Military Ties Bond Richardson, Local Teen
October 30th, 2004.
The United States was less than a year into the second Iraq War, and combat was on the verge of intensifying.
Marine Lance Corporal John T. Byrd II belonged to a unit based in the western part of the country called the Anbar Province, near Iraq's borders with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
That day, while Byrd was carrying out increased security measures near the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, an enemy suicide car bomber crashed into his vehicle, killing Byrd and seven other Marines.
According to the New York Times, October 30th would be the deadliest day for American forces in Iraq in almost six months.
Less than two weeks later, on Veterans Day, in his hometown of Fairview, West Virginia, Byrd was buried with full military honors - his family, including wife Jessica, was presented with a Purple Heart and ceremonial folded flags.
In an Associated Press account of the funeral, there was a local pastor was quoted. He recalled Byrd as a "gentleman...a good guy."
The pastor also noted that Byrd played basketball.
Listen to an audio version of this story on the latest epsidoe of The BroadCast (4:50 mark).
In January 2005, Jessica Byrd gave birth to a son, Elijah.
Elijah is now 14 years old. He plays football, and over the past couple years, has worked increasingly on his basketball game too. The way his mom describes him, Elijah is a teenager who is very much turning into a teenager.
It's Military Appreciation Night at The Center. The 76ers are getting ready to take on the Charlotte Hornets, and Elijah is grabbing rebounds for Josh Richardson during pre-game warm-ups. You can see to a certain degree a snippet of what Jessica Byrd is talking about.
Elijah's got a bounce to him, a bright smile. In between Richardson's shots, he's twirling a basketball on his right index finger. He is full of energy.
"We came out onto the court, me and Josh, and I was passing the ball to him," said Elijah. "I met Josh's personal coach [Chris Babcok], told me to set some screens up, I was like I just set some screens for Josh Richardson! I was freaking out, bro. You have no idea."
How was it that Elijah had the opportunity to help Richardson get ready for the game that night?
Elijah, a ninth grader at Central High School in the Logan section of Philadelphia, is part of the 76ers' Walk In My Shoes mentoring program through an affiliation with another organization called TAPS - the Tragedy Assist Program for Survivors.
Elijah never knew his father. John died when Jessica was about seven months pregnant. But today, Elijah does bear some resemblance to his father. An old military headshot of John reveals similarities between him and Elijah - in their facial structure, their eyes, cheeks, even the way they cut their hair.
On Military Appreciation Night, Elijah, Jessica, Elijah's grandfather, who served in the Army, and his cousin were all guests of Richardson and the 76ers and given VIP treatment. Before tip-off, Elijah was recognized on the floor as the Strong Kid of the Game.
"It's nice to just see him so happy and energized and motivated and laughing with a big smile on his face," Jessica Byrd said. "It's not something I see very often with the stress of high school and his sports and everything right now."
For anyone out there who's either gone through or maybe currently is in high school, you know - it's not the easiest of times. There's so much you've got to manage, with implications about your present, your future, your personal and social life - all that stuff.
In the words of his mom, Elijah is extremely dedicated to his academics, and is very regimented. That's a good problem to have, right?
Jessica says she likes seeing that type of commitment from Elijah on weekdays, but on weekends, every now and then she thinks it would be good for him to take a bit of a breather, decompress a bit.
"Even on the weekends, he's working his academics, he's studying, he's writing. To see him take a break from it and actually let go and release and enjoy some time as his mom is really refreshing. I'm just like, need to take a break sometimes man, stuff is due!"
How seriously does Elijah take his school work? So much so that he was initially concerned that his participation in the Walk in My Shoes program would have an adverse affect his grades, even if one of the perks was that he'd be able to be mentored by a professional like Josh Richardson.
"I was talking to some of his coordinators, they had a great point - these players are as regimented, so they'll get it. And I was like, that's true!," said Jessica Byrd. "So I told Eljah a couple times, and he still wasn't quite sure about the time requirement. But as you can see, he's happy. What more does a mom want?"
"I can tell he thinks a lot," Richardson said of Elijah. "Like when he meets new people. He doesn't open up really fast, but you can always tell he has something going on upstairs."
Military Appreciation Night wasn't the first time he and Elijah had met. They were introduced about a month and a half ago, after the 76ers' Blue x White Scrimmage at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware,
"Once I got to know him, once we hung out a bit, he's funny, he's passionate about soccer, which I am, so that's a good tie," said Richardson. "He's expressive, he's cool. I like him, he's a cool kid."
Richardson grew up in a military household. His mom, Alice, was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. His father, Michael, was a firefighter.
The military tie was the basis for Richardson becoming Elijah Byrd mentor.
"Growing up as a military kid was cool. Being in and out of the base a lot gave me a good perspective," said Richardson. "My mom was pretty disciplined and everything in my house was very tight - my grades had to be good, she ran a tight ship. But I appreciate it now, because I don't have a problem being disciplined."
Through the Walk In My Shoes program, there are multiple touchpoints throughout the season when a player and the person he's mentoring see each other. For Richardson and Elijah, the first time was at the Blue x White scrimmage, and the second on Military Appreciation Night.
But so far, Richardson has made himself available beyond that. A few days after the scrimmage, he and Elijah went to the Philadelphia Union's first-round playoff match together.
At The Center the other night, they discussed grubbing sometime soon at a Center City institution - Herschel's, the famed pastrami stand at Reading Terminal Market.
"We were talking about sandwiches at Reading Terminal Market," Elijah Byrd said. "We were talking about how he's like a soccer player, because dude, he was like, Bro, pass me the ball. He passes it back. He's a cool dude, he's really fun."
For a handful of reasons, Richardson realizes he's forturtunate. Not only does he have this budding NBA career, he's still got his mom in his life. As Elijah's story reminds us, many military children can't always say the same.
"I've definitely thought about that, and all I can do is pour my heart out to those kids," said Richardson. "That's why I tried to be involved with groups like TAPS, so I can give a positive influence to those kids. I have some friends growing up who had to move a whole bunch of places. That sucks, having to make all new friends, learn a new environment. I never had to experience that. I want to empathize with those people but I can't cause I don't really understand what that's like."
When I spoke with Elijah and his family on Military Appreciation Night, I didn't really want to dwell much on the past. That's not why the Byrds were there. They were there to help honor and celebrate a loved one's memory, and also their own courage and strength in persevering through adverse circumstances.
Still, I did ask Elijah's mom Jessica about the value of program like Walk in My Shoes, and how interacting with someone like Richardson could benefit her son. Her cadence slowed a bit, as she acknowledged the unfortunate reality that Elijah has never had direct fellowship with his father.
"Sometimes I think little moments where really busy people take time to be present, I think that, in regards to value, is invaluable," Jessica said. "Elijah's just learning about Josh's work schedule, and kind of seeing it similar to the time he's putting in right now. I just feel like in regards to leadership, and especially with me being a single mom, and Elijah saying I work too much, and I'm too dedicated to my work, it's nice he gets to see that too and not just him, and there are sacrifices that need to be made. I think it's invaluable. I don't think there's a value for it. There's just so many ins and outs and different ways that you don't expect for it to be a blessing or a learning experience that it surprises you."
"I think it's really important to give back and fill a little bit of a void that's been there," said Richardson. "I would never try to be a father figure or real family member, but just giving him an older male figure in his life who he can talk to and lean on, I think being able to give back in that way and be a mentor is important."
For more information about TAPS and Walk in My Shoes, visit sixersyouthfoundation.org.