Runnin' son of a preacher man

While his dad saves souls, Keith Byars works wonders for Ohio State
November 05, 1984

He is consistency may fail to beat out the wizardry of Boston College's Doug Flutie in the voting for this year's Heisman Trophy, but Ohio State junior tailback Keith Byars is already guaranteed at least two superstar turns in this season's highlights film. The leadoff clip will show Byars taking a pitchout from quarterback Mike Tomczak against Iowa on Sept. 22. He's in the secondary before anyone realizes it, and he runs between two Hawkeye cornerbacks on his way to a 50-yard touchdown. That put the Buckeyes ahead 10-3, and they never looked back, winnning 45-26.

"I wasn't scouting Byars when I saw the film of that play," says Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, "but I couldn't believe what I was seeing. These were cornerbacks, not safeties, and both had great angles on him. And Byars just turns the jet on and goes right between them."

"When Keith's even with ya'," said Ohio State coach Earle Bruce after viewing the same play, "he's leavin' ya'."

Clip No. 2 is from the Illinois game on Oct. 13. In the press box, offensive coordinator Glen Mason sends down "lead draw," which calls for Byars to slice off-tackle. Byars gets the hand-off at his own 33, angles for the sideline, turns the corner with a burst of speed and makes a sharp cut to the middle of the field. At the Illinois 40 his size 14 left shoe comes off, but Byars, whose time in the 40 is 4.55, runs on and away from everyone for a 67-yard touchdown—one of five he scored while rushing for a school-record 274 yards in State's 45-38 win. CBS showed the replay, oh, maybe 100 times. "What happened was that after Keith reached full speed he had a blowout," says Tomczak. "I picked the shoe up and carried it off the field, sort of like the pit crew."

"He's like a tank with speed," says Illinois safety David Edwards. "I gave him some shots that would usually take guys down. One time he ran right through me. They'd be an average team without him."

Last week against Wisconsin, Ohio State looked like an average team with Byars. Led by senior Marck Harrison, who gained 203 yards on 31 carries in his first start at tailback, the Badgers won 16-14 to gain their third victory over the Buckeyes in the last four years. But don't blame the loss on Byars. The 6'2", 235-pounder ran for 142 yards on 26 carries and scored one TD to keep his NCAA lead in scoring (108 points), all-purpose running (238.5 yards per game) and rushing (167.4 per).

Not bad for a guy rated behind Flutie, Auburn's Bo Jackson and even Pitt offensive tackle Bill Fralic in preseason Heisman talk. Why? Well, the story line on Byars isn't juicy. Flutie and Jackson both played major roles in lifting their teams to higher levels. On the other hand, Ohio State, which is now 6-2, seems to have a powerhouse back and a fine team most every year. Further, Byars just didn't have it in the charisma department. Flutie, for instance, is an engaging sprite who gives a good quote. Byars? He's the son of a Dayton preacher, and he describes himself as "very family oriented." With Tomczak, he organizes Saturday morning team chapel meetings. He works as a jack-of-all-trades at Mosier Industries near Dayton in the summer and says bowling (he has a 180 average) is his favorite off-the-field activity. "I can't say anything about what they base the voting on," says Byars. "I just have to think positive and keep thinking I can win it."

Actually, Byars has lowered his profile even more since he was quoted earlier this season as saying he was going to win the Heisman. "What I said was that there was no doubt I want to win it," he says. "It came out that I said there was no doubt I was going to win it. I don't want that to happen again." Honest mistake or misquote, Byars felt bad enough about it to approach Iowa coach Hayden Fry after their game and explain it to him.

What he should've explained was how he did what he did to the Hawkeyes' tough defense. He rushed for 120 yards, caught five passes for 55 yards, scored three touchdowns and even threw a 35-yard TD pass to flanker Mike Lanese. "He's the fastest big man I've ever seen," says Fry. "That separates him from the other backs they've had at Ohio State. They've had big ones, strong ones and fast ones, but I've never seen one like him who could do it all."

And all means all. Byars runs inside and outside, he returns kickoffs, he catches the ball. His blocking could use a little work, but so could Horowitz's right hand. "He's an unusual package," says NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield, who's now a color man on Ohio State telecasts. Said Washington State coach Jim Walden after absorbing a 44-0 pasting at Columbus on Sept. 15, "They've got a lot of weapons in their arsenal. As a matter of fact, they've got a whole arsenal in one uniform."

Linebacker Pepper Johnson, one solid individual in a shaky Buckeye defense that has rarely let Byars & Co. rest this season, says what also sets Byars apart is his balance. "He takes short steps and his feet are always on the ground," says Johnson. "A lot of backs lift off the ground and don't have as solid a base as Keith. Then, of course, there's his size."

Byars is somewhat perplexed about it. He has never pounded the weights, and no one in his immediate family is that big. "I was just born big, I guess," he says. He has a 19-inch neck, 31-inch thighs, 18½-inch calves, big shoulders, big hands, big feet. "He must put tree trunks in his pants legs," says Minnesota coach Lou Holtz, whose Gophers "held" Byars to 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-22 defeat on Sept. 29.

Byars gets his speed from his father, Reginald, a foreclosure officer for the Montgomery County treasury, an associate minister at the Apostolic Tabernacle Church and a holy terror in summer softball games. "People are surprised how quickly a man 46 years old can get down that line," says Byars. And Keith isn't the only Byars child blessed with the runnin' reverend's speed. The oldest, Russel, 24, challenged Keith, who's 21, to a 75-yard sprint last summer and nipped him at the wire; Reggie, 23, was itching for some of the action, too, but had a pulled hamstring. "Russel's still talking about that race," says Keith, "but the truth is he had softball cleats on and had an advantage."

Byars's speed makes him one of the most feared kick returners in the nation. In a 28-23 defeat of Pitt in the 1984 Fiesta Bowl, he returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown. Against Purdue on Oct. 6, Byars took the second-half kickoff on the two-yard line and barreled down the middle of the field. He cut to the outside and stiff-armed Rod Woodson, Purdue's best tackier, before getting run out of bounds on the Boilermaker 37. Tomczak then gave him the ball three consecutive times, and Ohio State had a touchdown. Even Flutie couldn't have been more spectacularly efficient. Byars wound up with 191 yards rushing and another 102 on nine receptions in the 28-23 loss. "He's the best receiver we've ever had at tailback," says Bruce. Adds Mason, "Sometimes I think he wears a catcher's mitt." Indeed, Byars is first on the Buckeyes in receptions, with 32 for 393 yards.

There has been speculation in Columbus that Byars won't be in school next season, particularly if he wins the Heisman. "All I'll say is that if the decision was made right now, I'd stay and get my degree," he says. "As far as leaving college early, that's down the road."

Whenever he heads to the pros, riches will await, be they in the USFL or NFL. It will be a Byars market. However, if he stays in school, he'll have two legs up—and one shoe off—on all the other Heisman candidates.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERAgainst Wisconsin on Saturday, Byars bumped and ran for 142 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERHarrison badgered the Buckeyes with 203 yards.