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April 22, 2011
By Tony Mancuso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - His path to the Penn State football locker room is truly remarkable, and P.J. Byers even said that some people do not believe him when he tells the story.
The 26-year-old sophomore fullback, who is on active duty for the US Navy, has traveled the globe to get to Happy Valley, but he couldn't be happier to be at Penn State and playing football for legendary head coach Joe Paterno.
On many different levels, Byers' path to the Nittany Lion football program is incredible.
A native of Harrison City, Pa., Byers graduated from Penn Trafford High School in 2003. At the time he knew that he wanted to be in the military, so he enlisted in the Navy. Byers was put into a delayed entry program and decided to attend Marietta College in southern Ohio.
With a keen desire for competing on the gridiron, Byers played football and ran track at Marietta College for one season before shifting his focus solely on the Navy. He had aspirations of being a Navy SEAL, but Byers' eyesight did not pass the mandated requirements. So, he joined the Navy to be a diver.
Byers was stationed at Peal Harbor in Hawaii for three years before moving to San Diego, where he served for just about two years. As a diver, Byers has done demolition work with explosives, underwater repair work on submarines, conducted hyperbaric chamber training, searched for underwater mines and experienced rebreather diving, which is done with a breathing set that provides breathing gas containing oxygen and recycled exhaled gas and leaves behind no bubbles.
While in the waters off the coast of San Diego, Byers also helped train Navy dolphins. And diving has become his passion.
"It is exciting work," Byers said. "I absolutely love it."
With all that being said, as Byers continued to tell his story, it made you wonder how Penn State football was going to fit into the picture.
Being a Navy diver is a fascinating occupation for an individual barely removed from high school, to say the least. But Byers had aspirations of becoming a Naval officer.
"While in San Diego, I applied for an officer program," Byers said. "The program is structured so that they take you from enlisted status to officer, but in order to do so you have to have your degree."
Byers applied for the competitive officer program and earned a selection. From there, he had the option to pick any school that he wanted, so he came to Penn State in 2010. The Navy is partially paying for his education, and upon graduation, Byers will be commissioned as an officer.
"I love the deep sea diving," Byers said. "I would go back and do it right now. I love my work. And I am just fortunate to be picked for the officer program. Even going along with that, the military enabled me to train alongside my job, too. When I picked Penn State. I came here to play football."
Byers, who will be on active duty throughout his time at Penn State, never thought the opportunity to continue playing football would ever surface.
"I always wanted to go into the military," Byers said. "But I'm torn because I love sports so much. I love playing football. When I joined the military, I thought football was done. When I went to Hawaii, though, they had a league where you could play real tackle football in a Marine-sponsored league."
His mind was set, Byers decided to attempt to walk-on at Penn State last fall. Because of his time in the Navy after one year at Marietta College, the NCAA put his eligibility status on hold. Byers visited the Lasch Football Building time and time again asking when walk-on tryouts were going to be, but he had no idea when they were going to take place.
Nonetheless, Byers kept working out on the field until one day he ran into freshman defensive back Jeff Cully during a work out. Cully proceeded to tell Byers that the walk-on tryouts were the next day.
From there, he sprinted over to the Lasch Building and signed up for tryouts at the 11th hour. Byers' hard work paid off, and he earned a spot on the roster in September.
He practiced on the scout team throughout the fall. This spring, Byers made good progress at the fullback position and said he wants to compete for playing time in the fall.
"I am going to just do my best and give the team anything I can to help it win," Byers said.
He brings a unique level of leadership to the locker room. In addition to being 26, Byers was put into a leadership position when he moved from Hawaii to San Diego. Being just 22 at the time, he was in charge of 100 people in the Navy.
"I think the prior experience is going to help me with the leadership on the team as they get to know me and I know the other players," Byers said.
After playing organized football in the Marine-sponsored league in Hawaii and training throughout his time in San Diego, the officer program gave Byers the football opportunity he had been looking for, and it came at a place and under a coach he idolized growing up.
Byers' father graduated from a Penn State branch campus and took P.J. to games at Beaver Stadium as a kid. Additionally, his dad interned under Coach Paterno at the Big 33 Classic in 1992.
"I have a picture where my dad got an autograph from Coach Paterno when he interned with him," Byers said. "Joe signed the picture to me and said, `I'll be waiting.'"
Little did Byers and Coach Paterno know, the two would ultimately meet on the gridiron. Byers said he still has the picture.
"I never thought it would happen," Byers said with laugh. "And I even told Joe (Paterno) that story. He thought it was a great story."
You could not script a story about a Penn State student-athlete like this one.
"Some people honestly say that it is an unbelievable story, and not the fact that it is astonishing, rather that people just cannot believe it," Byers said.
Asked if he would have believed someone who told him that he would one day play football at Penn State while in the Navy, Byers said that he even finds his story incredible to process.
"I would have never believed them," Byers said. "I would have never thought that I would be playing football in the military. All of the deep-sea divers who I worked with were very close and highly motivated individuals. And all of them were on me to play football."
He calls his fellow divers in the Navy on a regular basis and they are astonished at how things have transpired.
While at Penn State, Byers is part of the Navy's ROTC program. His proper name on campus is Officer Candidate Byers. Byers has ROTC physical training every Wednesday, and he said that scheduling everything involved with classwork, football and ROTC is challenging. Majoring in kinesiology, Byers has aspirations of one day becoming a strength and conditioning coach when he is done playing football and serving in the military.
In the near future, Byers would love to play professional football. Upon graduation, when Byers becomes an officer, he will continue diving, which is his specialty. He is striving to pursue Navy EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal). Byers said those working with EOD are the individuals on the front line who go into areas to disarm explosives and dispose of them. One year of rigorous training in Florida is required to work with EOD.
Like many individuals in Pennsylvania, Byers grew up dreaming of playing football for Joe Paterno at Penn State. But his path to Happy Valley is anything but normal.
From deep sea diving off the shores of Hawaii to training dolphins in San Diego, Byers has already seen more than just about any college student will encounter in a lifetime.
"It has been an unbelievable experience," Officer Candidate Byers said.
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