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Brett Byford (59) led Hartselle High to the state semifinals in 2002, and now he's the starting center for Nebraska, ranked 24th in the country.
Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska
Brett Byford (59) led Hartselle High to the state semifinals in 2002, and now he's the starting center for Nebraska, ranked 24th in the country.

Just call him captain
Hartselle High grad takes leadership role on Nebraska line and off the field

By Ronak Patel · 340-2460

Brett Byford has been on a whirlwind lately.

Byford, a former Hartselle High School standout, lines up as starting center on Nebraska's football team, which is 2-1 and ranked 24th by The Associated Press after Saturday's 49-31 loss to No. 1 Southern California.

During fall practice, Byford, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds, was named team captain by his teammates and placed on the Rimington Trophy watch list, an award given out annually to the nation's best center.

But to hear him tell the story of his remarkable rise from unknown freshman to senior standout, it involves much more than football.

"Football is part of it, but there's more to it," Byford said.

Part of the tale happened in May in Hartselle. Byford proposed to his girlfriend, Natalie, at his grandmother's house. Although he didn't get down on his knee, she said yes to his marriage proposal. The wedding is set for early next year.

Furthermore, when he's not cracking down on defensive tackles on Saturdays, Byford is preaching every other Sunday to inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, which is located in Lincoln, Neb., the same as the University of Nebraska.

"I preach there a lot. I started 21/2 years ago when I found about it," Byford said.

"I get really excited about speaking to people who have been through tough times. I'm drawn to people who need help."

Byford is a senior who's on target to graduate in December with a degree in psychology, and he said he got interested in preaching to inmates by reading several books.

"Talking with them, you learn that you are accountable for your own actions," Byford said. "It has definitely played a big part in my life."

That understanding and awareness of other people’s journeys has made Byford appreciative of his own Nebraska career.

He hardly played his first three years, and it appeared he wouldn’t play much in 2006 as a redshirt junior.

But Kurt Mann, the starting center, came down with mononucleosis. Byford stepped in after the first game of the season and hasn’t relinquished the job.

“The time I wasn’t playing, it was tough,” Byford said. “I know what it’s like to be standing on the sidelines and not knowing when you will get in.

“But it was definitely a blessing in disguise. Every snap I get, I’m appreciative of the opportunity. I wouldn’t be the man I am now if it wasn’t for sitting on the sidelines. My priorities changed.”

The transformation has help mold him into one of the nation’s best centers, which coincides with the captain designation and being named to the Rimington List.

“I was surprised when I was named captain,” said Byford, the first Alabama native to earn that designation at Nebraska. “It’s an awesome honor because your teammates vote for it.”

Asked how he feels on being named to the Rimington List, Byford chuckled while mentioning, “There are a lot of guys on that list. There’s a reason it’s called a watch list.”

But Byford added, “It’s a tremendous honor to be mentioned on that list because of the position I play and the school I play for.”

Byford relishes the job requirements of center, which includes providing clean snaps to quarterback and being the caretaker for his fellow offensive lineman.

“My role is to make sure everyone is on the right page on the line and to communicate effectively,” Byford said.

As for the future, which may include a career in the NFL, Byford is not overly concerned

“I’m going to wait and see what happens. If God opens the door, I’ll walk through it,” Byford said.

Brett Byford at a glance

  • As a senior at Hartselle High, he helped lead the Tigers to an 11-3 record in 2002 and a spot in the Class 5A state semifinals.

  • Averaged seven “pancake” blocks a game as a senior and made first team on the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s 5A all-state squad.

  • Signed with Nebraska in February 2003, making him the first scholarship recruit from Alabama since linebacker Dwayne Harris of Jess Lanier High in 1991.

  • During 2003-05, he played in only one game at Nebraska because of a variety of injuries — against Western Illinois in 2004.

  • After one game of the 2006 season, he was thrust into the starting lineup and has stayed there ever since. He has started 16 straight games and helped Nebraska to a 9-5 record in 2006 and 2-1 this year.

  • Included on the Rimington Trophy watch list. The Rimington Trophy will be awarded at the end of the season to the top center in the country.

  • Has helped lead a Nebraska offense that has rolled up at least 373 yards in each of its three games.

  • Voted one of three senior captains for the season, along with linebacker Bo Ruud and cornerback Zack Bowman. Is the first Nebraska captain from the state of Alabama. Wears a “C” on the upper-left side of his uniform to signify his captain status.

    - Mark Edwards

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