Bill Byrne sat half slumped on a bench near Annapolis Harbor, wrapped in his letter sweater and trying not to laugh or sneeze, two things that cause him enormous pain, when suddenly he straightened up and enthusiastically threw open his cardigan. "Want to see my scar?" he said.
Just about everybody at the Naval Academy knows about Byrne's operation by now, mainly because ever since he was released from the hospital Sunday, he has been limping around campus tearing his shirt open at every opportunity. He arrived back at Navy after a week's hospitalization following his emergency surgery on Nov. 9 to remove a ruptured spleen after Navy's 24-20 loss to Syracuse. And yesterday he held court for passing Midshipmen, delightedly displaying his wound and entertaining questions.
"I'm going to make a sign," he said. "It's going to say, 'I'm fine.' "
For the record, Byrne, who looked wan but cheerful, will play football next year for the Naval Academy, and he also will be able to fulfill his five-year service commitment to the Navy, despite the loss of his spleen. Just in case Byrne already had not been informed of that, one strolling Midshipman made sure.
"A bunch of us looked it up in a magazine," he said. "And it doesn't do anything."
In fact, Byrne's emergency surgery seems to have left few scars other than the one on his torso, and the emotional trauma caused by his horror of needles. He has recovered most of the five pints of blood he lost through internal bleeding, as well as what has become a slightly blacker sense of humor.
One thing Byrne will not recover from so easily, however, is the thought that he may be injury-prone. This is the second straight year he has received a season-ending injury -- leaving after the sixth game of 1984 with a broken ankle -- and he suddenly has become worried about his nerve. He bounced back from last year's ankle ailment quickly, but the shock of surgery took a more emotional toll this time. In addition, there is the unsettling thought that in three of the last four years, a Navy quarterback has received a season-ending injury.
"I'm not worried about my spleen or my ankle," he said. "I'm worried about breaking my neck. I've got more doubts than I've ever had. I've never considered myself injury-prone, but maybe I am. Or maybe playing quarterback for Navy is just not a safe position. Or maybe I'm getting mine out of the way and getting ready for a great year next year.""I'm not worried about my spleen or my ankle. I'm worried about breaking my neck." -- Bill Byrne
In both cases, Byrne was lost to the Midshipmen just as he began setting records. When he was injured in the fourth quarter of an 18-17 loss to Notre Dame last year, he already had set a Navy season record for touchdown passes with 11. Against Syracuse two weeks ago he had the most prolific passing day in Navy history, completing 37 of 52 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns, and in the process set six records.
He broke the previous marks for single-game attempts and completions. He also set records for most completions in a season, with 151, and for most yardage, with 1,694, to pass John Cartwright's total of 1,537 set in 1967. He was just 306 yards short of throwing for 2,000 yards, a longtime goal that he likely would have achieved in Navy's final two games.
"Everything was working that day," he said. "I'm bummed out, not so much because of that game, but because I thought I was finally starting to get hot. But at least I went out with a good one instead of a bad one."
No one is certain when Byrne incurred the injury. He could have hurt his spleen as far back as three weeks ago, in a loss to Notre Dame. What seems to have caused the emergency, however, was a vicious hit from linebacker Terry Kimmel on the Syracuse 42 as Navy was making a final comeback drive.
Byrne felt no ill effects until he was at a tailgater an hour after the game, when one of his teammate's parents offered him a beer. "I turned it down and they knew something was wrong," he said. He went on to a restaurant for dinner but was rushed to the hospital shortly afterward in considerable pain, where he told team physician Tom Harries, "Just knock me out and do it."
Byrne's injury and hospital stay also have caused him to become pensive about Navy's unfortunate season. The Midshipmen (3-7) have lost five games by a total of 15 points. They have lost on officiating calls, on fluke plays, on comebacks that ended just short of the goal line. Much of the criticism of the Midshipmen had been directed at Byrne, who started slowly before he reached his record form. In addition, Navy has suffered a string of injuries at virtually every position.
"This definitely is the unluckiest team I have ever been associated with," he said. "I have never seen one so unlucky."
Byrne has a fairly long road to recovery, and not just physically. He missed a full week of class, which is potentially disastrous in the rigorous pace of the Academy. He is attending morning classes only, because he needs naps in the afternoon. He is taking extra instruction from his professors and faces finals in three weeks.
"When you miss electrical engineering," he said, "that is definitely not cool. I'm not in any trouble, but I'm no scholar."
Physically, his main problems are fatigue, anemia and soreness. He recovered quickly after last year's broken ankle and was throwing on the sidelines at practice by the end of the season despite the pleadings of his mother. He won't be that active this time, but he intends to be on the sidelines in sweats for the game with Army Dec. 7.
"I'll be out at practice," he said. "I know there's no way I can do it as quickly as I did last year, but I can't stay away for that long."