Feb. 25, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Earnest Byner admits his learning about lacrosse continues with each passing year.
Football, after all, was his sport. A bruising presence, he powered his way to more than 8,000 rushing yards during a 14-year NFL career, which included two Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl championship.
If he did pick up a stick in his younger days, it was to whack a ball. Never did he think about using that same stick to catch, run and toss the ball as lacrosse requires.
“I definitely didn’t have a clue about lacrosse,” he said.
But he loves watching the sport when his daughters, Brandi, a senior at Vanderbilt, and Kyara, a redshirt freshman at Cincinnati, take the field.
“I enjoy watching them compete. I really do,” he said. “They go at it. They have the right mind. They are natural leaders. They fight. They scream. They battle. I love to see them when the competitive juices are flowing.”
“I see the mean streak in them, too.”
Brandi Byner is a chip off the old block when it comes to the intangibles.
Leadership. Competitiveness. Strength. Speed. Athleticism.
Cathy Swezey witnessed the last aforementioned quality when she first saw Brandi.
The summer before her junior year at Ensworth High School, Brandi attended a lacrosse camp at Vanderbilt. Swezey, the Commodores’ longtime coach, was sold right then and there.
“That was it,” she said. “I didn’t care what her stick skills looked like because her athleticism was so over the top. I remember talking to her on the phone about committing here and trying to get her to come, and she didn’t think she could play here. I said, ‘Brandi, not only can you play here, you can be an All-American here.’
“Once she got here, though, she was like, ‘Oh, yeah I can play here.’ It was cool when she made that realization. I think she underestimated what she was capable of.”
Swezey believes Brandi is capable of an All-American caliber season.
The 5-foot-6 defender, who has started every year, enjoyed a sensational junior season. She tied fellow co-captain Alyssa Dunlap with a team-high 21 caused turnovers and was third, again knotted with Dunlap, with 26 ground balls.
Her most important stat, however, according to Swezey, can’t be measured.
“Sometimes people look to stats to prove somebody’s worthiness,” she said. “Brandi is a 1 versus 1 defender. She holds people out and there is no stat for that.”
She did share the lead with Dunlap in one category—fouls.
Inheriting her father’s aggressiveness, Brandi doesn’t shy away from contact.
“Some of the girls don’t like the contact at all,” she said. “I block pretty hard, so I bruise people. I don’t really say anything to anyone. But when girls react to my bump I tend to giggle to myself.”
Full of personality, the 22-year-old Brandi laughs when talking about her father.
Three months after Brandi was born, Earnest Byner caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXVI to help lead the Washington Redskins to a 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills. He also played for the Cleveland Browns twice and moved with the team when the franchise relocated to Baltimore in 1996.
The moving wasn’t over, though, as his coaching career began in 1998. Earnest has worked for the Baltimore Ravens, the Redskins, the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Currently, he is the running backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brandi, the third of four daughters, was born in Virginia and also lived in Ohio and Maryland. The Byner family moved to Franklin before her junior year of high school when Earnest took a job with the Titans.
“Their mother did a hell of a job raising them,” Earnest says of his wife, Tina. “She was there. She was able to go to all their events, take them wherever they needed to go. She was very instrumental and very foundational in who they are and what they have become as well. They are their mother’s daughters for sure.”
Earnest’s support is transparent, too, Brandi says.
He tries to go to at least a couple home games a year, and any time the Commodores are in Florida, he’ll shoot out of Tampa. He has even been known to “stalk” practices, standing in the corner.
“I’ve been given advantages through life with my dad’s place in the NFL,” Brandi said. “He has done everything he could at all times. We’ve never gotten upset that he couldn’t be there because we knew what his job entails. My mom was there 100 percent of the time.”
The fact he played in the NFL is lost on most of Brandi’s teammates, who were still in preschool when Earnest’s career was winding down. Brandi can’t recall her dad’s playing days, either, though she has watched clips on YouTube.
“I’m old enough to have seen him play and know how good he was,” Swezey said.
In fact, the giddiness comes from the parents of her teammates, who gawk at the chance to meet Earnest Byner—someone they grew up watching.
“Personally, I think my dad is crazy,” Brandi said, laughing. “You grow up with this guy who has always been your dad and not a running back in the NFL…I take pride in that—that people know who my dad is. It is pretty cool.”
Brandi plans to follow in her father’s coaching footsteps — sort of — initially after graduating in May.
After receiving her degree in human and organizational development with a focus in health and human services, she will team up with her former high school coach, Meg Freeman, a Vanderbilt lacrosse alum, to start a lacrosse youth program. Then she plans to pursue a career in guidance counseling at either a middle or high school.
“My prime is going to be after college,” she said. “Lacrosse has been a constant in my life since I was in fourth grade. The lacrosse side of it I’m going to be sadder about than leaving school. But I’m still excited about the whole next step.”