March 22, 2014

Barry Byers wins posthumous SC press award for final story

The late Barry Byers, The Herald’s longtime high school sportswriter, was recognized by his peers Saturday night for the last story he wrote – and for how he viewed every athlete as worthy of recognition.

Balancing himself with a cane, Barry Byers limped toward the Lewisville High School basketball players celebrating at mid-court.

For Barry, it could have been just another local team winning a championship. During nearly three decades covering sports for The Herald, he wrote about state high school champions in basketball, baseball, softball, wrestling, tennis, track, cross country and – his favorite – football.

He had watched many teams dance and shout with joy. Last March, Lewisville could have been just another one.

But Barry never thought of any coach, player or team as just another one. He worked diligently every day to ensure everyone got the recognition he believed they deserved – even those who didn’t win titles.

As he walked with other reporters and photographers toward the celebrating Lewisville players, Barry lost his balance and fell – hard – onto the basketball court at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia.

He was weak from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which had kept him out of work for many weeks. He had missed Lewisville’s surprising run through the state playoffs and to the Class A boys state final against Whale Branch.

He had resolved not to miss the championship game, so his wife, Dawn, drove him to Columbia.

Even a fall wasn’t going to stop him. With the help of colleagues, Barry got back on his feet and continued toward mid-court.

He found out later that the fall had severely injured some ribs. Despite the pain, Barry was determined to get the story. As usual, he did.

Unfortunately for his colleagues and for The Herald’s readers, it was the last story he wrote. On Saturday night in Columbia, that story placed second in the spot sports news category of the S.C. Press Association’s annual news contest.

If not for the story that placed first, I’d be a little sad that Barry’s didn’t win. But a story written by two of Barry’s colleagues – Bret McCormick and Anna Douglas – took first. They teamed up to cover the emotional comments made by Winthrop University men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in December 2012.

It was terrific work.

Barry helped plan and coordinate the coverage of Kelsey’s comments. He had hired Bret to join The Herald’s sports staff. Barry and Anna had become friends.

Barry frequently told me he didn’t care about recognition for himself. He was more concerned that others received credit. A lot of people say that, but I think Barry meant it as much as anybody.

On Saturday, I’m sure he was looking down on the gathering at the Hilton Columbia Center and beaming with pride when Bret’s and Anna’s names were called.

Barry’s work last March displayed several of the traits I admired about him. The biggest was his courage. During his last few years, Barry faced a series of serious medical challenges, including several heart attacks. They were obstacles that would have defeated most of us early on.

Barry kept pushing through.

More than once I’d walk down the main hallway at The Herald and see Barry struggling to walk toward his office. I’d urge him to go home and come back when he felt better.

Always, his response focused on having a job to do.

On that Saturday last March, Barry also displayed his longtime devotion to The Herald and to local high school players and teams. He and I would sometimes tangle over where to publish a story about high school athletics.

I’m a long-time fan of high school sports. For more than 20 years, I’ve joined a group of friends from Columbia to travel across South Carolina to attend high school football games each fall.

But while I believe high school sports should be one of our highest priorities, I had to convince Barry more than once that stories about the Carolina Panthers should be published on our sports front every now and then.

I often thought that if I ever needed to discipline Barry, the worst punishment would be to assign him to cover a Panthers game.

Unlike many sportswriters, covering an NFL team was not Barry’s ambition. He wanted to cover high school sports. And he wanted to do it here, in York, Chester and Lancaster counties . He wanted to do it for The Herald.

And he wanted to be the best at it. To me, he was.

As most of our readers know, Barry died on Oct. 18. After his fall last March, he missed several weeks of work because of the rib injuries. Then the cancer returned.

We at The Herald miss his passion for journalism. We miss the kind words he’d say about a colleague’s story or photograph. We miss the giddy laugh that always followed one of the funny stories he loved to tell – including many that could never be printed in the newspaper he loved so much.

On Saturday night, several of us gathered at the awards banquet to offer a toast to Barry. We toasted his last game and his nearly 30 years of service.

We toasted a champion.

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