MIAMI – Titans safety Kevin Byard won't be playing in Super Bowl LIV here today, and he's still coming to grips with that reality.
His team's season ended one win short of the big game.
But Byard's impact on a pair of MTSU products helped push them to get to the NFL, and they're now set to play in Super Bowl LIV.
On Sunday, Chiefs defensive back Charvarius Ward and 49ers receiver/return man Richie James will take the field at Hard Rock Stadium, having followed the path, and example, set by Byard, a third-round draft pick by the Titans who has blossomed into of the game's best safeties.
Here this week, both players gave a helmet tip to Byard.
"You watched K.B., and you knew he was all about his business, and he was a professional about everything he did," said James, teammates with Byard at MTSU. "I know I watched him, and I followed his example. And what he did, what I learned from him, it transfers to the league and it shows."
During the regular season, James averaged eight yards per return on 33 punts for the 49ers, and 21.4 yards on the 20 kickoffs he returned. He's played in all 18 games for the 49ers this season.
Ward, who arrived at MTSU the same year Byard was drafted by the Titans, said Byard's NFL success inspired players at the school. Ward trained with strength and conditioning coach Jason Spray, who also helped develop Byard.
Ward said Byard returned to campus to help the younger players, while also motivating them.
"He would always come back and do his spring workouts, and his work ethic is crazy," said Ward, Kansas City's fourth-leading tackler (74) who also has two interceptions. "He was leading the group, even when he wasn't on the team. And I remember he used to tell me that I had the talent, and the physical makeup to make it to the NFL. I just had to put in the hard work, and I listened to that, his advice.
"And just watching him and seeing his success, it gave me some inspiration knowing I could make it from Middle Tennessee. I really think it gave everybody hope, coming from MTSU. It gave me hope I could make it to the NFL."
Byard, who just finished his fourth NFL season, already has 17 NFL interceptions, and a Pro Bowl appearance to his name. An All-Pro in 2017, Byard earned a new contract last offseason. No one in the NFL has more interceptions than Byard since 2017.
At MTSU, Byard finished his career with 312 tackles and a school record 19 interceptions before being taken by the Titans in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
While making appearance on Radio Row this week, Byard said he's pulling for the MTSU products. He also reminded another player from MTSU, linebacker Darius Harris, is also a part of the Chiefs (he's on Injured Reserve).
Byard also said he's proud.
"Richie James, I remember when he came in as a freshman and I remember the summer workouts, watching how hard he was working, leading everybody in sprints. I already knew he was going to be special because he had the work ethic and I think he did follow me with how I did things," Byard said.
"And Charvarius, I think with both of them it shows you hard work comes first, and I really do think those guys exemplify what hard work is all about and getting to where they are right now.
"To have as many MTSU guys in this moment, and for them to do great things in their field, it's incredible."
A look back at safety Kevin Byard's 2019 season that saw him lead the team for the third consecutive season and tie for fourth in the NFL with five interceptions. (Photos: Donald Page)