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Penn State Wrestling’s Jeff Byers: The Maestro at the Microphone

by on February 09, 2017 5:00 AM

If you’re a Penn State wrestling fan, you may be wondering what you’ve done to deserve all of this...  

Your jaw dropped in April of 2009 when Penn State hired Cael Sanderson, a four-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist,  to serve as its head wrestling coach. And it dropped further in March of 2011 when the Nittany Lion wrestlers won their first NCAA team title since 1953.   

You would have settled for one national championship — team or individual — every six or eight years, but now you’re looking back at a staggering five NCAA team titles and 11 individual crowns over the past six seasons.  

And there’s one more thing. You’ve enjoyed Nittany Lion triumphs because of a truly remarkable radio announcer. Yes, the Lions not only have an incredible coach who has recruited and trained some incredible wrestlers. They also have a maestro at the microphone, a man named Jeff Byers.

PLAUDITS FROM PIFER

Byers is truly a master of his craft — articulate, entertaining and passionate. But don’t take it from me.  Take it from the dean of local wrestling, Ron Pifer. Pifer won two state championships for Bellefonte High School in the 1950s, reached All-American status three times at Penn State and coached State College High School for 10 years. He likes what he hears from Byers.

“He just brings so much energy to the sport of wrestling,” says Pifer. “He doesn’t get so involved with the name of it (a particular move or a hold), but he’s focused on the outcome. You’re listening to the radio and all of a sudden you start to move your body around because this guy’s got the other guy’s leg and that guy’s got this guy’s arm, and  ‘I think he’s going to come around on him... and he does!’”  

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I like to tell people that the man known as “Ironhead” helped me endure seven years in Texas. Please don’t take that as a slap at Texas. The Lone Star State is certainly home to some great folks and some of the best eatin’ you can imagine. But Texas wrestling is somewhere between weak and non-existent. Yes, weak at the high school level, and I’m an eyewitness as a fan. (How did Bo Nickal come from a scholastic program in Allen, Texas?) And non-existent at the college level. (Texas has zero NCAA wrestling programs in the entire state). If you ask a typical Texan to describe a cross-body ride, he’ll probably think you’re talking about rodeo.  

So there we were — my wife and I lived in Austin from 2006 to 2013 — at the very time when my alma mater emerged into greatness. What would I do in this wrestling wasteland? Fortunately, I found Penn State wrestling on the Internet, and that’s when I discovered the masterful Jeff Byers.  

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Sports fans typically appreciate a good announcer, but they rarely analyze his or her strengths. So what makes Byers special? Well, he provides an appropriate degree of wrestling detail — defining moves but making sure he doesn’t get bogged down in arcane terminology. He roots for the Nittany Lions, but he is exceedingly fair and even complimentary to opposing wrestlers. He is super-passionate at critical moments of a match, nearly roaring into the microphone. And he’ll offer an occasional chuckle when something odd takes place, diffusing the competitive tension and reminding his listeners that the future of the planet does not hinge upon whether Penn State beats Iowa or Oklahoma State.

Byers has been broadcasting Nittany Lion matches since 1990, and he’s racked up plenty of plaudits and awards since then. He was honored as “Broadcaster of the Year” in 2007 by the National Wrestling Media Association, and he has twice been selected as WIN magazine’s “Journalist of the Year.” Said WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley, “Jeff finds a way to build excitement into every minute of Penn State matches. Listening to him gives listeners a chance to hear a true master at his craft.”

Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson talks on the air with Byers. Photo courtesy Penn State.

FATHER AND SON

Byers’ passion for wrestling stems directly from his background. He learned the sport from his dad, Jim Byers, a topflight grappler for State College High School who placed second at the 1958 PIAA state finals. Jim later served as assistant coach at Penns Valley High School, and Jeff has vivid memories of the Rams when he was five- or six-years-old. Says Jeff, “I remember watching the high school matches thinking, ‘This is very cool and unbelievable.’ I thought Penns Valley against Sugar Valley was as big as it gets.”

Jeff and Jim have enjoyed their lifelong interaction over wrestling, and even today, the younger Byers sometimes consults his dad on some aspect of a wrestling broadcast. Theirs is a mutual passion that sometimes pops up in unexpected situations.

“When my mom’s dad passed away,” says Jeff, “of course, we went to his funeral. At the viewing that night, it was time for the Penn State-Iowa meet and I would normally have been there (Rec Hall) calling it. So my Dad and I took turns — at that time we didn’t have cell phones — and we would go to this little room off of the viewing area that had a phone in it. We had called back to the studio and they put our call on hold so we could listen to the match. It was actually Cary Kolat’s debut — he pinned Bill Zadick that night.”

So, Jeff, how did your mom feel about this wrestling intrusion at the funeral home? “She wasn’t thrilled,” he says, “but she tolerated it. She understood it was a huge match... The fact that her dad was a sports nut who would have gotten a kick out of it made it tolerable for her.”

Despite the fact that Byers took on his dad’s love of wrestling, he seems to have inherited few of his father’s mat skills. “I was an awful wrestler,” says Jeff. “I’m not exaggerating. I was truly awful. I don’t think I ever won a JV bout; I was probably 0-16. I loved the sport, I truly loved it, but I just did not have the instincts for it or the hips for it — the flexibility.”   

WHY THE NAME “IRONHEAD?”

Though he failed as a wrestler, Byers was a good football player at State High and even tried to make the Penn State team as a walk-on. That effort was unsuccessful, but it did produce something else — Byers’ legendary nickname. A Puerto Rican student in his dorm would often ask Jeff about his progress on the football team. The only thing that Leo Garcia knew about the gridiron sport was that Pitt had a player named Craig “Ironhead” Hayward, so Garcia began referring to Byers as “Ironhead.” The name has followed him into all the facets of his career — covering Penn State wrestling, co-hosting a show on WRSC called “The Morning Guys,” and handling other sports duties for WRSC.      

Anyone who listens to Byers’ work for Penn State will sense that he cares about wrestlers as much as he cares about wrestling. “When you see a kid that you know has put everything into it and then you see it pay off, it’s rewarding,” he says. So if you ask Ironhead to talk about his favorite memories, he’ll mention these kinds of achievements by highly-dedicated wrestlers:

  • Kerry McCoy, NCAA champion at heavyweight in 1994 and 1997:

    “Kerry McCoy’s first national title was special because his freshman year he was so quiet and he struggled. It was not a great year because he was cutting so much weight, and it was making him miserable. So he decided he was going to move up to heavyweight, and he was an undersized heavyweight. But he breezed through that season. And to watch him and his mom hugging in the stands was just a really neat moment.”

  • John Lange, NCAA 3rd place finish at 158 pounds in 1998:

    “I don’t remember my exact call of Lange’s third place match, but it was something to the effect of, ‘Sometimes when a dream is shattered, something better can come along.’ He lost his first round match and he was the first wrestler to come back and take third after losing his first match. He won seven straight matches after losing that first bout, and he avenged his first round loss along the way. We knew he was capable of winning a national title, but to have that dream taken away in the first bout and still have enough drive to win third place, he showed a lot of heart.”

  • Nico Megaludis, NCAA champion at 125 pounds in 2016:

    “Nico was very special because he put so much into it. I don’t know that I’ve been as nervous for a kid going into a match as I was for him — just because I knew how much it meant to him, how much he had put into it. And so I called him ‘The Golden Greek’ at some point, and then I said, ‘He wasn’t just Ludis, he was Megaludis tonight!’“

Will Ironhead — and his listeners — enjoy similar thrills during the 2017 NCAA championships next month? Jeff, for one, is bullish about the Lions’ chances for a sixth team title in seven years. “If they stay healthy,” he says, “they’ll win.” But he also is quick to emphasize that it’s not only the winning that causes him to love his work.

“You go to a Jason Nolf or a Bo Nickal or a Zain Retherford,” says Byers, “and these guys are really special people above and beyond being wrestlers. They’re bringing passion every day, and they’re bringing a humility with them every day. I consider myself to be very, very fortunate to be in the position I’m in right now.”

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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