Jamal Byrd’s dream of playing major college football came one step closer to reality the day the Air Force Academy offered him a scholarship.
But there was a potential snag: His hair.
“That was one of the first things I thought: ‘What about your hair?’” Shawn Clark said recently, recalling a light moment with her son. “He said, ‘That’s not a problem.’ ”
When Jamal Byrd graduated from Foss High School last week, he left behind an image of being a serious student, high-scoring basketball player and top-flight football star. All played a role in Byrd being named The News Tribune’s boys high school athlete of the year.
But Byrd also left an impression with his long braids, recognized in the school yearbook as best hair among senior boys.
Byrd has worn his hair that way since elementary school.
But on July 14, the day he reports to basic training in Colorado Springs, Colo., those locks are coming off.
“I’m really going to miss it,” Byrd said. “I see it as a sacrifice. It’s worth it. Football is more important to me than my hair. So is a college education. So, I don’t have a problem when it comes to that.”
Foss football coach Ken Baker is a big admirer of Jamal Byrd. It’s clear in Baker’s voice that he will sorely miss not only the All-State free safety who snatched 10 interceptions his senior year or the receiver who made circus catches, but also the young man whose work ethic got others’ attention.
“When I first met Jamal he seemed to walk with a bit of a swagger,” Baker said. “I first thought, ‘We’ll see about this kid.’”
Baker quickly learned that Byrd merely had a self-confident nature about him. He found that Byrd pushed himself hard – on the field and in the classroom.
“He’s disciplined in everything he does,” Baker said of Byrd, who finished with a 3.6 grade-point average. “He takes a lot of pride in himself. He makes sure he’s dressed a certain way. His pants are pressed. Maybe that’s part of that military background in his family. The kid’s always had a lot of pride in himself, he’s always had a little swagger. He’s always had the self-confidence that has made him excel in all of his endeavors.”
Byrd’s journey hasn’t come without hardship.
He’s had to grow up faster than some. His parents divorced when he was 11. Byrd and his younger brother Darius see their father only about once a year because Ernest Byrd lives in Montgomery, Ala.
“It’s been very tough,” Jamal Byrd said. “When it first happened, I was pretty young. I didn’t really know how to handle it. I think it’s made me a better person. It made me stronger. After a while, I learned that things happen.”
Byrd’s mother, who remarried, said the family’s Christian values and regular sit-down talks at home have all helped keep her eldest son grounded.
“Jamal’s always been mature for his age,” she said.
Byrd’s long-distance relationship with his father hasn’t prevented a close bond. They keep regular contact through text messages, e-mails and phone calls. Jamal Byrd has sent his father DVDs with highlights of football games.
“I’m very proud of him,” Ernest Byrd said during a recent visit to Tacoma to attend his eldest son’s graduation. “Of course, I wish I could have been here to see everything, but I definitely stayed on top of it the best way I could. Now, they’ve got the Internet, so I talk to him. You can read the paper pretty much on the Internet.
“He started off with basketball and that’s where I thought he was going to blossom. Then, he liked football. Of course, you let him go in that direction. Then, his senior year in basketball, he was good at that, too. I was like, ‘He’s a pretty good athlete.’”
Byrd, who’s 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, soared on the basketball court his senior year, leading Foss with 16 points and six rebounds per game from his small forward position. In back-to-back road games against Bellarmine Prep and Mount Tahoma, he scored 30 points each.
“If he had decided to spend a little more time on it, he probably could have played college basketball,” Foss basketball coach Mike Cocke said.
Byrd saw football as the most realistic route to an athletic scholarship. So, he did all that he could to make that happen – on and off the field. Watching talented athletes miss out on college opportunities because of academic troubles left an impression.
“That made me stay on top of my grades,” he said. “Some of them also haven’t gotten recruited because they don’t go hard every play, so I’ve just tried to learn from their mistakes and do what they didn’t do: go hard every play and take care of things in the classroom. You also want to play as many positions as you can because you never know what they’re going to be looking at you for. I never thought I would go to college as a free safety because I was a receiver most of my years in high school.”
Winding up at the Air Force Academy was another unexpected twist. Byrd’s father spent 20 years in the Air Force and was stationed in Colorado Springs when Jamal was born.
“After they started recruiting me, I started thinking, ‘I can go into the Air Force like my dad. That would be kind of cool for me,’” Byrd said.
Byrd’s godmother and other close family friends live in Colorado Springs and are eagerly awaiting his arrival.
“It’s like a homecoming,” Byrd said. “My dad was in the Air Force. And I was born there. I went on my visit and loved it. I said, ‘This is the place for me.’ I have a lot of close friends out there that I pretty much call family. So, I know I’m going to be well taken care of.”
Byrd’s father didn’t attend the academy but knows what’s in store for his son.
“It’s a tough school,” Ernest Byrd said. “I told him to take it seriously. Concentrate. Take care of business. And don’t play around. Because, you know, it’s serious.”
As part of officer training, Byrd will attend a rigorous prep school on campus his freshman year. After college, Byrd said he’ll be required to serve at least five years in the Air Force.
That requirement is reduced to two years for those who go on to the NFL, he pointed out.
“I really didn’t plan to go to the Air Force at all,” Byrd said. “I just wanted to play college football. Once I learned about all of the opportunities like guaranteed jobs and things like that and the way the economy is now, it sounded like the best opportunity.”
Even if it meant certain sacrifices.
“It’s not really all that difficult to wear a uniform and have short hair,” he said. “You have to do certain things if you want things in return.”