Scrawled onto a 1992 Big 33 Classic game program, the note from Joe Paterno was simple enough.
I’ll be waiting.
It was a friendly gesture not a serious recruiting pitch, as Paterno wrote to the seven-year-old son of Patrick Byers Sr., who was an intern for Paterno at the annual summer all-star football game.
The note would go undelivered, however, sitting unread at the Byers house in Trafford for nearly two decades.
The note’s intended recipient has embarked on a journey that’s led him to Beaver Stadium today, to face a team full of fellow soon-to-be Naval officers.
As soon as he finished high school at Penn Trafford in 2003, P.J. Byers enlisted in the United States Navy.
His grandfather had been a member of the Navy’s construction battalions, called CBs. The “Seabees” were vital members of the Navy’s day-to-day operations in conflicts dating back to World War II, building bridges and bases.
“I guess there was a small bit of that,” Byers said of his grandfather’s naval career influencing him. “It was mostly a strong, patriotic feeling to serve my country and just to do something that nobody ever thinks about doing.” But he’d have to wait.
Byers was put on delayed entry and enrolled at Marietta College.
There, he immediately lent his talents to the football squad as a punter and joined the track and field team as a thrower.
Ten months after he enlisted, the Navy called. Byers left Marietta in the middle of the track and field season for boot camp in May.
Byers wanted to become a Navy SEAL, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough.
He explored multiple career choices until diving piqued his interest. Since the Navy insulates itself by making sure troops are versed in multiple disciplines, Byers had to take on a secondary job before he could proceed to dive school.
He was assigned to take mechanical classes in Groton, Conn., at Naval Submarine Base New London.
There, he spent nine months learning about the inner workings of submarine engines, how to repair and refurbish them and how to unload and change out different underwater weapons systems.
After he met his qualifications in Connecticut, Byers was sent to Panama City for dive school. Byers admits, although his family had a pool, he wasn’t necessarily an expert swimmer.
“I was always jumping in the water,” Byers said of his childhood. “You don’t really have to be a good swimmer to be a diver. “You’ve just got to be a good sinker.” And a meticulous learner.
In addition to a challenging physical fitness test, Byers and the rest of his classmates were required to master the use of multiple equipment sets, make multiple deep-sea dives, learn how to work in tandems underwater and how to coordinate with fellow crew members when air was supplied from the surface.
The alternative to successful completion of dive school came as a harsh prospect for Byers.
“In dive school, someone came up and said, ‘If you don’t want to do this then you can leave now. But if you do leave you’re going to have to be stationed on a submarine for the rest of your time you just signed your life away for,’” Byers said. “I was like, ‘Nope. Don’t want to do that.’ So it kind of clicked in my head, I’m going to do this.”
In three months, a class of 25 was whittled down to 10.
“Not everybody can hack it,” Byers said. “I don’t like to be told that I can’t do something. And if someone tells me that I can’t do something, I’m just going to do it even better.”
At Pearl Harbor, Byers put what he learned in Connecticut and Panama City to use as an operator with the Navy’s Underwater Ship Husbandry program.
The field was launched to help the Navy reduce costs of repairing warships by allowing divers such as Byers to repair them underwater rather than having to transport them to drydocks for repairs.
His first projects came on the subs he studied in Connecticut. Soon his duties expanded to include repairs of aircraft carriers and destroyer-class ships.
“It was probably about 90 percent hands on,” Byers said. “We didn’t really have any classroom. It was just, this is what it is, do it.”
One assignment had Byers taking on a different role.
The family of a U.S. pilot who had crashed his plane off the island of Palau, south of Japan, had asked the Navy to retrieve his body. Byers was one diver tasked with making sure all the equipment was in working order for the team assigned to bring the pilot back.
“We had to dive down there and recover as much as we could for that family,” Byers said.
As Byers’ roommate, close friend and fellow Navy member Jeff McShane said:
“It takes a very special person to be able to disarm a bomb.”
This career path, explosive ordinance disposal, intrigued Byers and was part of the reason he chose San Diego as his next destination following completion of his three-year term at Pearl Harbor.
“It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the military,” McShane said.
In all, 289 EOD technicians have been killed in action since World War II, according to the EOD Memorial Foundation.
Enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan have increasingly employed improvised explosive devices against United States and coalition troops since the beginning of both wars, bringing EOD technicians, their skills and sacrifices to the forefront of American thought. Since the start of the U.S.-led operation of Afghanistan and war in Iraq, 35 U.S. EOD technicians have lost their lives performing their jobs.
Byers was motivated to enter the EOD field after observing EOD technicians throughout his early years in the service. He was inspired by their gung-ho attitudes, their fearlessness and he was intrigued by their abilities to seemingly construct or deconstruct anything with their hands.
With his diving background, Byers became immediately valuable for the EOD technicians who were readying to ship out to Afghanistan.
“Another aspect of their job is to dive and Afghanistan has some waters out there where they have to dive in some ports,” Byers said. “I was taking them out to dive because they have to do a certain amount of dives before they can get sent over. So I was doing that with them, I was getting their gear ready, I was getting all of this stuff ready for them and going through inspections. It was a lot of work to get them to go over.”
The first time Byers got close to a bottlenose dolphin, he was like a little kid at SeaWorld.
“When I first encountered a dolphin, I didn’t know what to do with him,” Byers said. “I almost got into a little trouble because I was like, ‘I want to touch the dolphin.’ I kind of put my hand out and the dolphin comes up and touches your hand if you put your hand out. And then if you don’t give them a treat, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Byers’ job was to help train them as a part of the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. He was part of a team that utilized bottlenose dolphins to locate underwater mines with their echolocation.
Once a dolphin locates a threat, it reports back to its handler who then sends the dolphin back to the mine with a floating device to mark it as a danger to incoming U.S. ships.
EOD technicians finish the disarming process later.
“They’re really amazing creatures,” Byers said. “I had to take a mammal handling course which lasted about a month. That gave me the basic knowledge of how to handle a dolphin the right way. Very, very smart creatures. I loved working with them. It was great work.”
San Diego Thunder football coach Derrick Johnson wasn’t quite sure what to make of the stocky young man with a buzz cut who showed up at the developmental football team’s tryouts.
Byers, who did an Internet search for “tackle football leagues” when he arrived in the city, brought a sturdy football resume with him to the Thunder tryouts. In addition to his years at Penn Trafford and his one season at Marietta College, Byers had found football again in Hawaii.
There, he joined a league made up of U.S. Marines which featured games that pitted bases against each other.
“My base was closest to Pearl Harbor and we’d play probably like three or four other Marine teams,” Byers said. “It was a good time though. Marines are really hard hitters.”
And Byers was in shape and ready to play for Johnson. He just needed to find a position. Byers told Johnson he could punt, drawing on his days at Marietta College, where he was the team’s primary punter.
“He didn’t really show me everything that I was looking for in a punter,” Johnson said.
So the Thunder coach had Byers join the wide receivers to run routes.
“I noticed he wouldn’t drop a pass,” Johnson said. “There was something interesting about this guy.”
With his big frame and sure-handedness, Byers reminded Johnson of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. So Byers paid his way onto the team, buying his own equipment as all semi-pro football players do.
“I was told he was a Navy diver and I said, ‘Okay, that right there says enough,’” Johnson said.
For the remainder of the preseason, Johnson and his staff, along with former San Diego State player Scott Johnson, worked with Byers to dial in his route running and blocking from the tight end position.
In no time, Byers was Johnson’s first option on most plays.
“Once the season rolled around, he was phenomenal,” Johnson said. “I could always say, ‘I can throw a sure pass to him if I need a first down, a touchdown or a fake field goal. He was my go-to guy. Kind of like how the Chargers use Antonio Gates. He was a sure first down or touchdown when you desperately needed it.”
Byers finished with seven touchdown catches and led the league in receptions and receiving yards.
After the season, the Navy handed down deployment orders for Afghanistan. Byers was selected to stay behind.
One of his last missions in San Diego saw him preparing his friends, checking their equipment and getting it loaded onto transports for the trip around the world and eventually into a war zone.
“I had everything ready to go to Afghanistan. I was actually supposed to deploy and they told me, ‘You’re going to go to Penn State now and become an officer,’” Byers said. “So for the last two or three months, I was getting them ready to go on the trip that I was supposed to go on with them.”
Byers met Eric McShane in Rhode Island when the two were in officer candidate school in 2010.
Both had been in the Navy for a number of years and both would soon be headed to Penn State on the Navy’s dime and at its direction. They decided to become roommates and McShane, a former nuclear reactor operator with aspirations of becoming a pilot, soon found himself throwing passes to Byers to help his buddy prepare for walk-on football tryouts.
But Byers wasn’t sure when tryouts were. He made multiple trips the Lasch Football Building to inquire and eventually learned, the day before tryouts, when they would be held.
“I had no clue what the process was,” Byers said. “I just wanted more information so I kept on showing up.”
About 50 players participates in non-contact drills. At the end of the session, Byers was told he had made the team.
Soon afterward, his dad pulled out the Big 33 program Paterno had signed and showed it to Byers for the first time.
The seven-year-old kid Paterno had never met was now a 25-year-old Navy diver and member of the Penn State football team.
The wait was over.
Gameday and beyond
Byers has played sparingly in his time at Penn State. This week, he’s been mimicking the role of a Navy running back in its triple-option attack.
The willingness to go through rigorous practice sessions, and balancing ROTC duties and classes day-to-day while taking on some of the least glamorous roles on the football team, have earned Byers the respect of his teammates.
For Penn State players, Byers, the team’s 27-year-old “Old Man,” is a leader in every sense of the word.
“A lot of people look up to P.J.,” fifth-year senior Pete Massaro said. “I’d definitely say P.J. is one of the hardest workers on this football team and a lot of people overlook the role of the offseason and getting the football team ready for the season and P.J. just did an outstanding job this offseason and was a great leader for us.”
When the Midshipmen step onto the field at Beaver Stadium today, Byers said he’d feel proud of his history and his future with the military. If he gets into the game, he’ll try his best to take advantage of a certain ethics loophole.
“This is probably one of the only opportunities where an enlisted guy gets to hit an officer across from them,” Byers joked. “And I know that a lot of enlisted guys are kind of wanting to be in my shoes right now, and I’m kind of getting paid to do it.”
Soon, however, Byers will be an officer himself. While he’s entertained dreams of possibly trying to play in the NFL, Byers plans to stay in the Navy for the long haul.
When he graduates from Penn State in May, he’ll get his commission and soon move on to Florida where EOD Technician schooling awaits.
He’ll leave one team and re-join another. “It just kind of leaves a no-quit kind of attitude,” Byers said of his experiences in the Navy. “This is something I want to do so I’m not going to quit. I’m going make sure that I’m going to try and be the best and try to make that guy next to me the best. As a team, you do your job the best and that’ll make that guy do his job the best and that’s they way it works out in the military. You’ve got to be a solid group of guys.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_