot. With Jimmy Graham and Lance Kendricks, the Packers only have two proven tight ends on their roster. The next couple months are an open audition to be No. 3.
Byrd, given his familiarity with the Packers, has as good of a chance as anyone. He had two more catches on the first day of rookie orientation. After landing with that thud, Byrd ran away from the defense down the left side. “Two really special catches,” coach Mike McCarthy called them. Not that it surprises Goebbel.
“Not shocked one bit,” he said. “If you truly spend time around him, sit down with him for about five to 10 minutes — and that’s about all the time it takes — no one would ever be shocked that he’s successful. Because whether it’s football or life in general, of if he’s head of a CEO corporation, that man will be highly successful.
“There’s an old saying, you get what your works deserve. And he is the poster child for that.”
There are sure to be more obstacles ahead. Life is full of them. No matter what awaits Byrd, it’s going to take more than bumps and bruises to stop him.