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Trojans’ Big Byrd

Times Staff Writer

Dominique Byrd launched his body through the mist at Reser Stadium, extended his 6-foot-3, 265-pound body on a nearly horizontal plane and snatched the ball out of the foggy air with one hand as he landed in the end zone.

Byrd’s touchdown catch started USC on its way to a comeback victory over Oregon State last weekend at Corvallis. The Mike Williams-esque play also erased any doubt about the junior tight end’s recovery from knee injuries that cut short a promising sophomore season and delayed the beginning of his junior campaign.

“We’re starting to use him the way we hoped we could,” Norm Chow, USC’s offensive coordinator, said this week. “Dominique can do a lot of different things. You can put him places all over the field.”

Byrd, who caught a career-best seven passes and scored two touchdowns against Oregon State, equates his burgeoning role in USC’s offense with his journey through life.

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“I seem to be a rough-start guy who comes on strong at the end,” Byrd said. “As soon as I figure things out and find my niche, I do all right.”

As evidence, Byrd points to his academic and athletic experiences at the predominantly white, tony school he attended in suburban Minneapolis. Also his first training camp at USC. And last week’s breakout game against Oregon State, which helped the top-ranked Trojans remain unbeaten and on track for an appearance in the bowl championship series title game.

In each situation, Byrd adapted to new surroundings and ultimately progressed or flourished.

“I’ve always told Dominique that he could be anything he wanted to be if he was willing to work for it,” Cheryl Bowens, Byrd’s mother, said in a telephone interview. “And it isn’t always going to be easy.”

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Byrd, 20, said he learned that lesson early at Breck School, a college preparatory school of about 1,200 students that annually sends its graduates to many of the nation’s top universities.

Byrd grew up in urban South Minneapolis, but Bowens said that after her son completed kindergarten she sought opportunity for him at Breck, where tuition and fees exceed $18,000 a year, according to the school’s website.

Marion Jones Kennon, Breck’s director of financial aid and assistant director of admissions, said the school commits $2.7 million for financial aid for students of all backgrounds.

“This became Dominique’s second home and in many ways it became his mother’s second home too,” Kennon said. “She did whatever she could as a parent, and in other ways, to partner with the school.”

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Byrd said he cherished his years at Breck -- “You got to have a relationship where my teacher from first grade was there for my graduation. It was like family.” -- but he also was molded by friendships closer to home.

“Sometimes, I struggled with not having more people who looked like me around, especially when I was younger, but my balance came from that I lived right in the inner city,” Byrd said. “Not many people in my school lived where I did and my mom always stressed to me that the people at Breck weren’t the only people that mattered.

“I always played in the park league, where I knew those kids and got to hang out with young black kids. I had the best of both worlds.”

In his first football game as a 6-1, 195-pound ninth-grader for Breck, Byrd played running back and fumbled four times. He switched to wide receiver the next week and finished his prep career four years later as perhaps the best player in school history. He also played defense.

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“He was pretty much unstoppable,” said Nick Vanderboom, who played quarterback at Breck, came to USC as a walk-on and is now on scholarship as a tight end.

John Thiel, who has coached football at Breck for 16 years, said Byrd’s most memorable play came on a punt he returned for a touchdown. Byrd caught the ball, broke three tackles and began running along the sideline in front of Breck’s bench.

“A kid hit him in the ankles and he did a cartwheel and landed back on his feet,” Thiel said. “Now, it wasn’t the prettiest cartwheel -- a gymnastics coach would not have liked it -- but when I saw him do that I started to believe this young man can do anything.”

By his senior season, Byrd had caught the attention of colleges across the country. He was considering Notre Dame, Boston College and Colorado before he took a recruiting trip to USC with his mother in January 2002.

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“I walked off the plane and it was 70 degrees -- that was definitely a plus,” he said.

Byrd committed to the Trojans during the trip, signed with USC the next month and arrived for training camp ready to make the transition to tight end.

Two weeks into workouts, however, he said he failed to recognize an opportunity.

“There was a day where I think I dropped five passes,” he recalled. “Coach [Pete] Carroll said, ‘Maybe a better place for you would be coming off the edge,’ ” as a defensive lineman.

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The experiment lasted 10 days.

“I went back to Coach Carroll, very respectfully, and said I thought I would like to go back to tight end,” Byrd said.

Byrd caught one pass as a backup to Alex Holmes and played on special teams in 2002. Last season, with Holmes out because of a back injury, Byrd started the first six games, but suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while blocking on a running play against Stanford.

“Before then, I had never had stitches ... the only thing I had done was roll an ankle,” he said.

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Byrd had surgery, and then began the long process of rehabilitation. By spring practice, he was doing running drills.

When spring workouts ended, Byrd, an all-star basketball player in high school, began playing pickup games with receiver Mike Williams and others in the months leading up to summer. He also participated in every summer football workout.

“I felt like I was in the best shape of my life,” he said.

But a week before training camp began, Byrd took part in a five-on-five basketball game at the Lyon Center on campus. Byrd said he was “getting the best of” Williams when he made a fake and then started a move for a turnaround jump shot. Williams bit on the fake, but caught Byrd’s knee with his foot as he sailed past.

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“I felt a pop and walked out of the gym,” Byrd said. “I was just hoping and praying it wasn’t an ACL.”

Byrd sustained a broken kneecap and was told he would miss six to eight weeks. He returned for the Trojans’ fifth game against California, caught three passes the next week against Arizona State and five against both Washington and Washington State.

Byrd’s 18-yard touchdown catch against Oregon State, made with a defender holding one arm behind his back, was his first since Oct. 9, 2003 against Cal. He also scored on a 25-yard pass in the third quarter when he lined up wide to the right.

“He runs like a receiver, but he weighs 265 pounds, so other teams have trouble matching up,” USC quarterback Matt Leinart said. “He’s a big-time player. You’ve just got to throw it in the vicinity and he’ll catch it.”

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Byrd is eligible for the 2005 NFL draft, but he said he would remain at USC for his senior season. He is intent on graduating with a degree in African American studies and showing his full range of ability on the field.

“All the things I was doing in high school, I have the ability to do here,” he said. “I want to prove, not only to other people, but to myself that I can play a full season.”


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