The “fullback dive” now carries a whole new meaning in Happy Valley. Even while working in the murkiest of waters, hundreds of feet below sea level, P.J. Byers, a 26-year-old walk-on, never lost sight of his dream to play football for the Nittany Lions. At 10:30 a.m. ET this Saturday on BTN’s pregame show, viewers get the chance to learn of Byers’ remarkable journey, as well as learn about the memento from his father, Pat Byers, that foreshadowed his success.
“The interview I did with Byers’s dad was one of the most compelling interviews I’ve ever done,” BTN feature producer Dan Lindberg said. “Sometimes when we do interviews people have a tough time conveying their emotions, but when you hear Pat speak, it’s very easy to recognize how much he truly cares about his son.”
In 1992 Pat Byers approached coach Joe Paterno for an autograph while at a banquet for the Big 33 Football Classic, an all-star game showcasing players from Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“I walked up to him and said, ‘Coach could you make this out to my little boy? I didn’t get to go to Penn State, but someday I wish he could meet you.'” Rather than present the autographed program to his son, Pat Byers stashed it away. P.J. Byers never even knew his dad had it.
Without any overwhelming offers to play football in college, P.J. Byers enlisted in the Navy, which placed him in a delayed-entry program for a year. He chose to attend Marietta College in Ohio, where he played football and threw the javelin.
The following year the son completed his boot-camp training and became a Navy diver. After five years stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and in San Diego doing underwater repair work on submarines, he sought officer status. During his time in San Diego, he also played football for the San Diego Thunder in the developmental league, where he significantly increased his size and strength while gaining valuable experience.
If accepted into the highly competitive program, he would become an officer after he finished his bachelor’s degree. After being accepted, his choice of a university was a no-brainer. Now officially a Nittany Lion, the dream was halfway complete.
At 25, Byers, who remains on active duty for the Navy, tried out for the football team and was one of few selected.
Nearly two decades after meeting Paterno, the time was now right for the father to surprise his son with the treasured keepsake.
“He called me and said, ‘Dad, I made it. We made it,'” Pat Byers said. “I said ‘I’m coming up to see you this weekend. I’ve got something I want to show you.'”
As if achieving his dream of playing football at Penn State wasn’t incredible enough, a Paterno-autographed program that read, “P.J., I’ll be waiting” made the accomplishment even more surreal.
“It just kind of ties everything together,” P.J. Byers said.
— Written by Derek Reinglass, BTN Communications