Bill Byrne strolls into a room with a distinctly unmilitary gait and gives a smile that evokes California sun and beachfront property, and the first thing you think is, well there must be some mistake. Somebody liberate this guy because there is no way he belongs at the Naval Academy.
For one thing, Bill Byrne is definitely a Billy. His sailor suit, which tends to add about five years to a midshipman, instead makes him younger. He laughs, he jokes. His regulation haircut has not quite subdued the curls or the sun tints, instead merely qualifying him as a candidate for a summer issue of Gentleman's Quarterly.
But Byrne remembers the day he received that haircut two years ago, and it didn't suit him so well then. It was the day he decided he wanted to be a college quarterback so much that he was willing to leave his beachfront home in northern California, commit himself to the Academy and sign on for the obligatory five years of service. So he sat down in the barber's chair, and the next thing he knew, a razor was going up the back of his head like the Marines taking a hillside.
"My first day they shave my head, and then they take off my peach fuzz mustache," he said. "It's the only white place on my face, the rest is tan. I looked in the mirror and I cried."
Byrne since has become a model midshipman, to the shock of friends, family and acquaintances. He also has become perhaps the Naval Academy's most exciting football commodity save fifth-year running back Napoleon McCallum. And it is most unexpected. As an untried and unknown sophomore last season, Byrne picked up an offense seemingly shattered when McCallum broke his ankle in the second game. He responded by passing for 1,425 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns before breaking his foot in an 18-17 loss to Notre Dame.
This was from a guy who was no better than sixth on the depth chart at the start of last season. Byrne rapidly worked his way into a battle for the starting assignment with classmate Bob Misch, impressing coaches with his capacity as a quick study. He alternated with Misch until he gradually won the solo job.
"Contrary to that sixth on the depth chart stuff, we did know he had some tools," said Coach Gary Tranquill. "We knew we were going to take a hard look at him his freshman spring, and he won the job. He's a fun guy to coach, because he has a lot of confidence. If he doesn't understand something he asks, and you don't have to tell him something three or four times. If he makes a mistake, he won't suck his thumb."
Byrne learned his capacity for surprising people at Marin County's Terra Nova High School, where he was told that someday he might make a decent junior college quarterback if he tried hard enough. When he stirred no interest from the West Coast schools -- "I would have killed to play quarterback at Stanford or Cal, anywhere in the Pac-10," he said -- he stunned family and friends by answering the Academy's letter of inquiry.
"We were shocked," said his younger brother Tom, a redshirt freshman quarterback at Notre Dame. "He was never like that. He was disciplined, but I just didn't think his attitude would make it. He's not a conformist. I couldn't see him taking orders from someone smaller than him."
The confirmed beach kid needed a year at a Naval Academy prep school to prepare him for "the life" academically and psychologically, and somehow it took. The Academy has made its mark. "I don't think anybody would say they love the Academy while they're in it," he said. "But I love what's it doing for me."
"He's got this cheerful disposition, and that makes him well liked," said offensive assistant Jerry Franks. "That's a bonus. On the other hand, he knows when to settle down. He's become a leader. If there's some noise in the huddle, he'll tell them, 'Hey, shut up and listen.' "
Byrne's older brother John is a defensive end at the University of Oregon, and Tom was a highly recruited high school star who had his pick of schools before settling on Notre Dame. But the sons of Irish immigrants, who like to hang out together at a beach in Santa Cruz, are improbable football stars.
The Byrne parents, William and Brigid, came to the United States from Ireland in the mid-'50s and settled in Pacifica, Calif. William is a service supervisor for United Airlines, Brigid a clerk in a social security office. Before their three sons began playing football, they had gone to only one game, in a snowstorm. "They thought those guys were crazy to be out there bashing their heads in such horrible conditions," Bill Byrne recalled.
It was enough to make them forbid their children to play. Eventually, however, it would give their three sons college scholarships. Bill and John finally won permission to play and both made the Terra Nova High School team. They coaxed Brigid into coming to see them play, and Bill threw a touchdown pass to John. "That did it," Tom said.
John, 22, went on to get a scholarship at Oregon, where he is a senior. Although Terra Nova won the league championship Bill's senior year, he was told by his coaches that he probably was not good enough even for junior college. Navy was the only school that showed any interest in him.
"We were made up of a lot of average guys, and when you put us together we made one good team," Byrne said. "We weren't recruited, and I was one of them."
When Tom became the starting quarterback at Terra Nova two years ago, he finally drew the attention that the elder Byrnes had not received. He was a highly recruited all-area player "mostly on reputation," he said.
"I had some big shoes to fill. I think the big reason I'm at Notre Dame was because of the reputation they left behind. I think if I hadn't played and gotten a scholarship I probably would have been ousted from the family."
Tom will be the designated holder on extra points this season and is being groomed as a future starter, which makes next season's Navy-Notre Dame game an intriguing one. Bill, meanwhile, doesn't spend much time thinking of California anymore.
"I look back at the Pac-10," he said, "but I wasn't worthy of it then. I'm not bitter. Now I'm at Navy, so why not make them the best team I can, instead of wishing I was the Rose Bowl champ?"