"I would just run around with the helmet on for no reason, just throwing up the ball," the Buffalo Bills safety said. "I just had a love for the game, because sons want to be like their dads."
If many kids aspire to one day play quarterback, the dream was far different for Jairus. He wanted to grow up being a defensive back like his father, Gill Byrd, who established himself as one of the Chargers' premier cornerbacks over a 10-year, two-time Pro Bowl career that ended in 1992.
"When I put that helmet on, I wanted to be just like him," Byrd said. "A DB."
The family legacy for producing top-tier NFL defensive backs has entered its second generation with Byrd's continuing emergence.
He first burst onto the scene in 2009, when the second-round draft pick out of Oregon set a Bills rookie record with nine interceptions. He's since rounded himself into a more complete player.
This season, Byrd leads Buffalo with four interceptions and three forced fumbles, and is tied for second with 57 tackles. He's particularly developed a knack for making game-changing plays on a 4-6 team that still believes it can make a second-half playoff push. One that resumes at Indianapolis (6-4) Sunday.
In Buffalo's 19-16 win at Arizona last month, Byrd set up the decisive field goal by intercepting John Skelton's pass over the middle on the Cardinals' opening drive of overtime.
On Thursday, Byrd helped seal a 19-14 win over Miami. With under 2 minutes left, he burst to his right as quarterback Ryan Tannehill released a deep pass intended for Davone Bess, who had a step on cornerback Justin Rogers.
Covering some 30 yards, Byrd beat everyone to the ball by leaping head-first. He intercepted the pass and managed to land inbounds before sliding into the Dolphins bench.
"Any receiver that's ever played the game would've been proud of that catch," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "That whole play was really amazing. ... And the timing of it."
It was a play NFL Network announcers described as "an Ed Reed type of play," in reference to the Ravens star safety.
Former NFL defensive back Aeneas Williams had a different comparison. It reminded him of Gill Byrd.
"When I see him do what he does, it's once again a reminder of some of the things his dad did when he played, and some of the things his dad taught me," Williams said. "And Jairus being the next generation, let's just say he has even more abilities maybe than his dad and I combined. How about that?"
Williams, who split his career between Arizona and St. Louis, is very familiar with the Byrd family. As a player, he spent offseasons being tutored by the elder Byrd. That's how he first met Jairus, who has come to call him "Uncle Aeneas."
Williams, who eventually took Jairus under his wing, had his first inkling of Byrd's potential while watching a high school tape.
"I think he was a sophomore," he said. "And just some of the things he was doing were electrifying."
As for now, Williams said: "I don't know if he's scratched the surface yet."
What the 5-foot-10 and 203-pound Byrd lacks in size and breakout speed, he makes up for with instinct. He identifies the play and has an efficiency of movement.
"I've told him, 'You've got the best feet. You come out of breaks and it's no wasted steps,'" Bills veteran linebacker Bryan Scott said. "It's bam! Gone. I'm telling you he is, to me, the best safety in the league."
Byrd credits his father and Williams for helping him get this far — both physically and mentally.
It's one thing to have the advantage of growing up in the shadow of NFL players and coaches. Byrd also understood it was his responsibility to do something with that edge, knowing there were those wondering whether he was getting preferential treatment because of his name.
"There was always that motivation that in some ways you've got to be better than the rest because of where you come from," Byrd said. "And also, I'm a competitor. So anything your dad does, you always want to try to compete with him."
Byrd's already ahead of the pace his father established in setting the San Diego career record with 42 interceptions. Jairus currently has 17, six more than his father had after four seasons.
Gill Byrd, a Chicago Bears defensive assistant, wouldn't be upset if his son passes him.
"I know that drives him to be the one in the family to have the most interceptions in the NFL," he said. "And I love it. He has a singular focus to be the best."
That includes Byrd's approach off the field. Jairus and Gill have established a program called the Legacy Experience, to help fathers and sons build closer relationships.
"To me, that is the one thing that as a dad I'm most proud of," Byrd said. "I think he understands that where much is given, much is required. And he wants to give back to people."
Dad had plenty more to crow about after Thursday. He was alone at the Bears headquarters watching the Bills game, when he saw his son's interception.
"I was jumping around like a little school kid in the office here," Byrd said. "I was just, 'Wow!'"
The Byrds have a reputation for not getting overemotional, so Jairus was a little surprised to hear about his father's reaction.
"That doesn't sound like him, jumping around," Byrd said, breaking into a smile, realizing he did his father proud. "But that's cool.
"That's a dad for you."
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