Professional athlete Kevin Byard (’15) traveled a road from poverty to MTSU to All-Pro status in the NFL
With only seconds remaining in their most important game of the regular season, the Tennessee Titans needed one more big play to secure their first trip to the playoffs in a decade.
It was former MTSU star Kevin Byard who delivered, stepping in front of a pass by Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and producing his second interception of the contest.
The long postseason drought for Nashville professional football had ended at last.
Byard’s big moment capped a tremendous 2017 regular season for the second-year player, who tied for first in the National Football League (NFL) with eight interceptions, earned All-Pro honors, and participated in his first Pro Bowl.
“I wanted to have a great season this year, at least put myself on the map as far as people knowing who I am,” Byard said. “At the end of the day, I always say if you shoot for the moon, you’ll land amongst the stars.”
All of Byard’s accolades last season also represented the latest steps in the story of an overlooked overachiever, one who overcame a challenging family background and the doubts of every college that failed to recruit him.
He could have fallen off track as a young teenager, when he was forced to play a father-figure role for five younger siblings. He could have faltered during his senior year in high school, when he was snubbed by nearly every college.
Instead, Byard adjusted and excelled so well that he became an all-conference player at MTSU and now is already recognized as one of the NFL’s best safeties.
“A lot of people come from a tough background, a tough upbringing, and a tough home life,” MTSU football coach Rick Stockstill said. “Some use that as an excuse. They’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t have this. I didn’t have that.’ They let their situation define them.
“But Kevin Byard was the complete opposite. He was never going to use his own upbringing—or anything he didn’t have growing up—as a crutch or as an excuse.”
Crying All the Way to Georgia
The second-oldest of seven siblings, Byard’s life took quite a turn following his mother’s divorce in 2007.
Artina Stanley, Byard’s mother, packed up her big family and drove a U-Haul to Atlanta, where she could start a new life and get more athletic exposure for Byard, who was already showing signs of becoming a very good football player. In addition, one of Stanley’s best friends lived in the area.
“We all cried the whole way to Georgia, but I felt in my gut it was just the right thing to do,” Stanley said. “By the time we got to Georgia, I might have had 100-something dollars left. I was scared, very afraid.”
Stanley settled her family of eight in the finished basement of a friend, and within a couple of weeks, she landed a job as a waitress.
But because she worked from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Byard and his older brother, Kavonne, took on parental roles at home—even as they attended high school and played football.
“(Kavonne) had to pick up one of his baby sisters at day care every day,” Stanley said.
“Kevin would be at home straightening up the house or making sure his little sisters and brothers had lunch, or possibly preparing dinner or whatever. They had to do all this between the time they were dismissed from school and when they had to go back to practice at 4 o’clock. They had to do this before they could do anything else.”
Byard wasn’t always thrilled with his new responsibilities, but he accepted them, understanding how important his role was in keeping a semblance of order to the family.
“I was just 14 going on 15, so being that age, you really want to be a teenager,” Byard said. “You want to go out there and do the different things that everybody else is doing, but you’ve got to make that sacrifice.
“You’ve got to change from being a teenager. You can’t go out. You have to come home and make sure the house is clean. That was pretty much the biggest change for me, doing stuff that I didn’t want to do. But it was something I had to sacrifice for me and my mother.”
Byard’s mother often worked two or three jobs, taking part-time gigs at another restaurant and at an insurance company.
But there were times her income, as well as the support of Byard’s father, wasn’t enough to pay the rent. The family was evicted seven times in nine years, and Byard figures he moved three or four times during his high school years alone.
“When I look back at that time, it was definitely the most adverse time in my life—my mom moving with little to no money, and my oldest brother and I having to be caretakers for my little brothers and sisters,” Byard said. “But it’s definitely something I feel like groomed me into the man I am today and into being responsible at a young age. It definitely helped me grow up fast.”
Playing with a Chip on His Shoulder
As he neared high school graduation, Byard wasn’t getting a lot of recruiting attention from big-name schools. But, oddly enough, two Southeastern Conference (SEC) football programs played a role in his winding up at MTSU.
Kentucky was the lone SEC school that—near the end of the recruiting process—finally showed interest in him. Byard planned to sign with the Wildcats, but Kentucky pulled its offer at the last minute, choosing to use that scholarship for a more-heralded athlete who withdrew an earlier commitment to Alabama.
The turn of events meant Byard would sign with the Blue Raiders, who had been smart enough to recognize his potential.
“I’m sure if Kentucky had given him that offer, that’s where he would have ended up going,” Stockstill said. “So we were holding our breath a little bit there at the end, hoping we could get him. We were very happy when Kentucky didn’t make him an offer.”
Byard redshirted during his first season at MTSU, but he was still the kind of player that could be found in the weight room or in the football office, where he watched film on his own or with Blue Raiders coaches.
“He took it serious from the day he got here,” Stockstill said. “Some guys do that. Some, well, it takes them a couple years. But he had a great focus, a great mental intensity from the day he got on campus.”
Added Byard: “I always had great coaches and great mentors. They were always putting that picture in my head that as long as you continue to work and keep doing the things you’re doing, you have a bright future. I bought into that.”
It didn’t take long for Byard to make an impact once he finally got on the field.
He intercepted four passes during his redshirt freshman season, 11 over the next two years, and finished with a total of 19—setting a school record. Byard’s effort and production stemmed in part from the perceived snub he’d felt at the hands of many college recruiters.
“I felt that I was better than other people thought I was, but I knew I had to play with a chip on my shoulder,” Byard said.
“I was always comparing myself to the top safeties in the conference and the league, knowing I had to be better than them.”
A Titan-Size Step Forward
Byard didn’t let his football focus overtake his studies, however, evidenced by the fact he earned his MTSU bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies in the spring of 2015.
“That was probably the most important goal I set when I went to college was graduating with my degree,” Byard said. “It was very important to me because I was actually the first guy out of my immediate family to graduate. My oldest brother graduated a few weeks later. But it was definitely something I’m very proud of, something I’ll always remember.”
A year later, following his final season with the Blue Raiders, Byard received another football snub reminiscent of his earlier days.
Though he had twice been named to the All-Conference USA first team and been invited to the Senior Bowl, Byard wasn’t included among the 60 defensive backs invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.
That’s where scouts, coaches, and general managers traditionally review the college game’s top talent.
But that didn’t stop teams like the Titans from visiting Byard on the MTSU campus, where general manager Jon Robinson, then-head coach Mike Mularkey, former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and Titans scouts worked him out.
They wanted to not only know how fast Byard ran and how high he jumped, but what kind of character the player had.
It might have been one of the easier recommendations Stockstill ever delivered.
“I told them what a mature young man Kevin was and how he’d handled himself like a professional since he got here,” Stockstill said. “I was proud that Kevin hadn’t used what he didn’t have growing up as an excuse. He didn’t let that define him.”
The Titans clearly liked what they saw, selecting Byard in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft with the 64th overall pick.
He flashed potential as a rookie in 2016, starting seven games and contributing 63 tackles. But that was nothing compared to what Byard showed when he became a full-time starter in 2017. He intercepted multiple passes in three games—totaling three against the Cleveland Browns—and led the entire NFL with 10 takeaways (he also had two fumble recoveries).
It was a giant step forward for Byard in just his second season.
“I think his range really improved—getting from point A to point B a lot faster and making plays off that,” Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “But I think overall, he’s taken the next step in his game mentally—knowing the playbook better and knowing what plays are coming.”
Added Byard: “I’ve grown up a lot just as a player and even as a person. My confidence has grown. I think you can see it from the stats of this year. But at the end of the day, I have to set even higher goals for myself next year, try to get to double-digit interceptions, try to get even better.”
A True Blue Ambassador
One of the first things Byard did with his NFL money was move his mother and the remainder of the family into better living conditions. He’s been paying the rent on their new home for the last couple of years.
“Things are definitely a lot different,” Byard said. “It feels good to have that security, especially being back home and knowing my mother doesn’t have to move if she doesn’t want to.”
He’s also serving as an informal resource for MTSU’s players, especially those who might be seeking advice about the draft or signing with an agent as they move toward an NFL career. For instance, star MTSU wide receiver Richie James, who was drafted into the NFL this past spring, credited Byard with making him a better player and more prepared for the next level.
Stockstill and Byard remain in close contact, texting one another throughout the season with congratulations or good-luck messages.
In the summer, Byard regularly works out at MTSU’s facilities in Murfreesboro. And when the Titans’ bye week coincides with a Blue Raiders home game, Stockstill knows to expect a visit from Byard.
“I have a ton of respect for Kevin Byard,” Stockstill said. “I appreciate his friendship. It’s one I’ll have for the rest of my life. He’s a great ambassador for our football program and our University.”
While Kevin Byard made the biggest splash among former MTSU football players with the Titans last season, he wasn’t the only Blue Raider to make an impact. Linebacker Erik Walden, a four-year starter at MTSU in 2004–07, also played a key role on a Titans team that reached the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Walden, who had played for Kansas City, Miami, Green Bay, and Indianapolis before signing with the Titans in 2017, said he’s “still having fun, doing what I love to do, so I can’t really complain. Having played college ball 30 miles down the road just kind of made everything that much better.”
Walden says he stays in regular contact with MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill, who took over the Blue Raiders program before Walden’s junior season. Stockstill said Walden was one of the veterans who helped the coach make a smooth transition into his new job. “When you come in as a new coach and you’re taking over a program, you really rely on the upperclassmen to help you establish the culture that you want,” Stockstill said. “Erik was a big part of our early success. I really leaned on him from a leadership standpoint.”
One of Walden’s most productive seasons was 2016 in Indianapolis, where he recorded a career-best 11 sacks for the Colts. That led to last season’s one-year contract with the Titans, when Walden notched 44 tackles, four sacks, and five tackles for loss. Walden became a free agent in 2018, but he has every intention of playing his 11th season in the league somewhere.
Walden said the time he spent at MTSU was essential in shaping the player and person he is today. “I’d say the most important things I gained there were all the life messages and friendships, and just being accountable, not only on the field but off, for my kids and my family,” Walden said. “It kind of molded me into the man I am today—each and every experience—and I thank God for it.”
story by John Glennon