MTSU is retiring Kevin Byard's No. 20, an honor about much more than football | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Of the factors that lined up to send Kevin Byard to Middle Tennessee State's football team, most were out of his control.

For one, MTSU’s coaching staff had the foresight to offer him a scholarship. Most other Division I programs – including the Power Fives – didn’t raise a finger. The closest Byard got to the SEC was Kentucky, which invited him for a visit because it was interested in him as a wide receiver, and then opted not to offer a scholarship anyway.

Whoops, eh, UK?

"I wanted to be in the SEC," Byard said. "... But once I knew that wasn't going to work, MT was always there.

Middle Tennessee State University head football coach Rick Stockstill hugs Tennessee Titans free safety Kevin Byard as the announcement is made to retire Byard's college number at MTSU after a Titans practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

"Things work out in mysterious ways."

As Byard has become an All-Pro defensive back for the Tennessee Titans, he has also continued to represent the university where he starred for four seasons, ending in 2015, and continued to give back to the Nashville area in which he has thrived.

One of the best, most popular players in Blue Raiders history has become one of the best, most popular players on the Titans, making the following decision as easy and obvious as it is justified:

MTSU is retiring Byard's No. 20 jersey number. 

He will become only the second MTSU football player to be so honored, joining 1960s quarterback Teddy Morris, whose No. 14 was retired.

MTSU coach Rick Stockstill and others representing the university honored Byard with an announcement after the Titans’ training camp practice Thursday. The ceremony is set for Sept. 30 during MTSU's home game against UTSA.

“This honor is based on what he did here,” Stockstill told The Tennessean. “It has nothing to do with what he’s done with the Titans. To me, that makes it that much more special. …

“To me, this is not just based on ‘What I did between the white lines.’ This is everything he did in his five years here, how he represented this university, this program and how he represents himself and his family.”

Tennessee Titans free safety Kevin Byard (31) signs autographs for fans before facing the Miami Dolphins at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

When the star ratings are wrong

Byard was a four-year starter at MTSU. He remains the program's all-time leader in interceptions (19) and interception return yards (377). The Titans got a steal by selecting Byard in the third round of the NFL Draft in 2016.

For the past five seasons, Byard hasn't missed a game while operating as the quarterback of the Titans’ defense. Coach Mike Vrabel often points to him as an example for younger players of what it takes to be successful in the NFL, to the point that Vrabel has asked Byard at times not to say anything at practice so teammates have to rely more on themselves.

"He's the embodiment of what being a Titan means," fellow Titans safety Amani Hooker said of Byard. "He comes in and works every day with high expectations. He has high standards for himself, and he lives up to them."

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It’s comical now to think that Byard – one of the best safeties in the NFL – was so overlooked as a recruit, even though he was a celebrated high school player. He attained All-State honors for Martin Luther King Jr. High School near Atlanta.

But college coaches questioned his ability. They questioned his speed. They saw him more as a wide receiver, and since he was only 5-foot-11, that wasn’t a good thing.

He was a two-star, ranked as the No. 117 overall prospect in Georgia in 2011, which had a lot to do with the fact that Byard didn’t participate in the recruiting camps at which players get discovered. Those camps required time and money – two things he didn’t have a lot of then.

Byard was the second-oldest of seven kids. When he was in ninth grade, Byard’s mother, Artina Stanley, moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta amid a divorce. Kevin helped look after his younger brothers and sisters while his mom worked. Mature beyond his years, he'd go to school and practice and then come home and help cook and clean.

"I think that's part of him," Stockstill said.

MTSU safety Kevin Byard.

A special honor 

For Byard, MTSU's honor arrives at a tough time personally. His mother died  earlier this summer.

“Some days are tough,” said Byard at the start of training camp.

Thursday's MTSU announcement was originally planned for June's mandatory minicamp but rescheduled as Byard returned home. 

He has said he wants to dedicate not just this season – but each day – to her memory.

"It might sound weird," he said, "but I talk to my mom a lot and I can just hear her voice pretty much say, ‘Just keep your foot on the gas.’ That’s what I’m going to keep doing every single day.”

Byard, a father of two, surely made his mother proud. He is one of the most beloved and popular football players ever in Middle Tennessee. That isn’t an accident, as anyone who has spent time with him understands.

During the early, scary days of COVID-19 pandemic. I was looking for various sports figures to give inspiring words.

Guess who stepped up from the Titans?

Earlier this summer, Byard was a special guest at the Middle Tennessee High School Sports Awards sponsored by The Tennessean’s USA TODAY Network.

After a Q&A on stage with advice for attending athletes, Byard hung around and posed for photographs with award winners. 

Byard was the Titans’ 2020 nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. In July 2020, he was named spokesperson for the United Way of Greater Nashville.

He and his wife, Clarke, founded the Byard Family Legacy Fund to help those in need. Last August, they unveiled a Davidson County Department of Children’s Safe Room for children in state custody because of abuse or neglect. 

“I'm obviously successful now,” Byard said last year, “but at the same time, I feel like I gravitate toward people that aren't always in the best place in life.”

In Stockstill's words, "(Byard) was a very great example for a lot of people."

That's still the case to this day.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.