Multi-talented Byrd will take flight for Pioneers

By Wes Holtsclaw

   For those of us who have seen him play, Mark Byrd has been nothing short of phenomenal on the gridiron.
   After spending some time looking over his options, including offers on the baseball diamond, the former Cloudland quarterback has decided to continue his career playing football at one of the fastest rising NCAA Division II schools in the country.
   The fans in this county will be happy, as he's only going to be a short drive away in Greeneville.
   Earlier this week, the TSSAA 1-A Mr. Football back winner signed a letter of intent to play football with the Tusculum College Pioneers where he will begin work as a wide receiver.
   "I held out to the last minute I guess you could say," said Byrd. "But I wanted to wait until the right time and Tusculum is a good choice."
   The senior has been remarkable in the Highlander football, basketball and baseball uniforms, but he is also an all-star in the classroom, which helped contribute to his full scholarship.
   "They've got a good football program and I like the way they do their classes down there," said Byrd. "The block schedule is nice. They've had a quite a bit of success recently and they're building a strong program. I think I'd be best suited down there."
   Mark likes the aspect of local support being able to watch him play on a regular basis.
   "That was one of the other reasons I chose Tusculum," he said. "It's not that far away. If the parents or the fans want to come see us play, it's driving distance."
   Byrd, a four-time TSWA All Stater and three-time all-division first team Associated Press All Stater, recorded 4,839 rushing yards with 79 touchdowns in his career at Cloudland.
   He set and re-broke the state record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a regular season with 1,402 yards in the regular season.
   The four-year starter behind center had 2,528 yards passing in his career with 35 touchdown strikes. He had 75 rushing and passing conversions and kicked one extra point in his only attempt.
   Defensively, he has a county-record 35 interceptions for eight scores, nine punt returns to paydirt and four kick returns for touchdowns.
   He helped lead Cloudland to the state championship in 2001, with a return appearance in the State semifinals in 2002.
   The 'Landers also achieved their first number one state ranking with Byrd at the helm, but fell short this past season after a shocking upset at the hands of Christian Academy of Knoxville.
   Having coached Byrd the previous four years, former Cloudland football coach Mike Lunsford believes Mark will do great things in a Pioneer uniform.
   "It's exceptional and something you love to see when kids go on and succeed," Lunsford said. "I feel that Mark will be successful when he goes on and he can really be something they can depend on over there."
   "I don't think they may even know what all they've got as a competitor and what kind of kid he is," he said. "They're going to be extremely tickled to have him play for them, I'm sure."
   Byrd also received many words of praise from Cloudland principal Roger Hollifield.
   "It's nothing short of terrific," said Hollifield. "He's one of the best athletes we've ever had. We're sure going to hate to lose him and see him go. He's a very good student and we're proud of him."
   Tusculum won its first SAC Championship this past season with an impressive 9-2 record.
   Many have felt the Pioneers got shunned from the Division II playoffs this past season after big wins over Carson-Newman and Presbyterian, not to mention victories over 1-AA schools Elon and Charleston Southern.
   Mark credits Tusculum offensive coordinator and former CFL and Los Angeles Rams star Dieter Brock with putting everything together.
   "Coach Brock is really the one that's put all of this together," Byrd said. "He's made phone calls and talked to me, so I can kind of get a grasp of their offense."
   "Right now, they've talked to me about wide receiver and possibly, if they don't have anybody to do it, special teams."
   One thing Byrd is going to miss about Cloudland is the fan support. He also credits his former coaches and teammates for helping him reach this goal.
   "It's been tremendous here," he said. "The fan support, I have enjoyed that. To have thousands of people who come watch you play, that's saying a lot for the program."
   "I'd like to thank the coaches for all the time they've spent away from their families. I'd like to thank the players. They've helped me get here," he said.
   "I was fortunate to play with people, a good running back like Dakota (Benfield) and an excellent Mr. Football winner at linebacker in Dane Christman. It's just been fun. Everybody has made my four years here great."
   Mark got a lot of support from his parents, Randy and Kim Byrd, through the decision making process.
   "He's had a great career here at Cloudland," said his father, Randy. "I want to thank Coach Lunsford and all of the coaches for the time they've spent with him. He's a great kid, that's all you can say."
   The team has also signed Happy Valley's Tim Whaley and one of Mark's friends in former Powell Valley and Cumberland Gap quarterback Corey Russell.
   Other area signees include North Greene lineman Eric Collins, Dobyns-Bennett defensive back Dustin Gaines, Greeneville linebacker Corey Shipley and Science Hill lineman Brad Watts.