Byrd flies into the Capital District Football Hall of Fame
My assignment was to catch up with former La Salle Institute star George 'Butch' Byrd, a Watervliet native who went on to play at Boston University and later for the Buffalo Bills.
Remember to pick up a copy of The Record on August 6 to read all about the members of the first-ever Capital District Football Hall of Fame class, but for now, here is a sneak peak at my story on Byrd, along with a number of pictures I was able to scan from old La Salle yearbooks.
TROY — One August morning in 1956, before he had even sat down in classroom as a freshman, George Edward ‘Butch’ Byrd Jr. crossed the Congress Street Bridge from his parent’s home on First Avenue in Watervliet to La Salle Institute’s practice field on Fourth Street and Canal Avenue.
Although he felt invincible in the black high tops his father had bought for him the day before at Cahill's Sports Store – Byrd remembers those cleats as “beautiful” - his mood was quickly dashed when he set foot on the field.
“Upon approaching the practice field and upper classmen, I suddenly realized I didn't know anyone,” Byrd wrote in an email message to The Record. “I guess I should have anticipated this, but it never dawned on me until that moment. For the first time in my life I truly felt alone and scared. If memory serves me correctly, there were about 75 junior varsity and varsity players assembled. I looked around for some friendly faces but found none.”
La Salle’s head coach, Dom Denio, came over to Byrd and told him to join the backs. Byrd thought that was a kind gesture, but minutes later, Denio, as football coaches are wont to do, was yelling and screaming at everyone in sight.
“I began to wonder if I or my parents had made a mistake in my going to La Salle,” Byrd wrote. “Was I good enough to play for them? At this moment it didn't seem like I was. I had no idea what real organized high school football was all about, especially at La Salle. No one ever yelled or screamed before in my direction. This was a new day and I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out.”
Byrd wound up in line for the punt return drill later that day, managing to shake off his nervousness. He caught all of the punts kicked his way and evaded most of the tacklers, too.
“On the way back from my first practice, several of the varsity players walked with me, telling me how well I practiced,” wrote Byrd. “Things were all uphill from that point on.”
Byrd earned the starting fullback position on the varsity team for the 1956 season and the rest, as they say, is history. La Salle’s football teams finished with a 22-6-1 record during Byrd’s high school career and he went on to play at Boston University and for the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.
Following his time at La Salle, Byrd, headed to Boston University, where he became three-year regular at running back and a punt and kick returner. He averaged 27.9 yards per kick return as a senior and finished with 26 receptions (three for touchdowns) and 250 receiving yards for his collegiate career.
Before his college career was over, Byrd was drawing interest from American Football League teams, particularly the Buffalo Bills. Before the 1963 AFL draft, however, a run-in with a legendary football figure changed his mindset on the defensive side of the ball.
Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders’ rookie head coach, saw Byrd in a 7-on-7 passing drill when the Raiders were holding a team practice at Boston University prior to a game against the Boston Patriots. Byrd dropped back to defend a pass and successfully knocked it to the ground, but Davis ran onto the field and screamed at Byrd, wondering why he did not intercept the ball instead.
The message stuck with him. Byrd, drafted by Buffalo in the fourth round with the 25th overall pick in the 1963 AFL draft, signed a $2,500 bonus to play right cornerback for the Bills. A three-time first team AFL selection by the Association Press, Byrd finished his career with 40 interceptions. That mark, as well as his career interception return yardage (666) and returns for touchdowns (5), stand as Bills franchise records to this day.
His rookie season was a revelation, as he intercepted seven passes and led the Bills to the 1964 AFL title. In 1965, he returned a punt for a touchdown in the AFL championship game against the San Diego Chargers, Buffalo’s second straight league title.
The NFL and the AFL merged in 1970. Byrd played that season in Buffalo before spending his final season, 1971, with the Denver Broncos.
Still, some of his fondest memories as an athlete were playing football, basketball and baseball at La Salle.
Byrd was an All-Troy fullback as a freshman and was a first team All-Troy selection on both sides of the ball his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
La Salle won the Principal’s League title during each of Byrd’s four years there and tied for the Diocesan League title during his junior season.
In 1959, the Cadets finished 6-0-1, tied with Christian Brothers Academy atop the Diocesean League standings. CBA did lost a non-division game that year, finishing 5-1-1 overall.
According to La Salle’s 1960 Chevron yearbook, The members of the La Salle defense from the previous season were known as ‘Boland’s Bandits’ in honor of assistant coach Edward Boland. The Cadets pitched five shutouts during the 1959 campaign and allowed just 12 points the entire season.
At the time, high school football was markedly different than today’s game. La Salle’s football team, which did not have a home until Sutton Field was constructed in 2002, played its games at Hawkins Stadium in Watervliet or rented Catholic Central’s field in Lansingburgh for a game. Later on, the team used the field at Hudson Valley Community College.
In Byrd’s day, facemasks were often a just single bar, not the full cage and plastic visors familiar to contemporary football fans. Additionally, no sectional or state playoffs awaited teams upon completion of the regular season.
With an open date at the end of the 1959 season, the La Salle players begged for one more game.
“We went to Tom Farnam, La Salle's Athletic Director, to see if he would approach RPI to see if we could play their freshman team,” Byrd wrote. “He wouldn't hear of it.”
“That same year, Shaker High, in Latham, went undefeated and we again approached Mr. Farnam with the same request,” continued Byrd. “Both schools had an open date at the end of the season. Again Mr. Farnam said no and that was that. I particularly wanted to play them because I had gone to grade school (School 7) with some of the Shaker players.”
A five-time Pro Bowl player and a member of the Bills’ 25th and 50th anniversary teams – he was inducted into the Boston University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1980 - Byrd is still proud to be recognized as a Cadet and as a major player in the Capital District’s football history.
“In searching my memory, the lasting thought was how respected the La Salle team was around the Tri-City area,” wrote Byrd. “It didn't matter if it was Watervliet, Troy, Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam, etc. If you played football for La Salle you were somebody. I can remember people both young and old being in awe because I played for La Salle.”
Butch Byrd Scribd Career Stats
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