Boise State Football

Months after crash, New Mexico football still mourns 'always smiling' Markel Byrd

New Mexico safety Markel Byrd tackles Boise State wide receiver Austin Cottrell on the final play of the teams’ Mountain West football game Nov. 14, 2015, in Boise. Byrd, 20, died Dec. 22 in a single-car accident.
New Mexico safety Markel Byrd tackles Boise State wide receiver Austin Cottrell on the final play of the teams’ Mountain West football game Nov. 14, 2015, in Boise. Byrd, 20, died Dec. 22 in a single-car accident. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

The majority of Boise State fans likely remember Markel Byrd for breaking their hearts last November.

New Mexico safety Daniel Henry remembers his former teammate’s smile and unmatched confidence.

In last season’s matchup with the Broncos, the Lobos held a 31-24 lead with 1 second left. Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien completed a short pass to receiver Thomas Sperbeck, who then lateraled to Austin Cottrell. Cottrell found unexpected daylight and had a clear path to the end zone.

Then Byrd did exactly what his teammates and coaches knew he would.

The sophomore safety tackled Cottrell at the 4-yard line, the only thing preventing Boise State from likely forcing overtime. New Mexico, having just beaten Boise State for the first time in seven tries, rushed the field at Albertsons Stadium to take pictures of the memorable event. The Lobos were bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.

Henry, a redshirt senior, attended Horizon Christian Academy in San Diego with Byrd. Byrd was a key reason Henry transferred to New Mexico from Iowa Western Community College. They were longtime friends who understood each other.

So as he stood at midfield watching the game’s final play unfold, Henry remembers being strangely confident.

“At this point your heart starts racing. I’m staring at the ball, and all of a sudden I see Markel,” Henry recalled. “(But) you kind of don’t have any doubt in your mind, because it’s Markel.”

Byrd had a career-high 11 tackles. He gave up his fair share of big plays in the game but always came through when his team needed him most.

That was just another day with Markel Byrd.

“I’m not going to say argue, but I’d say we disputed,” safeties coach Charles McMillian said with a laugh. “(But) when I needed a guy to make a play, we called on Markel Byrd.”

Byrd, 20, was killed in a Dec. 22 car accident, three days after the Lobos played in the New Mexico Bowl. The loss sent shockwaves throughout the New Mexico program.

On the field, Byrd was known for his confidence and ability to make plays. Off of it, he was known as the most caring person imaginable.

Henry remembers a friend you could call at 2 a.m. with any sort of problem. And Byrd was always there to pick up the call.

“He was a unique guy. He had so much love in his heart. He could talk to any random person on the street. He didn’t have any shyness,” Henry said. “It was weird to see such a confident person with so much love.”

McMillian had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Byrd. Ever the jokester, Byrd would frequently do things just to push McMillian’s buttons. If McMillian told Byrd to bend more, Byrd would bend to the point where he almost touched the ground. McMillian would tell him that was exactly how low he needed to be and walk away disgusted. There was a lot of give and take between them.

“He was one of those kids that was very fun to be around,” McMillian said. “But at some point, you just wanted to beat him up.”

But McMillian eventually learned that Byrd was beyond an irritating 20-year-old. When it came down to it, he knew he count on Byrd.

“He was a playmaker. (But) he might do it his own way at times,” McMillian said of Byrd, who had 91 tackles and four interceptions in his two seasons. “When Markel did it my way, he was a hell of a player.”

Henry remembers where he was when he received the news of Byrd’s passing. He had just returned home to San Diego and was sitting in his father’s living room when he received a cryptic text message from a friend. That message led to a phone call that left Henry in tears.

“It was pretty late at night,” Henry said. “I had no idea what happened. I’m in complete limbo.”

Henry was devastated. He didn’t remember the player who occasionally flustered his position coach. He remembered the young man who would do whatever it took to make sure you were happy.

“(He’d give you) whatever you needed,” Henry said. “He was always smiling.”

New Mexico has taken steps to memorialize Byrd this offseason. In addition to painting his No. 22 on the field next to its corresponding yard markers, the team also cased off his locker and created a display filled with his jersey, pictures and other memories. There is also a mural of Byrd outside the football facilities.

“From the first game until now, having to walk by that locker every day… there’s so many reminders about him,” Henry said. “It’s a family thing to us. We’ll never forget Markel.”

Even if the school hadn’t taken steps to immortalize Byrd, players, coaches and students would have had trouble forgetting Byrd anyway. McMillian still finds himself telling his current players what Byrd would have done on specific plays.

Try as you might, you couldn’t forget Markel Byrd. And why would you want to?

“(He was) a guy that was older beyond his time. A guy that would have been a hell of a coach. A guy that would have been a hell of an NFL player,” McMillian said. “A guy that would bring laughter. A guy that would tease you and get under your skin, but you loved him.”

New Mexico at a glance

  • Nickname: Lobos
  • Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
  • Head coach: Bob Davie (20-34, fifth year; 55-59 overall, 10th year)
  • This year: 2-2, 1-0 Mountain West; beat San Jose St. 48-41 last week

TEAM RUNDOWN

New Mexico has stayed true to the formula that led to its success in 2015: run the ball, then run it some more. The Lobos are second in the nation in rushing (347 yards per game) with their triple-option offense. Six players have at least 100 rushing yards, and three have at least 200, led by Teriyon Gipson’s 399 (12.9 ypc). New Mexico averages 31 points per game, up from 29.9 last season. They ran for 446 yards and five touchdowns in last week’s win over San Jose State.

The Lobos’ defense is also improved. The Lobos allow 26.2 points per game (59th in FBS), down from 28.4 last season (82nd).

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Austin Apodaca and Lamar Jordan, QBs

Apodaca and Jordan both played against Boise State last year, and both are expected to play significant roles again. Apodaca leads New Mexico with 372 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown. Jordan has thrown just 19 passes, but he has 148 rushing yards and a touchdown.

No. 19 Boise State at New Mexico

  • When: 7 p.m. MT Friday
  • Where: University Stadium (39,224, FieldTurf); Albuquerque, N.M.
  • TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
  • Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
  • Records: Boise State 4-0, 1-0 Mountain West; New Mexico 2-2, 1-0
  • Kickoff weather: High 60s and clear, light winds
  • Vegas line: Boise State by 18
  • Series: Boise State leads 6-1 (Lobos won last meeting 31-24 in Boise, 2015)
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