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Byrd Showing Big Improvement : Recovery: Six weeks after neck injury, he can lift his right leg, shake hands and wave.

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From Associated Press

In a hospital conference room jammed with photographers and reporters, Dennis Byrd tapped his right foot on the floor.

Then someone handed him a cup of water and Byrd held it up to his lips with his right hand and sipped.

He shook hands. He waved. He did things he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to do again.

Six weeks ago, Byrd, 26, was carried off the field at Giants Stadium, his neck broken from a collision with a New York Jet teammate. On Tuesday, he spent an hour talking about how far his faith and medical science have taken him.

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He had plenty to show off.

“I can lift my right leg off the ground,” he said. “I can’t walk on it, yet. My left leg is behind by a couple of weeks.

“I was in a waist-deep water tank and I stood and supported my own weight. I balanced myself for 15 seconds. It was a big step emotionally. It was sort of like standing on a flagpole because it was hard to get my balance.”

The triumphs that come in small doses, when they come, are his rewards. Wearing a Jet T-shirt and jacket, Byrd sat in a wheelchair next to his wife, Angela, and talked for the first time about his progress.

“Everything is coming slowly but surely. Each time I work on something and it gets better, that’s encouraging.

“The physical therapy is difficult,” Byrd said. “If it hurt this much to play football, I probably would have quit a long time ago.”

The first sign of recovery came about a week into Byrd’s hospitalization when he was able to twitch his toe. Since then, strength has slowly returned to his leg and he is now able to contract the muscle in his thigh.

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Dr. Kristjan Ragnarsson, chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said Byrd’s recovery has been slow but that this is normal for this injury.

“He can move his right leg quite well. He has a weak grasp in his right hand. The motion in his left side is not as strong as it is on his right side,” Ragnarsson said.

Byrd smiled often during the news conference. His voice cracked and his eyes welled up when he talked about Angela. “I want to thank my wife,” he began. Then he paused. “This has been the hardest time of my life . . . and she’s been beside me every step of the way.”

Said Angela: “We’re going to make it through this. Dennis is going to walk someday. We’ll stick together until that time comes and we’ll rejoice together when it’s over.”

Byrd said he harbors no ill feelings toward football. “I still love it. It’s part of my life. It’s a physical, violent game. That’s the way it is. Daryl Stingley, Mike Utley, myself, particularly Utley and myself the last two years, are accidents of coincidence. I ended up, unfortunately, a statistic.”

Utley was paralyzed in 1991 when he fell on his head while blocking. Stingley was paralyzed in 1978, when he was leveled by Jack Tatum.

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“My struggle, my goal, is to walk again,” Byrd said, “to hold my children, to function the way I used to, to do sentimental things, to take a walk.

“I’ll play football again. I just won’t wear pads.”

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