Originally created 08/20/04

C.J. Byrd captures the attention of college football



C.J. Byrd's future is as simple today as plucking a football out of the sky. The North Augusta standout has 33 scholarship offers to play college football. No Augusta-area player has come close to that total before their senior season.

Reach out. Grab what you want. It's that simple from where he is perched right now.

"I know every kid who's ever liked football wouldn't mind what life has given me right now," C.J. said. "It's all pretty humbling."

THAT CHOICE IS best illustrated whenever Byrd sinks in to a comfy spot on a friend's couch. A button is pushed, and a PlayStation 2 video game system winks on. The name of the game is NCAA Football 2005. Any budding player with a dream of playing on Saturdays can go to a select screen. The galaxy of the college football universe twinkles back.

Choice, that American freedom, becomes virtual reality. It's different for C.J. and a prized few young men in this country. He can also choose any team in the real throwing-and-catching world next fall.

He was so prized a catch, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer missed part of his daughter's softball game earlier this year for the chance to spend time with him.

Tennessee joined Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Penn State and South Carolina on Byrd's cut list in late July. Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Southern California are the five survivors out of 33.

This electronic who's who of college football is oblivious to Byrd when he selects his team. It's a half-second decision.

When C.J. plays, he almost always chooses Florida State.

"That's my team," C.J. said. "The Seminoles are the team on this game."

Bulldogs, Gators, Tigers and Trojans fans can relax.

"Everybody thinks I'm dropping hints when I play with them," he said. "I think that's just funny."

It could mean as much as a picture C.J. took with Georgia coach Mark Richt at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting at Warren Baptist Church earlier this year. It sits on top of the television in the den of the Byrd home.

"This will be the biggest decision of my life other than getting married and, most importantly, deciding to live my life for God."

It's a decision Charles Byrd Sr. ponders when he looks out a window and notices Charles Jr. - known as C.J. to friends and Big Byrd to the world.

"I see this tall lanky kid out there pushing along a mower," Charles Sr. said. "I have to tell myself that's the same kid all these famous coaches want to play for them. I live, breathe and eat college football in the fall. Imagine how it feels if this is your son."

National recruiting guidepost rivals.com lists C.J. as the No. 22 prospect in the nation.

This is the same player who sometimes gets stuck baby-sitting his 6-year-old brother, Rashad.

"C.J. will do anything I tell him to and won't say one word," Charles said. "And he never argues. I can wake him up on Saturday and say 'Son, I need you to cut the grass today.' About 30, no 20, minutes later I hear the lawn mower starting up."

Charles works at Savannah River Site as a team coordinator. A longtime South Carolina fan, he hears reasons for his son to go to Clemson or Georgia every day. Co-workers are excellent recruiters.

"The joke now is they pitch me to get C.J. to go to their school," Charles said. "They say I need a (graduate assistant) position for my oldest daughter to go to graduate school. C.J. gets a new car and I need a parking spot close to the stadium so I won't have to walk too far from my car. The daily joke is a GA, a car and a parking spot."

He gives simple advice for when a phenom pops up at the dinner table.

"Make sure you have caller ID," Charles said. "Every parent would want this, but there's a lot more than most people realize."

Their mailbox is about to fall apart from the weight of all the correspondence college football's elite have shipped to their address.

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL about Byrd? Neutral opinion is the best counsel. Silver Bluff alumnus Corey Chavous, an NFL Pro Bowler, worked out with Byrd and other players during a chance meeting at North Augusta High School this summer.

Chavous was dominant at Silver Bluff, then Vanderbilt and on to a still-rising career in professional football with the Minnesota Vikings.

He knows a future peer when he sees one. He sees much of the same that college coaches see: A reported 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash, the 6-foot-3 frame and 189 pounds of a young man who's already qualified with a solid GPA and SAT. They see a young man who could catch balls or, as Charles puts it, "knock the fool out of somebody."

"I could tell where all those offers came when I saw C.J. move," Chavous said. "He looked so angular. He changed direction so well. The way he moved his hips when he ran showed off his hip flexibility. He had a track stride."

C.J. excelled as a fleet linebacker last season and averaged only three catches and 45 yards per game in 2003. He was the third-best receiver on his team.

The on-field numbers matter little. All the tools are there.

"I was looking at film with a coach the other day and when C.J. really cranks up his engine in the open field, he covers six yards in two strides," North Augusta coach Joe Long said. "That's amazing. It looks like he is gliding out there."

Wide receiver or safety? C.J. has the talent to choose that part of college, too.

"He can be an impact player at the next level," Chavous said. "I'd like to see him at receiver. I think once he learns to drop and dip his hips in and out he can be a real special receiver."

Chavous saw every upside.

"And I think he could play in the league," Chavous said. "Of course, you need the breaks. The NFL is half-talent and half breaks you make for yourself by not being complacent. But I saw desire in C.J. to excel and improve. He is motivated."

Those words are of no concern yet to Poppa and Momma Byrd.

"We don't think of the NFL," Charles Byrd said. "C.J.'s education is the cake. Whatever he does in football is the icing on that cake."

C.J. FIRST STEPPED into varsity action in 2002.

"Oh, man I was sorry," C.J. said. "I was a little timid and I was hyper and running around all over the place. Not real smooth."

He improved. Rivals mistakenly thought he was a senior worthy of a scholarship at the end of that season. He led his team with 87 tackles last season.

He shaved his 40-yard time from a 4.6 to a 4.5 during his junior year. C.J. kept on growing, but his opinion of himself stayed the same. His mother remembers watching Georgia play on television last season with her son.

"I said I liked Georgia and what he thought about playing there one day," Tina Byrd said. "He told me 'Mom, I'm not good enough to play there.' I told my husband that was a good answer. C.J. was hearing everyone tell him he was playing so well, but he still was anything but high on himself."

THE FOLLOWING IS C.J. essentially unfiltered when asked of his college decision.

"I'll choose the school where I want to be the most and then it's just whatever it takes to get me on the field," he said. "I'll play wherever they want me, but I do like both."

C.J. doesn't say much unless prodded, but he delivers these words like Jay Leno or Dave Letterman giving out the late-night monologue.

"I am thinking maybe the early part or the middle of the season about choosing my school," Byrd said. "I change my mind every other day. One day it's this team. The next day I am thinking about that team. That's why I know that I am not ready to commit yet. "

C.J. thinks big picture, besides just who's at each position.

"I try to research everything from the teams to the players to the background of the coaches and how they treat their players," he said. "I even look at the contract status the head coaches are in."

It's the same question from everyone over the past five months - like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

"I think I am saying the same thing over and over," he said.

After one redirection of his train of thought, he offers two nuggets.

"Well, I'm not going to whittle it down any further," he said. "It will be these five. I'm not going to cut down it to a final two or three. And there's been this one school that's always been right up there. Kind of on my mind from the start."

Whether that's the same school coached by the man whose picture sits on his television, Byrd goes no further.

"Some people have mentioned I have this leader or that leader," Byrd said, turning political. "All of these are basically equal. All are great schools."

THESE TEAMS THOUGHT enough of him to offer a scholarship. So C.J. thought it was a good idea to write the schools that established a relationship with him but didn't make his top group. He wrote a letter to express a sincere thanks for their consideration.

"I am thankful for my parents," C.J. said. "Really thankful. They taught me the right ways to live."

Sunday mornings in the Byrd family mean Sunday school and church. C.J. sings in the choir. He's done so since age 6.

"His college choice is going to be rewarded by getting C.J. on the field," Long said. "But the other thing is this is a young man they are never going to have to worry about off the field. They're going to be proud of both the player and the person."

Sometimes a few of life's temptations can smudge character. Or reveal the fact we're all human.

"We are proud of how he handles the attention," Charles said. "I'd be bouncing off the walls if this was me. We didn't drill him to be this way. This was his way."

Charles heard of the offers that were rolling in when taking Rashad to T-ball practice. He read of his son's top five choices in the newspaper.

"I wish he would talk a little more about all of this actually," he said. "Anything we want to know about this, we really have to pull it out of him."

SOMETIMES THE GLARE of the spotlight enhances character. Tina Byrd was stunned when she saw C.J. sign an autograph. He's still rather new at it.

She saw her son's name in script, followed by Philippians 4:13. His parents went to their Bible to be sure.

"It reads, 'I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,' " Tina Byrd said. "We asked him where he got that from. He just said it was something he'd come up with."

When she carried C.J., Tina Byrd worked as a home health nurse. She visited patients deep in the country, with nary a bathroom in sight. She got stuck in an elevator once. Tina climbed into a diabetic's room from a window when she was almost at term.

"My belly got stuck," she said. "I said Charles was going to kill me when he found out. I had to climb in there. That woman might have needed her medication and couldn't have gotten to a phone."

In delivery, the epidural didn't work, so she gave birth naturally. To top it off, a fire at St. Joseph's Hospital kept them from going home.

"All those things that could have happened or gone wrong and there were never any problems," she said. "Every mother thinks this, but I thought because of all that there must be something special about this child."

Special will be the feeling she will get every time she sees her oldest son sign an autograph.

"I thought to myself, this is the same child I got out of bed, fed and sent off to school for all these years," she said. "I was so proud of him that he would think of that. I was so proud I was glowing."

C.J.'s parents often use the same term to describe what C.J. has grown up to be. It's a little more than just special.

"We still say pinches," Charles Byrd said. "Pinches because we sometimes want to be sure that this is all not just a dream."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.

BYRD BITS

What's in a name? C.J comes from Charles, Jr. His parents thought their first child was going to be a boy. So they always called the child C.J. over the term of the pregnancy. It turned out to be C.J.'s older sister Rene. When their second child was a boy (at age 1, right), the choice was obvious.

Big Byrd: C.J.'s dad was always called Big Byrd. His son has since adopted it. His highlight package even includes the Sesame Street song, all the way down to the 'Sunny Days' chorus.