By Craig Sachson
History was on the line, and Henry Byrd was ready.
On Nov. 17, 2018, the Princeton football team took Powers Field looking to complete its first perfect season in 54 years. A record-smashing offense had been led by a bevy of All-Ivy standouts, including tackle Reilly Radosevich, but he would miss the season finale due to injury. Byrd, a freshman who only recently had even considered the possibility of attending an Ivy League school, was now in charge of protecting quarterback John Lovett.
It was a moment that could have overwhelmed him. Instead, he relied on everything that got him to this moment. He carried the development he gained from his all-mid-state and all-region career as a lineman at Ensworth High School. He remembered the conversations with Radosevic, when the veteran standout mentored Byrd for situations like this.
And he used the lessons gained in his dance classes. All of them.
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Henry Byrd — all 6-5, 310 pounds of him — can tap dance. He took two Dance for Athletes classes at Ensworth, the second of which introduced him to tap, and he enjoyed that discipline so much that he took an honors class in it. Byrd got so proficient that he helped choreograph a “Singin’ In The Rain” performance at the end of high school.
How can tap dance translate to the football field? Watch Byrd’s footwork Friday night on ESPNU and you’ll figure it out quickly enough.
“I didn’t out-physical opponents, so I had to beat them another way,” said Byrd, who has helped beat enough opponents during his Tiger career that he brings a 31-3 record into this weekend’s nationally televised showdown with Brown. “[Tap dance] helped with my balance, it helped with my mobility. It’s just coordination, feeling your body, constantly working the same thing repetitively. Teaching your feet how to move correctly is huge. So much of playing offensive line is foot speed, the angle of your set, how you position your feet under your body.”
His footwork and technique impressed the coaching staff early enough that Byrd saw playing time in his freshman season. When your team scores an Ivy-record 470 points, you tend to get out to some big early leads, which landed Byrd even more playing time than he likely anticipated. Those experiences were critical when he took the field as a starter for the 2018 finale against Penn.
“It feels a little surreal to say I was a contributing part to that team,” he said. “The nerves were there when Reily went down, but everybody was so confident in the process, the system and each other, it felt like it didn’t really matter who was out there. We were all part of the same machine moving forward. “
That machine completed its perfect season with a 42-14 win over Penn, and Byrd was named the 2018 recipient of the Donald B. Lourie Award as the team’s top offensive freshman. He used the growth from that season, and the lessons learned about how to prepare and compete, to develop into one of the best linemen head coach Bob Surace — a former Princeton offensive lineman himself — has seen in his time at Princeton.
“Henry has been a rock at tackle for us since his freshman year,” Surace said. “He is an outstanding technician, physical and an outstanding leader. He has a chance to finish as one of the best linemen we’ve had in the past half century.”
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Playing left tackle is as pressure-packed a spot in football as you’ll find. Most times you are protecting your quarterback’s blindside. To do that properly, you have to understand where your quarterback will be, and how he will react during each play, without ever being able to actually see him.
Byrd had to get that connection with four different quarterbacks.
“Every quarterback I’ve had has been pretty different,” he said. “Kevin [Davidson] was the definition of a true pocket passer, while John [Lovett] would run it to run it because he knew he could get 15 yards whenever he wanted. Articles [Smith] would analyze the defense. We’d play a little bit slower, but because Cole was so good at reading coverages, it would work. Blake is a really creative quarterback. It’s been fun watching him go out and make plays. He’s excellent at throwing on the run, and he’s incredibly tough.”
The constant there is Byrd, a starter since his sophomore year and now a captain on the top-ranked passing offense in the Ivy League. Princeton just moved into the FCS Coaches Poll Top 25, a spot they held during both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Those seasons, the Tigers had one of the Ivy’s best running games, while they now rank first in the Ivy and 15th nationally in passing.
It isn’t necessarily a specific style that makes this offense succeed. It’s a mentality.
“We say it all the time, but nobody is bigger than the program,” he said. “It’s the trust, being unselfish, and the belief in Princeton football above the individual. We are going to find whatever weakness the opponent has, and we’re going to exploit it.”
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One particular Tennessee recruit played a critical part in this run, even if he isn’t still on the team. John Orr was an all-state superstar when he enrolled at Princeton, where he would win two Ivy League titles. At the time, Byrd’s heart was set on playing at Vanderbilt, or somewhere else in the SEC, but he was a bit undersized at the time to garner much attention.
When somebody as good as Orr decided to attend Princeton, Byrd started thinking differently. If Orr went to Princeton, it must be good football. In fact, he thought, it must be the peak of the Ivy League. That motivated him.
“I was raised to value education, and the process more than the grades,” Byrd said. “Not many people get to say they went to Princeton University. That seemed out of reach for me. Now I can say I’ve played for one of the best programs in the country, and I also go to the best school. That kind of challenge drew me. Nothing really compared.”
Other challenges await. Byrd hopes to continue playing football at the next level, and few Ivy Leaguers will bring as much experience into the draft process. Down the road, he would like to take his love of sports into broadcasting and media, where he has already held a summer internship.
But the main focus now is Friday night, when he will play his first home Ivy League game under the Friday lights against Brown (7 pm, ESPNU).
“We don’t get the opportunity to play at night too much, and we’ve only had a chance to play here once in my career,” Byrd said. “That was against Lafayette my sophomore year, and Ivy games just mean a little more. That’s what I love about this league. For people to be able to see that the Ivy League plays good, legitimate football is a fun opportunity.”
Byrd is all about the opportunities. Whether it’s football, academics or dance, he’ll throw everything he has into it.
Usually, that’s more than enough.