Double Duty: Saturday's Navy Game has Added Meaning for PJ Byers
PJ Byers did not always envision himself running out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium. Byers, an active duty member of the Navy’s officer program, once accepted the likelihood of never playing college football in order to focus on his military training toward becoming an explosive ordnance disposal officer.
When he was accepted into the officer program, he was able to choose any college he wanted in order to earn a degree, a requirement for the program. The choice was simple. He attended Penn State football games as a boy, growing up outside Pittsburgh. Here was his chance to rededicate himself to a sport he loved, and he walked onto the program in 2010.
“After I got picked up by Penn State I actually did see myself running through that tunnel because we carry a confidence level, we carry tradition with us, we carry pride,” Byers said Tuesday in advance of Penn State’s meeting with Navy on Saturday. “I saw myself running through that tunnel because I knew that I could do it, and I was able to accomplish that task mentally already. I saw myself doing it, so I did it.”
It would not be a surprise to see Byers named a game captain Saturday by coach Bill O’Brien, despite being a member of the scout team who does not regularly see much game action. O’Brien has said he would like to give each senior an opportunity to represent Penn State at midfield for the opening coin flip, and Byers might seem like an appropriate candidate against the Midshipmen. Regardless, the game will have added significance for Byers, who spent three years stationed in Pearl Harbor learning to do underwater submarine repairs and demolition of explosives.
Byers keeps a copy of the speech Navy SEAL and former Penn State defensive tackle Rick Slater gave to the team earlier this summer. He also has an electronic copy of the speech with the hope he can read it to the men he one day leads. On his wrist is a G-Shock military watch, a cheap underwater watch the service provides.
“I dove down to 150 feet,” Byers said. “I guess that’s not too deep, but maybe to some people it could be deep.”
Byers dropped out of Marietta College in Ohio — where he played one year of football — to join the Navy. His father Pat will say he begged his son never to enlist. In a Big Ten Network video story, Pat said he pleaded for his son to drop his right hand when pledging his service because it was a time of war. Three years prior, terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Another was overtaken and crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., just less than 70 miles from where Byers grew up in Monroeville.
“When this happened, I was a sophomore in high school and it was one of the small things that triggered me to push forward into joining the military,” Byers said. “Those people will never be forgotten. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of us are here fighting for what we do.”
Perhaps the only thing that could match his love for his country is his love for football. In 1992, Pat Byers attended a banquet in Hershey also attended by the former coach Joe Paterno. Pat got his program signed by the late coach and kept it hidden from his son for almost 20 years. When PJ earned a roster spot as a walk-on, Pat drove to State College and showed his son Paterno’s note to his boy, seven words scribbled in blue ink, hand-written in cursive.
It read: “Dear PJ, I’ll be waiting for you.”