This has not been a great couple of weeks for college football; the news has more been about players getting DUIs and involved in bar brawls. In the midst of this, a young writer I know, 21-year-old Adam Nettina, sent me a really uplifting story of a college player, Navy slotback Andre Byrd. The story, titled "The Greatest Among Them" mentions that Byrd, at 5-foot-7, 153 pounds, is one of the Middies' smallest players, but that detail is not why the slotback is exceptional.
Byrd's story, as Nettina wrote, began some 21 years ago when his mother, Gwendolyn, was pregnant with him:
She was also abusing drugs, including cocaine. While Andre was born free of any complications due to his mother's addition, Gwendolyn's drug use didn't stop with his birth. She continued to abuse drugs for the next two years, including during subsequent pregnancies with Andre's two younger brothers.
It was only a matter of time until her abuse was detected. After doctors discovered traces of cocaine in her system following the birth of Andre's youngest brother, Gwendolyn was faced with the prospect of losing her children to the state of Florida. It was then, Andre said, that God intervened healing his mother of her addiction and bringing her back to the faith. His father was not so lucky. The late Andre Byrd never fully overcame his own drug addiction, and was in and out of the Byrd family picture as Andre and his brothers and sister grew up.
"When I was like seven or eight I didn't know why he would leave for awhile or could never keep a job," explained Navy's Byrd, whose full name is Andre Emanuel Byrd II. "As we got older and got into high school we knew what was going on, and why he would ask for money and stuff like that."
The fact that Andre Bryd could make it to such a prestigious place as the Naval Academy is remarkable and I encourage you to read the original piece I linked to. Calling Byrd's story inspiring would be an understatement as I learned when I traded emails with the writer, who was open to go "behind the story" about what he learned from working on this piece. Nettina talked about how Byrd's story affected him and his own struggle with anxiety and depression.
Nettina: Byrd's story came to me during a difficult time in my life. No, that's not exactly right. Truth be told, the story comes to me at a difficult time in my life. Overwhelmed by a need to distinguish myself as a writer and to stay on top of the latest breaking story or advance my way through the sports journalism ranks, I've become a machine. Constantly worry and obsessing about getting ahead in my professional life, I've missed out on my college experience, and abandoned most of the people who have shown me so much love and compassion. Unable to overcome my own worldly ambitions and need for perfection, there have been times when I've slipped into depression, and wondered aloud why it is that I got into writing about sports in the first place.
But by talking about his own struggle, and by talking about his own need to reveal some of his crosses and failings to the world, Byrd reminded me that the first step to positive change is to open up about our experience. When we do so, we often find that our lonely isolation and internal problems aren't as unique to ourselves as we previously thought, and that with the loss of pretension our suffering can yield to the empathy of a shared human condition.
Nettina is a senior majoring in History at Utah State; he grew up outside of Baltimore and had been going to Navy games most of his life. He said he turned a high school hobby of blogging about Navy football into the beginnings of a career and has been writing for the site, GoMids.com for about a year and a half.
"I started out working as an unpaid blogger for CollegeFootballNews.com my sophomore year of college (first time working in the press box) but really struggled trying to balance going to school in DC, being an ROTC cadet, and advancing in my sports journalism "career" at the same time," he says. "I more or less burned out and headed back home, and was fortunate enough to find some freelance work with GoMids.com based on my prior connections through the Navy sports media."
I'd asked Nettina how he came to pursuing Byrd's story.
"Basically there had been a lot of bad news regarding Navy players this offseason (two players dismissed from the team) and I knew that the image people may have been getting of Navy football players was not accurate," Nettina said. "I asked Navy's SID to ask around if any of the players had unique experiences in the offseason. At about the same time Andre had just learned from his mother "the whole story" about her drug addiction, and his faith all kind of fell in line at that point.
"Navy's SID (Scott Strasemeier) asked around and found out about Andre's story just as Andre had learned about it, and got back to me that this was something I should hear. Like I said before, I've also been struggling with anxiety and some issues, and the fact that all of this came to light at this point in my life makes it impossible for me to think that God didn't have a role in things. I know it's not "typical" sports writer material or etiquette to admit such things, but I guess I'm not your "typical" college football writer, either."