Before every game, junior safety Jamie Byrd Jr. sits in the locker room scrolling through pictures of his 6-month-old daughter Aniya, which remind him why he plays football.
The hard-hitting Byrd left his hometown of Dade City after his senior year of high school to pursue a football career at Texas Christian University.
Byrd struggled adjusting to life away from home and after two years with TCU and a year at Iowa Western Community College; he said it was time to come home.
“It’s a great feeling (being home), because I have thousands of followers here,” Byrd said. “I had them in high school, but in college it grew. When I went to TCU I wasn’t playing much so they wondered what I was up to. Then I went to junior college, which was another step off the planet. Here, I’m right here in front of them, in front of my hometown like coach T told me.”
But Byrd’s return home has more to do with living near his family again, who have been an important factor in his success on the field.
“My parents played a big roll (in my athletic career),” Byrd said. “My mom, she’s my biggest critic and was always stricter. I kept asking ‘why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do that?’ and never understood it. Now I do. I look at my friends that had parents that would let them do whatever they wanted to do and where they’re at now compared to where I am. I thank my mom for being so strict on me.”
As Byrd grew up, he filled his time with football and that was all he needed.
“I played both youth football and middle school football and at one point I played both of them at the same time, so I really had a busy schedule as a young boy,” he said.
When he didn’t have his eyes set on a quarterback, he focused his sights on a TV screen, challenging his friends.
Byrd’s competitive nature enabled him to wreak havoc on the football field of Pasco High School, much like his father did years before.
“I’ve just tried to live up to my dad,” Byrd said. “All my life I’ve heard how hard of a hitter he was, so I just tried to be better than he was.”
Byrd’s dad remains his biggest critic and coach.
“My dad was just that coach in my ear, coaching me up on everything football and the things my mom couldn’t,” Byrd said.
The biggest thing Byrd took away from his dad was his love for tackling and big hits.
“It’s always been my focus to be the hardest hitter, to be the most feared guy on the field,” Byrd said. “I look up to safeties like that. I model my game after them like Ed Reed, or even Ray Lewis as a linebacker. They made me want to be a bigger hitter.”
These hard hits caught the eye of second year coach Willie Taggart.
“He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low (with his emotion), but he’ll hit you, “ Taggart said. “That’s what we saw on film when we recruited him and that’s what stood out; he’s going to make you feel him when he hits you.”
Out of high school, Byrd committed to Boise State, but when a school with a closer proximity to home called, he didn’t hesitate to take the offer.
“I ended up getting that call from (Texas Christian University) a couple of days before signing day so I figured Texas was a little closer,” Byrd said. “They were both winning teams so I wanted to choose the school that was closer to home.”
Moving day is a rough day for anyone, but for Byrd, it was an opportunity.
“I try to hide my emotions, but it was an emotional day,” Byrd said. “My mom and my girl took it to heart, but I was ready to get away and find out what that college life was like after seeing so much about it on TV I wanted to make a name for myself, so I was more focused on that.”
TCU was nothing special to Byrd. He said there was little to do for him off the football field.
“In Florida, this is home,” Byrd said. “I have so much I can do here. I can go to my hometown, which I do every other weekend. I have to see my daughter as much as I can.”
Byrd was only able to come home twice during the year he spent at TCU, and after lack of playing time and a coaching change, he would once again uproot his life and move.
Word about his discontent with the school traveled quickly and Byrd soon received a call from an old high school teammate, who persuaded him to come to Iowa Western Community College, which had just won the 2012 Junior College National Championship.
“I didn’t touch the field hardly at all so I had no confidence in what I could do, so I felt like why not go to (junior college) and build that confidence back up and get bigger and better offers,” Byrd said.
Byrd described his time at Iowa Western as simply a business trip, he didn’t want to spend anymore time than he had to, but knew it was an important leg of his journey.
“(Junior college) made me a better man and made me want things more,” Byrd said. “Once you go back to that level, it’s every man for himself. You don’t get all of the perks of a D-I school; you have to take advantage of what you have.”
Once the time came to leave Iowa, Byrd said he had offers from around the country, but knew it was time to go home after being away for almost three years.
“My parents thought it’d be a bad idea, worrying that I’d get in trouble and get into some stuff at home, but me being away made me more mature than that,” Byrd said.
Byrd said his family now makes it to every home game and watches on TV when the Bulls hit the road.
The distance between him and his daughter is now almost nonexistent, something Byrd appreciates the most.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Byrd said. “I look to my daughter for motivation, so for me to be right here, with her and see her grow is just amazing.”