Upon receiving the call a few months ago, former National Football League star running back Earnest Byner felt honored to be tapped for the role. He had been selected as a guest speaker during the annual “Parade of Athletes” at the National Veterans Golden Age Games in Albuquerque.
Byner is the founder of The Healing Dawgs, a non-profit group that is aimed at teaching, helping, and healing through humanitarian efforts in communities, with a special focus on Veterans, the homeless, and youth. He has led visits to VA medical centers in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., in hopes of assuring wounded Veterans that their service and the sacrifices they have made for their country are not going unnoticed.
The “Parade of Athletes” took place Sunday evening at the Kiva Auditorium at the Albuquerque Convention Center. The nearly 1,000 Veterans who are participating in the Golden Age Games—which run from Aug. 3-8 in Albuquerque and offer many sports and recreational events for Veterans age 55 and older—were on hand to hear Byner speak.
Speaking with passion and emotion, Byner urged the Veterans to keep on competing in sports “because healing comes from within when you are competing,” he said. “If you are trying to get better on a daily basis, you provide healing for the mind, body, and spirit.”
He also told the Vets: “I appreciate and honor and love you because of the freedoms you have fought for. You have given your life and limbs.”
Byner said the Veteran community and retired NFL players like himself share several potential similarities. Members of both groups could be experiencing debilitating symptoms from concussions. In addition, the Veteran population is battling alarming rates of suicide and drug and alcohol addiction, issues that are also of concern in the community of retired NFL players.
A number of former NFL players have committed suicide in recent years, including some who showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that is a product of repeated blows to the head.
“The level of respect and admiration that I have for Veterans, I just can’t really explain it,” Byner, whose great uncle was in the Army, said in a recent interview. “The things that they have sacrificed, and what they have represented, and the way that they have bought into what they call team is something that I really respect more than anything. Sometimes, you buy into something that’s not your image and it’s not your way of doing things, but you buy in because it’s best for the team, and the team is the country. I really respect what the military does and what the Veterans have done for us.”
During his 14 seasons in the NFL, the 5-11, 215-pound Byner befuddled opposing defenses with a slashing and hard-nosed style that made him an elite running back. He ended up rushing for more than 8,000 yards, gained nearly 13,000 overall, and made the Pro Bowl twice. He’s been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Byner won the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in the 1991 season and was a player personnel executive on a Baltimore Ravens team that won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season.
Before playing for the Redskins, Byner was a running back for the Cleveland Browns. In one of his visits to a VA medical center, he and some of his Browns teammates—Kevin Mack, Reggie Langhorne, and Felix Wright—met with Veterans at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. The foursome played a game of Jeopardy with the Vets that featured trivia questions about the Browns. Byner gave a speech there, and everyone had ice cream that was donated by a local company.
At the Washington DC VA Medical Center, Byner led an event called “Super Bowl Sundae” where he provided sundaes to Veterans and signed autographs. He was accompanied by one of his Redskins teammates, fellow running back Ricky Ervins. At the Baltimore VA Medical Center, Byner visited and tried to cheer up wounded Veterans who were unable to leave their rooms.
Also in Baltimore, Byner visited the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training (MCVET). The organization provides homeless and other Veterans the direction and services that will help them rejoin their communities as self-sufficient citizens. He signed autographs and took pictures with the Veterans. He also gave them tennis shoes that were provided by the local sports apparel company Under Armour.
“I’ve let these Veterans know that we have something that is akin to each other,” Byner said, “but also more than anything that we respect and love what you have done, the service you have rendered to our country.”
He added: “It’s an honor to be able to go to the Golden Age Games. We just try to pass on as much love and understanding as we can to Veterans. All of them are very deserving.”