HE COMES TO PRAY : Gill Byrd Wishes Teammates Would Understand Why God, Not Football, Comes First

Times Staff Writer

There are times, Gill Byrd admits, when the hurt is so painful, so disturbing, that he barely can resist crying.

He cringes at the thought, refusing momentarily to allow the words to emerge, but slowly, laboriously, they tumble forth:

"There are times, I don't know, when I kind of feel like an outcast on this team. Guys seem to get uncomfortable when I'm around. Sometimes, I really wonder if they wish I wasn't (playing) somewhere else."

Byrd stops abruptly, as if he has said too much. He knows there are certain teammates who mock him when he's not around. Others don't even try to hide it, taunting him in his presence.

Few pretend to understand him; many have withdrawn from him.

This is a man, by all rights, who should be among the most popular players in a Charger uniform. He's the leader of the defensive secondary, intercepting more passes last year (seven) than any Charger in the past 25 years. And who can remember the last time Byrd had an unkind word about the opposition, let alone a teammate?

Byrd said the problem, if you choose to call it that, is simple.

"I'm a Christian," he said. "I've accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior."

Yeah, OK, Byrd is prepared. He knows the moment those words are uttered, strange things start happening:

Teammates turn their back and walk away. Reporters shut their notebooks and head to the next player. Coaches flinch.

Hey, being a Christian is fine, Byrd has been told, but keep it to yourself. This is a place where football is the name; intimidation is the game. There's no reason to be spreading that kind of stuff around. If the opposition gets wind of this, why, they'll be roaming through the Charger secondary as if it's a flag-football game.

"Hey," Byrd interrupted, "I may not intentionally take a cheap shot at somebody, but when they come into my zone, I'm going to hit them with all of the force of love and strength in Lord Jesus Christ behind it.

"The Bible said to be meek, not weak."

Oh.

Look it up if you want. Byrd dares you. This is a man who can recite Bible verses quicker than he can passages from his play book. He reads the Bible, not Pro Football Weekly, before going to bed. His right-hand man, he says, is Jesus Christ, not the free safety.

"He's my No. 1 man," Byrd said. "I love him more than anything or anyone in the world. My wife and family understand this. They know they're a close second."

In the macho world of the NFL, where Joe Namath was glorified for his womanizing, Jim McMahon idolized for his partying and Max McGee lauded for playing in Super Bowls with vicious hangovers, you can just imagine how the boys in the lockeroom are taking this.

"They had a pretty good time with the Jim Bakker thing," Byrd said, grimacing. "They told me, 'Why should I believe in that stuff? He's supposed to a Christian, and look what he's doing. What kind of example is that?

"I told them that he's just a man. When you look at man, they fall short. Look toward Jesus Christ.

"I'm not sure if anyone bothered to listen. A lot of guys in this league are just too busy playing follow the leader. They don't have any backbone. They don't have any moral values.

"I try to tell them life's too short to be acting this way. But they're having too good of a time to listen."

Marilyn Byrd, Gill's wife, said: "I think that's what makes it so hard for Gill. He just wants so much for them to share what he has that when they reject him and in some cases tease him, that hurts more than anything.

"He just feels so alone."

Why, it would be so easy, so easy, Byrd tells himself, to fall back and be one of the boys in the locker room.

Just sprinkle in a couple of profanities every couple of sentences, head out with the boys to the neighborhood pub after practice, chase a woman or two and, presto, instant popularity.

"No one ever said this was going to be easy," Byrd said, "but this is the way I've chosen to live my life. I walk into the locker room, hearing guys cursing, talking crazy, maybe passing pictures around of naked women. They'll see me come in, and say, 'Oh, excuse me Gill. I'm sorry.'

"I say, 'Hey, don't apologize to me. I'm not the one you should be apologizing to. I'm not the one you're going to have to pass judgment to.'

"But you know how it is where there are a lot of guys around. There's boldness in numbers. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot.

"But what are you going to do?"

Byrd's skin darkens with embarrassment as he recall his days at Lowell High School in San Francisco. His father was a San Francisco cop, and to this day, Byrd has kept the secret away from him.

Byrd doesn't know quite how to put this, but, uh, he was kind of a hoodlum in high school. Oh, he didn't mess around with guns and wasn't terrorizing the school or anything like that. But he was a pretty good little cat burglar, if he does say so himself.

Each day after school, Byrd and his buddies would patrol the hallways and break into lockers, stealing everything they could find. They would stash the goods in their own lockers until the following morning and sell them to a middleman who would go to the neighborhood pawnbroker. They'd be in the clear before the property was reported stolen.

It was so easy.

It also was so stupid, Byrd says.

"I can't even imagine what would have happened if I got caught," Byrd said, his eyes opening wide. "Can you imagine if I got caught? The son of a San Francisco police officer getting arrested?

"Oooh, I don't think I'd be alive today to even tell this story."

Still, Byrd lived a pretty clean life. He refused the temptation of drugs, which was easy, he said, after seeing a cousin ruin his life. The only time he drank was the night of his high school graduation. ("I drank champagne until I got sick, that was the last time I tried anything.") And he was an excellent student.

A great football player?

Nah, this was a kid who couldn't even get a college scholarship.

He was a walk-on at San Jose State. His biggest role his freshman year was holding the blocking dummies.

He progressed quickly, becoming an honorable mention All-America cornerback his sophomore year, but a torn ligament in his right knee seemingly ended his football days.

"I was told I'd never play another down," Byrd said.

Well, here it is eight years later, and Byrd is entering his seventh season as a Charger starter. He has overcome allergies to grass, a rapid heartbeat that must be closely monitored, his size (5-feet-11, 191 pounds), his speed (4.6 in the 40), and yes, persecution because of his strong religious convictions.

"It hasn't been easy for Gill," Marilyn Byrd said, "especially since Sherman Smith (a former Charger who persuaded Byrd to become a Christian in 1983) left. That was kind of his mentor. Now he's by himself.

"It's different, though, when he gets on the field. I remember once, I think it was in 1986, when Gill was in the middle of this fight. All the other (players' wives) in the stands are looking at me? Gill? Is that Gill in a fight?

"What happened was that someone spit at Gill, and he pushed him. When I talked to him afterwards, he was just so glad that everyone came to his side, he already had forgotten about what he was mad about in the first place.

"He knows that some of his teammates are really offended by his beliefs. You'd think they couldn't stand him the way some of them talk. But he knows when he goes on that field, at least, they think the world of him."

Byrd, playing for his third Charger head coach, with the seventh different quarterback directing the offense, vows that he'll maintain the same perspective he has in each of his six previous seasons.

He will be the Chargers' starting right cornerback Sunday in their season opener against the Raiders. He has bounced around in more positions in the organization than one of George Steinbrenner's ex-managers, starting at five positions in the defensive backfield. Since he is shorter than a lot of kickers and slower than most linebackers, who thought he'd be around this long?

"Who knows how much longer I can keep playing?" Byrd, 28, said, "but I definitely want to be here when we turn this thing around. I'm looking for a lot of good things to happen this year."

When Byrd hits his knees Sunday before the game at the Coliseum, he'll pray for a successful and distinguished season, just as he does at the beginning of every year. He'll pray, he said, for the welfare of the organization "from Alex Spanos on down," pray that no one on either team suffers a serious injury . . . and yes, he'll pray for a Charger victory.

"I always pray for those," he said. "I've had guys come up to me and say, 'Hey, should you be praying for that type of stuff?. I say, 'Why not? You shouldn't be afraid to ask for anything.' "

Hmmm, does it ever puzzle Byrd then that with all his prayers, the Chargers have had just one winning season since 1983, and that was during the strike-shortened 1987 season?

"The trouble is," Byrd said, smiling, "the guys on the other side of the field are praying, too.

"Not much you can do about that."

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