Byrd wrapping up remarkable 'Lander career

By Wes Holtsclaw

   "He shines in 'Prime Time.'"
   There's not enough room in this sports section to list all of the athletic accomplishments of this young man, let alone pack his entire high school football career into a feature story.
   Since his freshman year, Mark Byrd has been a leader for the Cloudland High School football team.
   He, like many others on the squad, has been a role model for many young athletes in the area who have witnessed his attitude and persona on and off each field of play.
   When many people think of the highlights the senior has put up throughout his three-sport career, much of it has transpired on the football field -- especially during playoff time.
   Between Mitchell County, N.C., to J.J. Kelly, Va. last week, Byrd has started every football game for the Highlanders during his career.
   In that time he has been named to the 1A or 2A all-state squad each year and named all-divisions AP all-state since his sophomore campaign.
   One thing is missing from his list. Not the Mr. Football award that he has deserved like others on the squad for the past three years, but a state championship.
   Along with the other seniors on the Cloudland squad, the gold ball is at the top of the list of acheivements in high school play. It's something they have nearly tasted, and something they would like to devour.
   "It's hard to imagine anybody having a better career than what he's had," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford, "coming in able to play and even start at the quarterback position as a freshman.
   "It's such a critical position. To have a freshman come in and do it shows the maturity that he had at that age which gave him a better opportunity to get more stats. He's an exceptionally hard working and very mature young man who deserves everything he gets."
   "It happened so quick, I didn't have time to think about it," Byrd said of starting at quarterback as a freshman. "I kind of got thrown into it. But Coach Lunsford had confidence and faith in me to play in that starting role. But I was young for it."
   Throughout Byrd's career, he has delivered many plays that could be shown on a highlight reel. But his biggest moments have taken place in big games.
   "He shines in prime time," Lunsford said. "He's a prime time player and I think we've got several of those on the team, but he definitely plays his best in big games, I think."
   During his freshman year, he helped guide Cloudland to a come-from-behind victory over Oliver Springs and was the lone bright spot keeping up with the Austin-East Roadrunners at playoff time.
   During his sophomore year, in perhaps the biggest game to this point of his career, Byrd had over 100 yards rushing against a collegiately talented Ezell-Harding crew, which included Vanderbilt receiver Erik Davis and Middle Tennessee State's Antoine Owens and J.P. Shelly.
   Last season, a broke hand couldn't keep him from finishing the game against a talented Boyd-Buchanan squad, which barely lost the state championship in overtime to CPA, in the semifinals.
   That's not including the big games he has had against talented 4A Cherokee and Sullivan East squads.
   "I just get up for those games," Byrd said. "Most of the time it's against schools who are larger than us, and playing them is something we all get up for."
   Of his many stellar performances, the state title game and the semifinal battle against South Pittsburg are at the top of his list.
   "The state championship was the tops, to go down there was an experience," he said. "The South Pitt game, when the goalposts fell and seeing a bunch of people here -- that was really special."
   Although he has a large crowd of screaming Highlander fans at every game, one group that has stood side-by-side with Byrd has been his parents.
   "They've supported me whether I've been wrong or right in my decisions," he said. "When I was young, they never told me I had to play football or anything like that. They gave me an opportunity to play and my father worked with me and my mother was there to support me."
   One big thing that has been on the scene with Byrd this season has been the interest from college football programs.
   Byrd's height and size has been a question mark from many critics, but anyone who has been on the football field with him can tell you he is very deserving.
   He has seen interest from major Division I programs such as Nebraska and Louisville down to Division II powerhouses Carson-Newman and Tusculum.
   Although that chapter of his life is sure to begin in the near future, Byrd is just excitied about the chance to play college football.
   "It would mean a great deal to me," he added. "It would mean so much to be the first one in the family to really go on and play a sport in college. It's something good to look forward to."
   This Friday night, another chapter begins in the career of Byrd and the rest of the Cloudland seniors when they play Christian Academy of Knoxville.
   "It's do-or-die time now for me and the rest of these seniors," he said. "If you lose, you go home. That's always in your mind when you play. But you've got to play and not worry about it."
   Byrd's numbers speak for themselves.
   Mark recently re-broke his state record for regular season rushing yards from the quarterback slot with 1,273 yards on 77 carries (a 16.53 yard-per-carry average).
   In his career, Byrd is approaching the 5,000-yard mark in rushing with 4,630 total rushing yards and 78 touchdowns through last Friday's game. He amassed 1,728 as a junior, 926 as a sophomore, and 703 in his freshman campaign.
   Passing wise, Byrd has 2,438 yards, after the 873 he has tossed this season, with 34 scores.
   That's not including the numerous return yardage he has ammounted in his career, the 35 interceptions and eight scores, the eight punt returns or four kick returns he has taken to the end zone.
   Nor does that include the 73 conversions he has ran and thrown, or the one PAT he kicked last season.