Navy diving specialist P.J. Byers spent three years repairing submarines and battleships underwater while stationed at Pearl Harbor. In his free time, he and his buddies would go diving in the area and occasionally found bomb shell fragments from that infamous December day in 1941.
Byers then risked his life for two years searching for underwater mines in San Diego. He also trained dolphins to locate the mines and took part in dive demolitions using explosives.
Many Penn State football fans probably have never heard of P.J. Byers, unless they've studied the roster closely. He's a 26-year-old sophomore walk-on fullback, and clearly he is far from a typical college athlete. In fact, Byers' background may be as intriguing as any player in big-time college football.
P.J. Byers has one of the most intriguing stories of any player in college football.
This is no Rudy we're talking about here, either. Byers, an impressive physical specimen with 257 pounds packed onto his 6-foot frame, has the body, the hands and the work ethic to potentially make a name for himself on the field for the Nittany Lions.
"My dream is to play professional football, but it's also to have a career in the Navy," said Byers, who's still active-duty military. "I'm kind of torn between the two right now."
Little did he know seven years ago that his desire to be a Navy SEAL would lead him down a fascinating path to becoming a major college football player.
Then just last week, by catching two passes for 13 yards in the Blue-White spring scrimmage, Byers added a memorable sports achievement to his already impressive list of life achievements.
"I told him, 'When I heard your name over the loudspeaker at Beaver Stadium that I hope someday you have a son and can experience the pride I'm feeling right now,'" his father, Pat, said.
SUBHD: Not big enough
P.J., short for Patrick Jr. since he's named after his dad, first met Penn State coach Joe Paterno in 1990 when he was 5 years old. His father, an intern working for the Big 33 Classic football game, snapped a photograph of JoePa signing a game program.
The coach wrote a special recruiting message to the young boy on that program: "To P.J., I'll be waiting. Coach Joe."
Byers, a Harrison City native, always wanted to be a Nittany Lion but admitted, "I never thought that I would ever make it up here."
His goal seemed like a long shot when he was playing for Penn-Trafford High School in the early 2000s. A 215-pound linebacker, tight end and punter, Byers showed some promise but was by no means considered a college prospect.
Art Tragesser, who has coached Pennsylvania high school football for more than 25 years, was in charge of the Penn-Trafford program at the time and didn't envision Byers being a Division I player.
"No," Tragesser said without hesitation. "He was a good player, but he really wasn't as big as he is now."
With no major college athletic options, Byers enlisted in the Navy after high school to pursue his dream of becoming a SEAL (Sea, Air and Land specialist). The Navy, though, placed him in a delayed-entry program for a year, so Byers attended Division III Marietta College in Ohio, where he played football and threw the javelin in track.
"He played sparingly at Marietta," his father said, getting in occasionally as a backup linebacker, a little bit at tight end and once as a punter.
A few days after the track season ended in May of 2004, Byers headed to Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. His hopes of being a SEAL, unfortunately, turned out to be short-lived.
"My eyes didn't pass," he said. "You have to have like perfect vision. But they allowed me to do deep sea diving, which is the same kind of special operations program."
Byers' mother, Ella McGhee, thinks her son wound up happier getting into the diving program.
"He found after a while that diving was a little more exciting," she said. "You can do a lot of diving and things, where SEALs can't do some of that."
"Special operations is a wide field," Byers said. "We all work together. Being a diver, I just wanted to do something to keep me on my feet. I wanted to do something that nobody really does, that is a risky job and something that I could just love to do. And I do, I love my job."
SUBHD: Underwater adventure
Byers underwent a year of training before receiving his second class Navy diver status in Panama City, Fla., in July of 2005. He then was sent off to duty at Pearl Harbor Naval Station.
"Great experience," he said. "There's a lot of significance there.
"My grandfather, he was actually stationed on the USS Arizona -- not when it was attacked -- but I got to see the USS Arizona Memorial there."
The Arizona sank on Dec. 7, 1941 after being bombed by the Japanese, killing 1,177 American military members, and the attack on Pearl Harbor provoked the U.S. to enter World War II.
"Sixty years later, it just means a lot to be in that kind of a place," Byers said.
His primary duties there included diving 30-40 feet to repair vessels, although he saw so much more at Pearl Harbor.
"We would do just fun diving on the side -- other than our actual everyday work -- and we would find old shells from the bombing and all this old stuff underwater," Byers said.
Playing football remained a passion for Byers, and he had an outlet to do so in Hawaii. The Marines operate a full-contact league on most major bases in the state, he said, so Byers was able to continue playing and honing his football skills.
He toned his body, too, getting to a more chiseled 220 pounds thanks to the diver training and his own desire to condition.
"When he was in Hawaii he did lifting, and he even won a strongman contest through the Navy where he lifted like 400-something pounds over his head," Byers' mother said.
When his three-year tour at Pearl Harbor ended, Byers was sent to San Diego Naval Base, primary home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. His work there was more dangerous as he dove as deep as 150 feet -- he's trained to go 1,400 feet deep -- plus he worked with more explosives.
"Sometimes I was like, 'Don't even tell me what you're doing,'" his mother said. "Disarming bombs, that was the one I had a hard time with."
Byers also continued playing football, for a developmental league team, and that's where the former Division III backup began the process of turning himself into a Division I player.
SUBHD: A mentor and a plan
Derrick Johnson owns and coaches the San Diego Thunder, one of the most successful developmental teams in the nation, and he takes pride in helping young men like Byers pursue their football dreams.
"P.J. came out as a punter, and he punted OK," Johnson said. "I'm like, ehhh, P.J., we're gonna work with you. Then he started to catch the ball with the receivers, and a light bulb went off."
Johnson saw that Byers had excellent receiving skills but needed to be bigger to play tight end, so he encouraged the 220-pounder to take part in an intense lifting and weight-gaining program.
"He started to really put on the muscle mass," Johnson said.
In less than a year, Byers bulked up to about 250 pounds. In that time, the kid who came out to be a punter turned into a major weapon as a tight end.
Byers caught 68 passes for 648 yards and 14 touchdowns in 20 games with the Thunder -- playing for the team did not impact his college eligibility -- and he led his developmental league in every statistical category for tight ends.
"That developmental coach in San Diego, he's the one that saw P.J.'s talent," Pat Byers said. "The coach saw something in him and encouraged him to build himself up.
"Whatever that coach did in San Diego, it just transformed him into believing that he could go pro. Even today, he feels very sincerely that he's a professional football player and that he's gonna make the NFL in a couple of years."
But first things first.
Byers saw and experienced more adventure in the past seven years with the Navy than most people do in a lifetime, and after all that, he still had the itch to play college football.
"It's always been for the love of the game for him," his mother said.
SUBHD: Officer training
The Navy has a program that allows enlisted soldiers to become officers by going back to college and earning a degree.
"It's a very long process," Byers said. "You have to apply, and you're talking like thousands of applicants a year for this program. You get your full-time active duty, but you're working on your degree. When you graduate, you become an officer and you're with the Navy so many years.
"They only pick up a handful of people every year to do this program. It just means that you're a special guy, that they think you have officer material."
The Navy saw that potential in Byers, who was accepted into the program and enrolled at Penn State for the 2010 fall semester.
He's still on active duty with the Navy and is in the ROTC program at Penn State. The military pays for part of his schooling -- his paycheck gets deducted for the remaining costs -- and as long as he remains in good academic standing, he can keep his officer candidate status until he finishes his kinesiology degree.
Once he got to campus, Byers knew he wanted to try and play football for Penn State. The Nittany Lions hold an open tryout each year for students, and though it's a long shot to be selected, a few players prove to be good enough to make the cut.
Byers' biggest problem turned out to be simply finding out when there would be a tryout. He kept stopping by the Lasch Building from time to time for an update, and no one ever had an answer for him.
So one day he was working out when a friend of his, Jeff Cully, who also wanted to try out for the team as a cornerback, said, "Tryouts are tomorrow."
"I was a little frantic," Byers said. "I came down to the football building and had to get all the information on what I had to do."
Penn State doesn't utilize the fullback as much as in years past, but Paterno likes having big guys with good hands and blocking skills. The Lions' top two fullbacks are senior Joe Suhey, who's 6-1 and 219 pounds, and junior Michael Zordich, who's 6-1 and 242.
Seeing Byers come in at 250-plus made the coaching staff take notice, and he was one of only a handful of walk-ons who made the team during the open tryout. (His friend Cully also made it.)
At that point, Byers' dad surprised him with a gift -- the very same game program Paterno had signed for him 20 years earlier.
P.J. saw the inscription and didn't believe it was real.
"I never even knew he had it, and I even questioned my dad," Byers said. "I was like, 'Dad, that's not his signature.' He showed me the picture, and then I compared it to Joe's signature, and I was like, 'Wow, that really is Joe.' He actually said, 'I'll be waiting.'"
Now the wait was over. That kid had grown up and, after taking the wackiest of paths to get to Happy Valley, he was finally a member of Paterno's team.
Byers had a chance to sit down and chat with JoePa about that chance meeting in 1990 and the autograph his father had kept secret for so long.
"Even Coach Paterno couldn't believe it, that there's this kid 20 years later sitting in his office talking to him," Pat Byers said.
"It was really funny," P.J. noted. "We talked for about a half hour about the military. He has a heart for the military, and he laughed about it and said he wanted to meet my dad. When I told my dad that Joe Paterno wanted to meet him, he basically lost it. My dad, he's a diehard Penn State fan, and he just loves everything about Penn State."
SUBHD: From past to present
There aren't many -- if any -- players in college football who have taken such an unusual route to get there as Byers, but simply being on the Penn State team isn't his goal. He wants to play, and at the end of the day, his talent and not his intriguing past will determine if that happens.
Byers spent the 2010 season on the Lions' scout team and has two years of eligibility remaining, giving him time to develop as a player and work his way up the depth chart. Suhey and Zordich are expected to split the fullback duties this season, then Zordich should have the starting job to himself as a senior in 2012.
Byers had a strong spring, culminating with a good showing in the Blue-White Game. His highlight came in the first quarter when he caught an 11-yard pass from Kevin Newsome for a first down.
"My first catch at Beaver Stadium was just indescribable. It was great," said Byers, who later pulled in a 2-yard pass from Shane McGregor.
Whether it's at fullback or perhaps on special teams, Byers believes he can compete for playing time this fall.
"I think I have a pretty good chance," he said. "[Quarterbacks coach] Jay Paterno, I have good confidence in him. They know that I have really good hands and know that I can bring that to the field -- that and size. So I'm hoping that they do use me this year. I don't know how. The only thing I've got to focus on is getting better and showing them I can play."
Whatever happens with football, Byers knows he has a good career waiting for him as an officer in the Navy. He's an incredible long shot to play in the NFL, but then again, he was an incredible long shot to be in the position he's in now, and that didn't stop him from getting there.
"I'm torn between the military and football because I love playing football so much," Byers said. "I don't know how it's gonna pan out in the future. I would love to play professional football. That's one of my dreams. But I'm just waiting to see what kind of opportunities open up."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.