Football died a little bit Friday.
Not the game. The game marched on.
Not the lights. The lights turned on.
But what people know about high school football in Rock Hill – and a lot of other places, too, after reading about it in The Herald – lost a little bit of something.
Because Barry Byers, who for 30 years had the only job he ever wanted – covering high school football in a place that loves the sport – died Friday.
Barry Byers, 61, died on a football Friday in October.
Nobody should die. Especially not from cancer after so much suffering.
But if everybody has to go, they should go on a day that was the same canvas on which a life was painted. Barry Byers lived for the football game between tough and hard-nosed teams on a Friday night in the city of Rock Hill. He loved telling The Herald’s readers about the games, the players and the coaches.
Byers was nicknamed “Mr. Football” because plainly he was.
Barely over 5-foot-3, stout to the point of being burly as an iron stove, for three decades Byers thrust himself squarely in the middle of any and all high school sports stories in York County.
Byers’ official title was assistant sports editor. But he was a high school writer, football especially, first and foremost.
Before the Rock Hill High Bearcats took on South Pointe Friday night District 3 Stadium, everything stopped for a minute. The public address announcer told people that Barry, who was “dedicated in promoting high school athletics” like maybe no other, was gone.
The players were lined up on the hash marks.
“What always mattered to Barry was the players,” said Joe Montgomery, the Rock Hill coach. “He cared about them.”
A stadium of fans fell to silence.
“Barry was great at what he did because he loved what he did,” said Debbie Abels, publisher of The Herald. “He wasn’t just about sports. He was about sports in this community. He played on the Rock Hill High football team.
“He covered many sports for us but his passion especially showed through when he wrote about prep sports. He was student athletes’ biggest fan. In turn, they and our readers had an immense respect for Barry.
“He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.”
Barry was that friend in the paper’s sports section every morning, especially Saturday mornings, after Friday Night Football.
“Barry Byers plain made high school sports in Rock Hill,” said Bill Warren, Rock Hill High athletics director in title. But for Warren, and anybody else involved with high school sports, Barry Byers was a friend.
Football in York, Chester and Lancaster counties is not sport. It is part social life, part religious ceremony, part custom for anthropologists to wonder about.
It is when life stops for a breath, and it is what Barry wrote about.
Byers put the player, the team, before any other consideration. Sometimes even the score had to wait for Byers to give some young kid a pat on the back.
“Barry Byers always gave the athletes the lead role, the starring role,” said Robert Hope, the retired longtime director of the Rock Hill YMCA and a Rock Hill High Bearcats fan for more than seven decades. “Barry was personable. He knew how to talk to people and then tell people about the game in The Herald the next day. For people who know sports in Rock Hill, much of what they learned came from Barry Byers. He will be missed by many – and I am one of them.”
Football is the most brutal of games, filled with violent collisions and artful grace at the same time. But behind each face mask was a teenager, a kid, who became more when Barry Byers wrote about the exploits on that football field.
A Barry Byers story had uncountable names in it. Any kid who made a great play, did something outstanding, the kid got a mention.
The errors, the fumbles, the mistakes may have been mentioned but rarely if ever by name.
Barry went to Rock Hill High and then went to work. He worked in a factory, like so many from Rock Hill who worked in textile mills in those days. He was an umpire, and he coached Little League. He loved the players.
Long before David Guyton in Rock Hill was a judge known all over South Carolina for his fairness, he played Little League for Byers’ team. For the 30 years afterward, Guyton read Barry Byers’ writing in The Herald about high school sports.
“He was as devoted to his Little League players as he was to telling people about the games in the paper,” Guyton said.
Byers started covering games as what papers call a “stringer.” The stringer covers the game because there are more games than staff sportswriters, writes it up real fast afterwards, and gets paid a few dozen dollars for doing it.
Then Barry Byers came to work for the sports department full-time in 1989, and he held on like a rodeo cowboy until only cancer could pull him from games.
He wrote about the stars who made millions and the stars who gave back to kids, such as women’s basketball player Ivory Latta and the NFL’s Ben Watson. Even sick, he helped former NFL player Chris Hope organize a charity basketball game to raise money.
Byers missed his own family’s birthdays and holidays to cover decades of games involving somebody else’s kids.
“Might be the greatest game they ever play, I owe them to cover it,” Byers told me one day so many years ago. “It’s a holiday for them too and they have to play, so I’m gonna work. You think some kid is going to miss a game because it’s a birthday? I will even mention that the kid had a birthday, too, in the paper.”
He wrote about every state champion football team – and every other sport as the players chased titles, too. He wrote for years about Latta, the girls basketball star from York who is the state scoring leader for boys or girls.
A mother once called Byers and asked why he wrote so much about football, and Barry patiently explained that it was because of those stands filled with fans on Friday nights and the readers who wanted to know everything the next day.
“Ma’am,” Barry told that lady with his voice that was so southern that it smelled of pecans and sweet tea and chocolate Yoo-hoo, spiced with hot dogs all-the-way and boiled peanuts and pork skins, “If five thousand people come to watch your son take a math test, I give you my word I will write a story about it. And I hope your son gets a 100 on his test.”
Byers was thrilled when tiny Great Falls and Lewisville high schools in Chester County and Indian Land in Lancaster County won state titles.
Byers was thrilled when the bigger schools won. He was thrilled to watch a mediocre team.
He loved the games, and wanted to write about the players. If the kicker wore glasses, Byers wrote about the kicker and his glasses.
Byers would argue with a statue over sports. The importance of high school sports may have been at issue in many an argument – and many times I was on the other side – but what never was at issue was that unconditional love Barry had for his job of covering high school sports.
Barry wrote about the players who would play college and pro sports, and the players who would never play another down or inning or second half in their lives.
Byers wrote stories about fans.
And he did it all so that the people who read about football and all sports knew that he loved it just as much.
The last football game Byers covered as he toughed through his long illness was the Northwestern Class AAAA, Division 2 state title game in 2012. At halftime he was a guest of Chris Miller, the radio broadcaster covering the game for Our Three Sons sports network.
Chris Miller has won the award as best sports broadcaster in South Carolina for the past four years in a row. He has no peer in his business and is creating his own legend calling high school football games.
But that day in 2012, Miller introduced Byers as “a legend in South Carolina high school sports.”
Friday, after learning of Byers’ death, Chris Miller said that Byers covered high school football with a love and joy all will remember.
“Covering high school sports, there was no one better than Barry Byers,” Miller said.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065