Who was area’s first-ever first round NFL pick? A two-sport star at Lincolnton, an All-American at N.C. State and later a West Lincoln coach
By Richard Walker
Whenever all-time lists of great area athletes are done, Lincolnton’s Dennis Byrd almost always is in the discussion.
An athlete versatile enough to play offensive and defensive tackle in high school while also setting a league scoring record in basketball, Byrd’s stature as a top athlete is as imposing as the 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame he had when he became the area’s first first-round NFL draft pick in 1968.
A 1964 Lincolnton High graduate, Byrd was a three-time all-conference tackle in football and three-time all-conference selection in basketball for the Wolves of the early 1960s.
He helped Lincolnton to its second football league title in history as a junior in 1962 when the the Wolves of Von Ray Harris tied Shelby for the conference championship and were voted by rival coaches to represent the league in the playoffs and finished 8-2-1 overall. In 1963, he played for a 6-3-1 team that dedicated the Battleground Memorial Stadium the school still uses and a was selected to the prestigious Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas.
In basketball, he helped Lincolnton to fourth-, third- and second-place finishes in the Southwestern Conference while setting a conference scoring record with 44 points against East Rutherford in February 1963. That record stood for 10 years.
But that was only a warmup act for what Byrd would do for the N.C. State football program after he chose to play for the Wolfpack and veteran coach Earle Edwards.
At a time when NCAA rules forbade freshman from playing on the varsity, Byrd used the year of seasoning to help him become the first three-time first-team All-ACC selection in N.C. State history from 1965 to 1967 while helping the Wolfpack to top league finishes and national recognition.
N.C. State went 20-11 overall and 14-6 in the ACC during Byrd’s three varsity seasons, winning a share of the conference title in 1965 and finishing runner-up in 1966 and 1967.
The 1967 season is remembered most since the Wolfpack rose as high as a school-best No. 3 national ranking with an 8-0 start that included a win at No. 2 Houston. Byrd was the star of what was called the “White Shoes” defense that capped its season with N.C. State’s first postseason bowl victory in a Liberty Bowl triumph of Georgia.
“All I had ever known growing up was ACC football, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Byrd said in a 2007 interview. “There was not much question I was going to stay in state, and I wanted to play for N.C. State. I am not a big person for going out or being part of the night life. I’m not that kind of person.
“I am more of a down-to-earth person, and that’s what appealed to me about N.C. State. I thought I could play anywhere in the country, but I wanted to stay here. I just wanted to play football.”
Byrd proved that by being the first consensus All-American in N.C. State history and by being selected No. 6 overall by the Boston Patriots (now New England) in the 1968 NFL Draft. He is the second of 17 first-round picks in N.C. State history and is tied for fifth-highest in program history; Roman Gabriel (1962) and Mario Williams (2006) were No. 1 overall selections, Philip Rivers (2004) went No. 4, Bradley Chubb (2018) No. 5 and Byrd and Torry Holt (1999) went No. 6.
A knee injury Byrd first suffered during his senior year of 1967 eventually ended his pro career after only one season of regular season games; Byrd started all 14 games for the Patriots in 1968, missed the 1969 season with the injury and retired from football after spending 1970 training camp with the New York Giants.
Byrd would return home to Lincolnton where he coached West Lincoln High’s football team to 23 wins as head coach from 1974 to 1980. His 6-4 team in 1977 was the only Rebels’ team with a winning record from 1973 to 1984. He later was a longtime assistant coach at Elizabeth City Northeastern High School before retiring from coaching and teaching in 2004.
Because of his extraordinary athletic success, Byrd was showered with many honors.
In 2001, N.C. State retired his No. 77 jersey.
In 2002, he was inducted into the Lincoln County Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2003, he was named to the ACC’s 50th anniversary football team.
In 2007, he was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
And in 2014, he was inducted into the N.C. State Athletic Hall of Fame.
Byrd died on July 23, 2010 at 63.