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December 8, 2009

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE - Melendez Byrd initially didn't plan on getting into education, but he went on to receive three degrees from Virginia Tech and now he enjoys educating others

By: Jimmy Robertson

Melendez Byrd

It says quite a bit about a young man’s character when he struggles to meet the SAT requirements to get into a college and yet graduates, goes on to get his master’s and doctoral degrees and becomes a department head at another major university.

Such is the life story of Melendez Byrd.

Byrd admittedly struggled to achieve the required SAT score coming out of Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., back in 1989. But once he achieved the required score, he set his sights on much higher goals after arriving at Virginia Tech to play football for head coach Frank Beamer that fall.

Not only did he become a good football player, but he also graduated with a degree in business marketing management, and later, came back to Tech to get his master’s in personnel services with a focus on counseling. Not done, he came back to Tech again and got a doctoral degree in education leadership and policy studies in 2002.

“I knew one day I wanted to be a doctor,” Byrd said. “Not a medical doctor, but a doctor and things eventually evolved.”

In fact, things have evolved to the point that he is called Dr. Byrd these days.

Byrd graduated from Tech in 1993, and like many Tech football players, he tried the professional route first. He actually played one season for the Baltimore Stallions in the Canadian Football League before coming back to Tech to get his master’s.

In 1996, he moved back to the Tidewater area and got a job as a counselor at Heritage High School in Newport News, where he worked for four years. Then he decided to come back to Tech again and finish work on his Ph.D.

Once he attained that, he landed a job at Norfolk State University, where he has worked for the past eight years. He currently serves as the department chair in the secondary education and school leadership department, overseeing eight different graduate programs and several undergraduate programs.

“When I got my degree in business marketing management and a minor in English, I never thought I’d be a professor,” he said. “At the time, Dave Braine was at Virginia Tech. I liked and respected him, and I wanted to become an athletics director. But the longer I stayed in the education arena, I realized that I wanted to be a professor.”

Byrd fell in love with teaching, and while his position as a department chair forces him to go to numerous meetings and deal with a lot of paperwork, he still manages to carve out a block of time each semester to teach a graduate school class.

“That’s my passion,” he said of teaching. “I love being able to spread knowledge to my students and make an impact in their lives, and I know that they’re going to make an impact in other people’s lives. They’re going to be future counselors, principals and assistant principals. I know they’re going to make an impact in this area and all around Virginia and North Carolina.”

Melendez Byrd was a standout linebacker at Tech for three years and led the Hokies in tackles his senior season.

Byrd’s career in education got off to a bit of a shaky start because he nearly didn’t get into school. A stellar student at Bethel High – he had a 3.2 grade-point average – he struggled to get the required SAT score. Tech’s coaching staff desperately wanted Byrd and waited patiently for him to get the score. But Byrd needed several attempts, and by the time he achieved the required score, Tech’s staff did not have a scholarship available.

But he wanted to go to Tech so badly that he showed up for fall practice anyway – as a walk-on. As is often the case, attrition opened up scholarships and Byrd ended up receiving one before the first game.

He played as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, and then started at inside linebacker the next three years for defensive coordinator Mike Clark. He played pretty well, too, ranking among the team leaders in tackles each year, and in fact, tying for the team lead his senior season with former teammate P.J. Preston with 89 tackles.

The Hokies were decent during Byrd’s first two seasons in Blacksburg. His freshman year, they went 6-4-1 and just missed getting a bowl bid, while his sophomore season, they went 6-5. The final two years, though, Tech suffered losing seasons, including a dreadful 2-8-1 mark in 1992.

“We had quality players, but we just could not finish in the fourth quarter,” said Byrd, referring to the Hokies leading four times heading into the fourth quarter and losing all four games.

Still, he departed with many fond memories – none better than a 38-13 victory over Virginia to end the 1990 season in front of a record-setting crowd (at the time) at Lane Stadium. Though swooning at the time, Virginia had been ranked No. 1 earlier that season. The Hokies came out inspired, in part because they broke out the all-maroon uniforms for the first time and because they spray-painted their shoes black.

“That was probably my greatest memory,” he said. “We went back into the locker room and painted those shoes black. That motivated us.

“But to be honest, I enjoyed all the games.”

He still enjoys the games, just from the perspective as a fan. He keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, including William Boatwright and Jon Jeffries, and a group of them get together every year for a reunion. This fall, a group of 20 or 30 or so got together at Boatwright’s home. Next year, they want to get together at Byrd’s home.

“I don’t know. I’ve got three kids and one of them just turned 1, so I’d like for him to be walking first before I did that,” Byrd laughed.

Byrd married a former Tech athlete familiar to many Hokie fans – Lynelle Slade, who played volleyball at Tech from 1994-97. The two met in a study hall at Tech. While working on his graduate degrees, Byrd helped out in the school’s student-athlete academic support services office with the study halls, working closely with certain football players who were struggling academically.

Slade-Byrd, too, holds several degrees and has enjoyed a successful career in her own right. She works as a pediatrician in the Tidewater area and owns her own practice. Together, they have three young children.

“Ages 6, 2 and 1,” Byrd said. “I hope I have some future Hokies on my hands.”