By sharing some of the football cards from my collection, my goal is to put a spotlight on some defensive backs who may have become underrated or even forgotten by history.
Gill Byrd, CB, San Diego Chargers (Pro Set 1990; Pro Set 1991)
As I begin writing this post, it appears that the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers will be leaving their respective cities to relocate to Los Angeles for the next NFL season and beyond. But by the time I’m done writing, that could change and it could be the Rams and the Oakland Raiders on the move. All three franchises are in play, at the moment it appears only the Rams are a lock for L.A.
The Rams (originally from Cleveland) called Los Angeles home from 1946 to 1994. But if the Chargers do wind up joining them in L.A., it would also be a homecoming of sorts. The Chargers franchise debuted in L.A. as a member of the old AFL for just one season, 1960, before moving to San Diego in 1961.
Many great players have suited up for the Chargers since then; from WR Lance Alworth to QB Dan Fouts, LB Junior Seau to RB LaDainian Tomlinson. In all of that time, arguably the greatest defensive back in Chargers history was cornerback Gill Byrd.
In his 10 pro seasons from 1983 to 1992, Byrd played in 150 games for San Diego, racking up 42 interceptions, four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
A first-round pick out of San Jose State in the famous 1983 draft, Byrd was taken five spots ahead of QB Dan Marino and six ahead of Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green. His draft class also included QB John Elway, RB Eric Dickerson, RB Curt Warner, OL Bruce Matthews, QB Jim Kelly and DB Joey Browner.
Byrd was a four-time All-Pro selection and made the Pro Bowl in each of his final two seasons. He retired as the Chargers’ all-time leader in interceptions. He has been inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame and was named to the franchise’s 50th Anniversary Team alongside defensive backs Rodney Harrison, Willie Buchanon, Charlie McNeil and Quentin Jammer.
Byrd narrowly avoided being the Don Mattingly of the NFL. The Chargers made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons before Byrd’s arrival, but for Byrd’s first nine seasons in the league, the team missed the postseason each year. Only once in that span did they finish with a winning record (going 8-7 in the strike-shortened ’87 season) and one time they finished with a .500 record (going 8-8 in ’85). Every other year, San Diego was a losing team.
It wasn’t until Byrd’s final season that the Chargers were actually good; going 11-5 and earning a first-round bye.
And so in the only playoff game of his pro career, Byrd watched the Chargers get routed 31-0 by the Dolphins. However, Byrd and the San Diego secondary didn’t exactly get lit up; Dan Marino completed three touchdown passes but threw for only 167 yards. Miami’s star wide-receiver tandem of Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were limited to three catches for 57 yards and no touchdowns — and all of that production came from Duper.
A decade after he retired from playing, Byrd got into coaching. He started as an assistant with the Rams, moved on to the Bears and most recently served as cornerbacks coach for the Buccaneers. And his legacy still lives on the field. Byrd’s son, Jairus Byrd, is a three-time Pro Bowl safety currently playing for the New Orleans Saints.