Greatest Athlete #8: Mersereau made most of opportunity

08/10/2011 7:57 AM |

JOHN SANDHAUS/GETTY IMAGES | Scott Merserau was a longshot to make it to the NFL in his days at Riverhead High School and Southern Connecticut State University. He would go on to start seven seasons with the Jets.

There was Dennis Byrd this past January at the New York Jets’ hotel in Rhode Island on the eve of what head coach Rex Ryan called the franchise’s biggest game since Super Bowl III.

The former defensive lineman was there to tell his story. To show the current players on his former team that no challenge is insurmountable.

If anybody knows that to be true it’s Byrd, who on Nov. 29, 1992 broke his neck in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. At the time of the injury, it was believed he might never walk again.

But come the following September, he was in street clothes at the Meadowlands for the team’s home opener, waving to the fans in the crowd.

The current Jets took Byrd’s message, which wide receiver Braylon Edwards called the greatest motivational speech he’d ever heard, to heart.

The next afternoon they stormed the field at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. and upset the rival New England Patriots, 28-21.

Newspaper, television and radio reports came in for days about how Byrd’s speech gave the Jets all the inspiration they needed to defeat their sworn enemy.

Scott Merserau came in at No. 8 on our list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history. The final week of the countdown begins with No. 7 Thursday.

The story of how Dennis Byrd once broke his neck only to walk again became familiar to a whole new generation of young football fans.

But there’s one name people are less familiar with that’s also associated with the Dennis Byrd story. It’s that of a young man from Calverton who made the most of an NFL work stoppage to play his way onto his hometown team.

A nose tackle who built up his toughness spending summers working at a local farm, and then used that strength to later play seven seasons as a starting defensive lineman for the New York Jets.

This Riverhead High graduate was also pursuing Chiefs quarterback Dave Kreig when Byrd lowered his head and the two teammates collided.

This is the story of Scott Mersereau.

Scott Mersereau didn’t take the usual path to the NFL.

He didn’t spend his entire childhood at football camps and studying film. He was never that prototypical blue chip athlete.

When it came time to pick a college, he never got that flashy offer from Notre Dame or Ohio State.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Scott Mersereau was a fifth round selection by the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. The team would cut him later that season, paving the way for a career with the hometown Jets.

Instead, Mersereau went to Division II Southern Connecticut State University after being impressed with a recruiting visit by former head coach Kevin Gilbride (now the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants) and the school’s current and longtime head coach Rich Cavanaugh.

Even Mersereau’s own mother never expected to see her son in an NFL uniform.

“I didn’t even think it was possible to go to the NFL from a Division II school,” said Janet Mersereau in a telephone interview this week.

But in his four years with the Owls, Mersereau was grooming himself for a career on the gridiron.

The News-Review reported that Mersereau was 6-foot-3, 220 pounds during his senior year at Riverhead High in 1982.

When he arrived at Southern Connecticut he realized he needed to bulk up to play at the college level. He cut out beer and sweets, ate fish and poultry, and he stuck to fat free milk. Most importantly, he hit the weight room with a vengeance.

By the time Mersereau reached his senior season in college he had gained more than 60 pounds.

Despite the massive bulkup, he could still run a 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds. And he could now bench press 450 pounds.

While nose tackle is not exactly a position of great statistical measure, NFL scouts began to take notice of the All-New England defensive lineman’s physical skills.

The Los Angeles Rams were coming off a playoff season that saw their defense improve to the fifth best in the NFL in 1986. And while they still had some room to grow on the offensive side of the football, they opted to instead concentrate their draft day strategy on making their defense even stronger.

With each of their first five picks they gobbled up a defensive player, including Mersereau, who was selected in the fifth round, 136th overall.

With only one spot for a starter at defensive tackle in Los Angeles’ 3-4 system, it was clear very early on to Mersereau that he would not have a clear spot on the Rams roster.

He entered training camp as No. 3 on the nose tackle depth chart and he never moved up. Come late summer, Mersereau was no longer in the Rams’ plans.

At the same time much closer to home for Mersereau the New York Jets were searching for someone who could be their next nose tackle. Joe Klecko assumed the position when the Jets switched to a 3-4 defense in 1985 and led the team in tackles, while racking up 7 1/2 sacks in an All-Pro season.

But Klecko, who combined with fellow tackle Abdul Salaam and defensive ends Mark Gastineau and Marty Lyons to form the legendary “New York Sack Exchange” line earlier in the decade, was coming to the end of his career.

The Jets needed to add depth to their roster, and so they signed Mersereau.

NFL labor tensions in 1987 only made the rookie’s chances of sticking with the Jets stronger. A player strike was imminent and the union was not unified.

The owners had a strong bargaining chip in the veteran players who wanted to stick around for one last taste of glory, and younger players who were also willing to cross the picket line to show they belonged.

When the bulk of the NFL Players Association went out on strike in the third week of the season, Mersereau, who had been staying in Gastineau’s house, stuck around for the chance to prove himself.

After all games were canceled in Week 3, Mersereau and the rest of the replacement Jets took the field in place of many of the usual starters for the next three games.

Fans became dejected. Television ratings plummeted. But Mersereau watched as his stock rose.

He’d record 14 tackles and one sack in his first two games as a replacement player. He was playing so well fellow rookie nose tackle Gerald Nichols, who had replaced Klecko as the starter that season, decided to cross the picket line himself after two weeks of watching Mersereau seize an opportunity that had been his.

Klecko and Lyons had already returned to the team at that point, and Gastineau never even joined the strike. But even with a full compliment of defensive linemen back in the mix, Mersereau had done enough to prove his worth.

“The biggest positive that’s come out of [the strike] is Mersereau,” Jets coach Joe Walton told the New York Times. “He’s got a chance to be a player in this league. He’s a very good football player.”

When the full compliment of players returned in Week 7, Mersereau was one of only two replacement players who stuck around. Lyons said the rest of the Jets squad was happy to have the rookie on their team.

“He made the most out of his opportunity and he stuck around,” Lyons recalled earlier this week. “We saw Scott as a guy who could help us win and it didn’t matter how he got there.”

Mersereau would go on to play in the Jets’ remaining games that year. And with Klecko, who played in only seven games in 1987, released following the season, the kid from Riverhead had found his football home in New Jersey.

One could certainly argue that Scott Mersereau was not the top player on the 1981 Riverhead High School Football team. In fact, he probably wasn’t even the best Scott on his team.

That distinction belonged to linebacker Scott Hackal, an old friend from Calverton who was one year ahead of Mersereau.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Scott Mersereau (from left), Scott Hackal, Henry Talmage and Darien Johnson were stars of the 1981 Riverhead High football team.

Hackal was a two-time All-County player who following the 1981 season received the first Zellner Award, still given today to Suffolk’s top lineman.

In a News-Review article on Hackal being named to the All-County team for the second year in a row, former Blue Waves coach Dick Herzog called his linebacker/lineman the team’s defensive leader.

“No one I’ve seen can hit like him,” Herzog said. “He plays with a lot of tenacity.”

Hackal and Mersereau were cut from the same cloth. A couple of close friends, they developed their toughness the old-fashioned way. Every summer leading up to football practices the duo would go to work at Karlin Farms in Calverton.

Larry Mersereau, Scott’s father, recalled that the boys would work on setting up the farm’s irrigation system, lugging heavy metal pipes all day long in unbearable summer heat.

“That teaches you to be tough,” Hackal recalled in a recent interview. “Being out there in 102 degree heat, that was some real hard work we did back then.”

Janet Mersereau said her son actually loved the summer job. He enjoyed the physical nature of it. He thrived off the challenge.

By the end of August the boys would turn their attention full-time to football.

The Waves would play to a 3-2-1 record in League V that season with Hackal and fellow senior Rich Smith leading the team in tackles. Also showing promise that season was the junior Mersereau, who played tight end on offense and defensive end on defense, earning All-League honors.

“I’m expecting bigger and better things out of him next season,” said Herzog.

Hackal said that while the team boasted a fair amount of talent — fellow future NFL player John Kacherski made the squad as a freshman — many players didn’t have a certain natural ability Mersereau possessed.

“He was tough and could run like a deer,” Hackal said. “I think it’s that speed that kind of separated him a bit from the rest of us.”

Mersereau gained about 10 pounds that offseason and moved to fullback his senior year.

While he occasionally served as the team’s ball carrier, he did most of his damage opening up holes for tailback Walter Miles.

“He was one of the most devastating blockers we’ve ever had,” Herzog told the News-Review in a 1982 interview. “Scott was often able to take two players out on a block.”

While Miles missed several games due to injury, he still totaled 625 yards and scored three touchdowns for the Waves that year, running behind the hulking Mersereau.

When the other team had the ball, Herzog said they’d often run it away from Mersereau, who made All-County honors despite recording just 54 tackles as opponents avoided him.

Hackal recalls that for as good a football player as he was, Mersereau was also a great baseball player, and he once threw a no-hitter while pitching for Riverhead.

“He was just a great athlete,” Hackal said. “And tough. He had that farm boy toughness.”

Janet Mersereau says she’s proud of each of her sons. But only one has his accomplishments branded on her license plate holder.

“It says my son Scott played for the New York Jets from 1987-1993,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s a fact Scott doesn’t like to brag about.

“He’s so humble in that way,” she said. “If that was me, I’d tell everyone.”

By the time the 1990 season rolled around, Scott Mersereau was a full-fledged Jet. Players like Gastineau and Lyons had already moved on. And Nichols was in his final season with the team.

The closing bell had rung on the New York Sack Exchange and a new breed of Jet had taken over on the defensive line.

Leading the charge was a promising young defensive end out of the University of Tulsa by the name of Dennis Byrd, who had emerged as an emotional leader on defensive coordinator Pete Carroll’s unit.

Byrd was fearless in his pursuit of the quarterback, recording seven sacks in his rookie season in 1989 and following it up with 13 more in his sophomore campaign.

Mersereau meanwhile was growing as a player and he started every game for the Jets between 1988 and 1990. He’d record 4 1/2 sacks in 1988 and again in 1990, with a subpar 1989 season tucked in-between.

He’d miss three games in 1991 with an ankle injury, but still picked up two sacks and a pair of interceptions.

Mersereau and Byrd developed a friendship in their four seasons together with the Jets. When the New York Times did a feature on Mersereau in 1991, Byrd jumped in an started ribbing his linemate.

“He’s only the nose tackle because he’s 5-foot-5,” he joked with the reporter.

Mersereau shot back: “My weight is 275 and my height is 6-3. Ask him if he’ll switch with me and that will give you the answer.”

The Jets duo would even share a house for two weeks during training camp in 1992, where they’d watch movies together almost every night.

In 1992, Byrd and Mersereau were thriving even as the Jets team was not.

The Jets lost each of their first five games and they headed into the Week 13 game against Kansas City with just a 3-8 record.

Mersereau defended the coaching staff that week to a reporter from the New York Times, saying the attitude on the team had changed.

“There’s no finger-pointing here,” he said. “We’re not that good. The truth hurts. But look how we played the second half at New England. We’ve got some pride.”

With five sacks, Mersereau was enjoying his finest season as a Jet. Byrd had recorded seven sacks in the first 11 games and was playing at the high level everyone had come to expect from him.

DAVID DRAPKIN/GETTY IMAGES | Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd spent seven minutes on the Meadowlands turf before being carried out on a stretcher Nov. 29, 1992. He had collided with Scott Mersereau, who walked away with a sprained ankle. He'd later say he also suffered back injuries as a result of the collision.

He was in pursuit of sack number eight when his career ended.

It’s easy to see how such a collision could happen in the game of football. After all, the job of both the defensive tackle and the defensive end is to pursue the quarterback when he’s rolling around in the pocket looking to pass.

Mersereau told the New York Times in May 1993 that he could barely remember what happened on the play.

“I remember charging, and thinking, ‘I got a nice shot at the quarterback,’” he said. “All I saw was a green flash. I was down.”

Mersereau would lay on the ground for about two minutes before walking off with a sprained ankle.

Byrd’s almost lifeless body stayed on the Meadowlands turf for another five minutes before he was carried off on a stretcher.

Janet Mersereau remembers sitting in the stands that day one row in front of Angela Byrd, Dennis’ wife. The two of them watched in horror as the medical staff attended to their loved ones.

“Oh my God,” Janet said, talking about the injury nearly 20 years later. “It was so scary.”

Somehow, Mersereau returned to the field the following week.

Part of his motivation, he told The New York Times, came from a conversation with a hospitalized Byrd.

“We’re football players,” Byrd would tell him. “This is what we do.”

Hackal was watching television one day this summer when he flipped the dial and stumbled on “Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.”

Actor Patrick Warburton, best known for playing the popular character David Puddy on “Seinfeld,” portrays Mersereau in the film. The Mersereau character is shown struggling with the collision, blaming himself for what happened.

Lyons recalls Mersereau taking the aftermath of the collision particularly hard.

“That’s something Scott will have to carry with him for the rest of his life,” Lyons said. “But he had no responsibility in the injury at all. These things happen in football. Unfortunately, Scott was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Lyons, who said he could tell instantly that Byrd had broken his neck as he watched from home with his wife, visited Byrd in the hospital soon after the injury.

“He said ‘I’m glad it was me and not one of my teammates that got hurt, because I know that I have the faith to get through this,’” Lyons recalled.

Mersereau told The Daily News in 1997, in what was billed as the only newspaper interview he’s done since his retirement, that he struggled mightily to move on from the horror of that day.

“At times, it’s been pure hell,” he told Daily News writer Rich Cimini.

Mersereau played just 13 games in 1993 as he battled through back injuries, something he’d later say he believed was linked to the collision with Byrd. He’d record one sack that season to bring his career total up to 19.

After the season, he was released by the Jets and later signed a one-year contract with the Green Bay Packers that included a six-figure signing bonus. He’d never play a regular season game for the Packers.

After 102 games and seven brutal years in the NFL, Mersereau retired from the game.

Cimini captured the agony of what Mersereau has had to deal with physically since retiring in his 1997 piece, which revisited Mersereau and Byrd on the fifth anniversary of the collision: “Mersereau, forced to quit at 28 because of excruciating back pain, underwent a 12-hour operation in 1995,” Cimini wrote. “He needed a three-level fusion, with bone grafted from his hip, to repair two fractured vertebrae in his lower back. Eerily, it was a procedure similar to the one performed on Byrd’s neck.”

One thing Mersereau said helped him get over the mental anguish and misplaced guilt from the collision was a visit he paid to Byrd in the hospital.

During that visit, Byrd placed his hand on Mersereau’s shoulder and walked 26 steps, according to the Daily News. Both men said they count that moment among the most special in their lives.

BOCA RATON HIGH SCHOOL COURTESY PHOTO | Today Scott Mersereau serves as the defensive line coach on his son's high school team in Boca Raton, Fla.

After retiring, Mersereau moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where he works as a financial adviser. Janet Mersereau said Scott’s education — he graduated college with a 3.75 GPA — has helped him earn a good living after his playing days were over.

“I always tell my grandchildren that’s why it’s important for you to do good in school and not just sports,” she said.

Mersereau still has some football-related aches and pains, but Janet says her son is in good health.

In 2000, Mersereau began coaching his son Dylan on the Boca Raton Jets youth football team. In 2009, he joined the staff at Boca Raton High School, where he coaches the defensive line for head coach and fellow former Jet Keith Byars, who coincidentally bought a home in the same complex where Mersereau lives.

Dylan Mersereau played safety for the Bobcats varsity last season, a team that featured Keith Byars II at running back.

Dylan’s highlight reel on YouTube shows a 6-foot, 170 pound sophomore with surprising quickness and the ability to punish ball carriers who get in his way.

Like father, like son.

Janet said Scott, now 46, never gave up his love of football, despite the physical and emotional pain it has caused.

In January, word of Byrd’s riveting playoff speech made its way down to the Mersereau family in Florida.

Janet paused for a second when recalling the impact news of the speech had on her son.

“We were all just so moved,” she said, choking back tears. “Scott was very emotional when he heard.”

gparpan@northshoresun.com