Penn State fullback P.J. Byers is also a diver with the U.S. Navy.
P. J. Byers feeding a dolphin in San Diego.
Penn State fullback P.J. Byers.
By Ron Musselman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- P.J. Byers is a Penn State student on a mission -- more than one, in fact.
Byers is a 26-year-old walk-on fullback for the Penn State football team. He also is on active duty with the U.S. Navy, a diver by training.
It has been an incredible journey for Byers, who graduated from Penn-Trafford High School in 2003 and navigated through a small college town and naval training facilities in the East and at Pacific ports to Penn State.
"It's a great human interest story, a great feel-good story," said Art Tragesser, who coached Byers at Penn-Trafford. "I don't think anybody could have predicted this opportunity or outcome."
Byers, who will be a junior in the fall, earned a roster spot with the Nittany Lions during an open tryout last fall.
"He's a tough kid, a hard worker," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "He's a good influence around our players."
Byers weighs in at 6 feet and 257 pounds. He was 40 or 50 pounds lighter when he punted and played linebacker and tight end for Tragesser. A solid high school player, Byers was not big enough or good enough to attract a scholarship offer from a Division I school.
"He was just a really good kid, did everything you told him to do and always tried his best," Tragesser said. "But, at that time, he was not being recruited because of his size."
Byers explored other college options but decided to pursue a future as a Navy SEAL.
"I felt a small little patriotic spark inside me and I just wanted to serve my country," he said.
Byers was placed in the Navy's delayed-entry program for a year. He attended Marietta College, a Division III school in Ohio, where he participated in football and track.
In the spring of 2004, he was assigned to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. But his hopes of becoming a member of the elite SEAL unit quickly vanished.
"My eyes didn't pass the test," he said. "You have to have near-perfect vision, and I didn't."
Even so, the Navy allowed Byers to train in a different operational program, diving.
After a year of training in Connecticut and Panama City, Fla., he was assigned to the Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii.
"That's pretty much where diving started -- in Pearl Harbor -- so it was a neat place to be and a great experience," Byers said. He has a family connection to the USS Arizona, one of the ships hit in the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
"My grandfather was actually on the [battleship] USS Arizona -- not when it was attacked -- and I got to see the memorial there. It still is quite a place, 60 years later."
Byers spent three years at Pearl Harbor, where he played football in the Marine Corps League. His primary diving duties included repairing ships and submarines. He had a few scary moments underwater.
"I remember one time we were doing a night dive, and I looked over, and I swear there was a 10-foot wingspan of a stingray," Byers said. "It scared me to death because I had never seen anything that big before. I just grabbed onto the propeller and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the stingray was gone."
Byers eventually moved to the Navy base in San Diego, where he was stationed for more than two years. He searched for underwater mines, took part in diving demolitions using explosives and helped train dolphins to locate mines.
"The less information he gave me on his diving in San Diego, the better off I was," said his mom, Ella McGhee of Trafford. "I had a hard time with him disarming bombs and working with explosives."
Byers continued to lift weights and play football, this time in a developmental league. He caught 68 passes and scored 20 touchdowns in 20 games as a tight end. Playing in the developmental league did not affect his college eligibility.
Byers eventually applied for the Navy's STA-21 program and was selected to attend Penn State in fall 2010. The program provides an opportunity for enlisted sailors to receive a college education and commission as a Navy officer.
Byers maintains the pay, benefits and privileges he had while he was an enlisted diver and he receives scholarship money from the Navy to help pay for his education. He is in the Navy's Reserve Officers' Training Corps program and is majoring in kinesiology, the study of human movement.
Byers remembers the first conversation he had with his ROTC officer about the possibility of playing football.
"He told me Penn State had some fine intramural flag football teams," he said. "I said, 'No, sir. I mean real football, the Division I kind.'"
Byers attended a tryout after he arrived on campus last fall and was one of a handful of walk-ons who earned a spot on Penn State's roster. He was a member of the scout team in 2010 and saw his first action in a Penn State uniform this spring in the intrasquad Blue-White Game.
"P.J. is a hard worker who is very focused," offensive coordinator Galen Hall said. "You can tell by the way he conducts himself, he wants to be good.
"He is a very mature young man who knows what he wants -- a chance to get a great education and play college football at the highest level.
"He had a good spring practice, and I know is looking forward to competing for playing time this season."
Byers hopes to play either fullback or on the special teams.
"I feel like I can offer a lot," he said. "One thing the coaches want me to do is get a little faster. So I'm going to be working on that this summer. I just feel like I can be a big contributor to the team. I just have to keep working hard."
Some are skeptical that Byers will see much playing time, but he has overcome long odds before.
"He was always a late bloomer," his mother said. "I don't think you've heard the end of him. I believe that he's been blessed with a gift, and not just physically. He has a good attitude, he's a Christian kid, he knows what it takes to persevere, and I think that's a big bonus.
"We'll have to see how it plays out at Penn State. If it doesn't happen for him in football, then he certainly will excel in the Navy."
Byers met Penn State coach Joe Paterno in 1992. His father, Pat, was an intern with the Big 33 Football Classic. Pat Byers snapped a photograph of Paterno signing a game program and asked him to sign it for his young son. Paterno obliged. "On the program, he wrote: 'To P.J., I'll be waiting for you,' " Pat Byers said.
Pat Byers, who earned his Penn State degree from a branch campus, presented the program to his son last fall after he made the team as a walk-on.
"P.J. didn't know I had [the program] and, when I gave it to him, he said, 'Dad, you forged Joe's signature on this picture, didn't you?' " Pat said. "I said, 'No.' He finally believed me after I showed him another signature.
"P.J. showed the program to Joe one day, and Joe said, 'Who would have thought this would happen 20 years later?' "