A Byrd of a different feather
by Rob Daniels
UNCGSpartans.com staff writer
Somewhere, you’ve read this before. Some of it, anyway.
You’ve read about coaches who promise to change their methods in the name of signing a particular player. You’ve read about student-athletes who dutifully say they’ve planned their academic work to prepare them for life after sports.
It’s the stuff of NCAA promotional campaigns, and sometimes it’s slightly overblown. (That graduate student on the team, while laudable and exceptional for having completed the bachelor’s degree with sports eligibility remaining, is really only in grad school to take a minimalist course list and complete that last competitive season, for example.)
Call Kris Byrd the exception to the exception. Call him grounded and forward-thinking. Just don’t call him between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. on most days.
"I understand that the economy is really struggling – not just in the U.S. but worldwide – and I would need an edge over people my age. Most people have a college degree; I wanted something else.
- Kris Byrd
The defender on the UNCG men’s soccer team has a story so rare that the NCAA hasn’t thought to track how infrequent it is. He’s a college graduate (N.C. State) with this and one more season of eligibility in front of him. All in all, he’s a vital member of a successful Spartan team, and he’s carrying the same full academic load as his 25 cohorts in the university’s nationally acclaimed Bryan School of Business and Economics.
“It’s a privilege to work with him,” Spartans coach Justin Maullin said. “He’s the ultimate professional – from his studies to his games.”
That game has helped the Spartans (9-5-4, 4-1-2 Southern Conference) earn a share of the regular-season championship and the top seed in the league tournament, which begins this weekend. With Byrd manning the left side, UNCG has allowed only six goals in seven league games as it prepares to host Georgia Southern in Saturday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal.
Byrd began his odyssey at N.C. State, and he entered with the accelerated academic timetable in mind. He’d take 15 hours of classwork in the spring and fall and would supplement that with four classes each summer until getting the diploma. Almost immediately, he knew he was on the right path.
“I had an injury my freshman year,” he said. “Tore both hamstrings. That set me back a lot and put a lot of things in perspective. It made me realize that soccer’s not going to last forever.”
He recovered, became a two-year starter and received his undergrad degree over the summer. Theoretically, he could have remained at State and continued his studies there. Because of the injury, he had two full years of eligibility remaining.
“It was awesome that I graduated early, but I understand that the economy is really struggling – not just in the U.S. but worldwide – and I would need an edge over people my age,” he said. “Most people have a college degree; I wanted something else.”
After receiving his scholarship release from N.C. State, Byrd began looking at his options. In May, he called Maullin, who had recruited him out of high school. Did the UNCG soccer program have any spots available? Did the Bryan School have any spots available?
“It’s a privilege to work with him. He’s the ultimate professional – from his studies to his games.”
- UNCG interim coach Justin Maullin
Coaches get calls from prospective transfers all the time, and they’ve learned the general rule about such communications: the player is questionable on skill or high on baggage. Maullin was nearly floored by his good fortune.
The only potential problem was one of timing. Classes in the full-time program at Bryan run from noon to 2:45 p.m. daily, but they can run long. (The school is among the top 10 percent nationally according to accreditations and other achievements.) The traditional 3:30 p.m. start time for practice might not work for Byrd.
Maullin didn’t hesitate. The Spartans would practice at 6 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and 7 p.m. on Thursdays to accommodate an unusual case. The players didn’t resent the move; on the contrary, they loved it.
“Thanks to Kris, that’s probably going to be our schedule moving forward,” Maullin said.
After practice, Byrd begins studying for the day’s class, which comes in the form of statistics, accounting, finance or leadership.
“The same 26 people in every class,” he said. “It’s almost like a team in itself. I had preseason with my soccer teammates and then preseason with my academic teammates. We do everything together in every class.”
The leadership class, he said, identified him as a highly analytic person, and he has taken that knowledge into soccer film study. Everybody watches game tape, but Byrd says he sees everything more clearly and farther in advance as a result of the management-training sessions in school.
An impending project involves studying a company – Byrd doesn’t know which one yet – and writing a report that summarizes the business’ statements in federally mandated annual filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The form in such matters is the 10-K, and curiously enough, 10K (6.2 miles) is the approximate running workload of a Division I soccer player in a competitive game.
Byrd manages the juggling act because he has learned by close inspection that it can be done. His mom runs her own business in Huntersville, N.C., while his dad makes a 160-mile roundtrip commute to Spartanburg, S.C., as a consultant to a housing development.
“They’ve given me confidence and belief in myself ever since I could walk,” Byrd said. “Whatever it was – whether it was soccer, school, other sports, other interests.”
Byrd certainly has enough of all of them, and he’s not about to give any of them up. He remains passionate about a pro playing career, and he says he’s willing to go anywhere the game is played in order to do it.
“I want to look back on life when I’m older and see that I tried to become the best player I could be,” he said.
Failing that or after that, he’ll pursue a business career. Ideally, he’d make a living in financial analysis for a professional team or broadcast outlet.
And you get the idea he’ll be OK.