Parker Byrd strives to be 1% better each day

Parker Byrd preparing to throw a baseball. This fall was Parker Byrd’s first semester as a full-time student at East Carolina University.

That milestone did not come without challenges. Byrd has faced and defeated many as he continues to adapt since a boating accident on July 23, 2022, led to the amputation of part of his right leg and ultimately 22 surgeries to save his life. Byrd is determined to play in a baseball game someday with his fellow Pirate student-athletes. He also describes himself as “old school” with academics.

“I stick out probably a little differently than other people, because I have the (ECU baseball) book bag on and a prosthetic leg, but, thankfully, people respect each other and they don’t really come up to me much,” Byrd says. “I’ll get here, and there will be somebody come up and say they are praying for me, which is absolutely great and I love it, but typically, just living a normal college experience is pretty key.”

Byrd, 19, was a part-time student for the 2022-23 academic year, his first at ECU. It was his most likely option as he balanced medical appointments, physical therapy sessions and online classes.

Online learning is still part of Byrd’s daily routine, but he also enjoys being on campus and prefers learning in person.

He has at least one in-person class every weekday. He drives to student parking lots and rides campus buses. One of his professors, Danica Spriggs, says Byrd is positive in interactions and active in course discussions.

The former Scotland High School star shortstop verbally committed to ECU — the alma mater of his parents, Jeff ’98 ’02 and Mitzi ’98 — during his freshman year of high school.

He is majoring in business with a minor in communication. He moved into off-campus housing with two roommates, who are childhood friends and not ECU athletes.

The upgrade to full-time student has upped his focus on time management. Byrd needs to compensate for extra time to dress. He needs to monitor for any sores or pain near his prosthetic leg area, which he encountered in September and traveled to David Rotter Prosthetics in Joliet, Illinois, for adjustments. He might need to think carefully about his path to a bus stop or class building.

As the often-smiling and witty Byrd continues to learn and navigate the student experience, he remains an inspiration to many people. Spriggs, a teaching instructor in the leadership and professional development program for the College of Business, was not aware of Byrd’s story before teaching him.

“When I discovered that he is an athlete, which usually happens weeks into the semester, I was amazed by the entire situation, especially his commitment to being a full-time student-athlete and the effort that requires,” Spriggs says. “I do think his story is inspirational, in that he is a living example of tenacity and mental strength. His upbeat personality in the face of struggle puts many things into perspective for me, and likely his fellow classmates.”

The Byrd family has learned they are not alone, especially after moving from Laurinburg to Greenville following Parker’s surgeries.

Parker’s younger sisters, Gracen and Brinley, attend Pitt County Schools. Jeff is a pediatrician at Children’s Health Services in Greenville.

“It’s really good,” Parker says of his family being nearby now, “because it gives that home feel. Whenever I want to go see my sisters, I can head 15 minutes to their house. My mom brings me food that she cooks, so there’s still a lot of benefits from being home. It’s been a really good adjustment.”

Many local medical professionals have supported Parker, including at ECU Health, Youngs Physical Therapy and Sports Performance and Shane Coltrain, founder of Orthotics and Prosthetics East. Mega Pirate fan Jared Plummer ’04, a graduate in athletic training who posts in-game social media videos for a virtual snapshot into the passionate baseball fan experience at Clark-LeClair Stadium, spearheaded a Parker Byrd GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $90,000.

Plummer had no connection to the Byrd family before 2022.

“They take care of their own in eastern North Carolina,” Jeff Byrd says. “We feel it. It shows how special Greenville and eastern North Carolina is.”

Byrd and teammate
Jake Hunter greet each other between innings during a game at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Byrd and teammate Merritt Beeker watch a game from the dugout at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Parker’s positivity and determination have led to his story reaching far beyond the state, including motivational speaking requests and a TV interview with a San Diego affiliate. In conjunction with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, he participated in an interview on the MLB Network and threw a ceremonial first pitch before a Houston Astros game in April.

“He makes me better and makes our team better,” ECU head baseball coach Cliff Godwin said during the team’s media day event before the 2023 season. “Obviously it was a very tragic moment, but of all the people this could have ever happened to, he’s taken it and gone in a very positive way. He’s not only affecting our team, he’s affecting people all around the country in a positive way.”

Byrd didn’t envision that level of attention when he signed to play for ECU before graduating from high school. But between that and starting classes, on that July day on Bath Creek, he was on an inner tube when the rope connecting the tube to the boat became entangled in the boat’s propeller, pulling him into it and mangling both his legs. Quick thinking and fast action by those at and near the scene as well as EMS professionals who answered the call saved his life. And after Byrd was released from the hospital, people would speak to him and his family when they ate at local restaurants.

Parker remembers asking his mom how or why people recognized him.

“It definitely was an adjustment, just getting all of that attention,” he says. “As long as I use it to the good, and try to focus on the positive things out of it, which I appreciate everybody’s support, that’s really how I look at it. … There is a bunch of rehab, just trying to get back onto the field. I have to outwork everybody else now. So I’m trying to find that extra way to do that.”

Byrd’s year as a part-time student delayed the start of his athletic eligibility period until he became full time. After returning from Chicago in late September, he focused on playing third base during fall practices.

“I think it’s really the best fit, especially with my fast-twitch muscles not being as fast as they were at one point, so not being as mobile,” he says. “I’m just trying to get used to being back out there. It feels good.”

Godwin says Byrd is a daily source of inspiration. For Jeff Byrd, the unwavering commitment the Pirates have shown to his son is invaluable.

“The coaches have been phenomenal. They have such a special relationship,” Jeff Byrd says. “I don’t know if every place would have allowed that to happen, but coach Godwin still allows Parker to pursue his dream. Coach Godwin is the biggest advocate for Parker, outside of family, as anyone.”

Given the life-changing and unexpected challenges he has faced since July 2022, Byrd has adapted and leaned on one of the Pirates’ core mantras — to get 1% better each day.

“I really have to just focus on the day-to-day process,” he says. “I need to focus on every little aspect to get there. I think the end goal is going to be really cool, but I have to do all the work to get there first. It’s definitely trying to live 1% better, like we preach here, to get back on that field and hopefully inspire others to keep pushing forward.”

Charlie Hodges, left, and Byrd talk before a game at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

In His Own Words…

“It’s been pretty cool to see people kind of rally and seeing myself be an inspiration for others. Obviously, it’s not what I thought would ever happen, but it’s been pretty cool to just see some positive things that have come out of such a negative experience. Seeing everything I can do and how I can impact people has been really cool to watch. I tell people all the time that Greenville is a special place, because I don’t think there’s any other place that would rally around me the way that Greenville has in the past year and a half. I’m really thankful I can be here for this (baseball) program, but also more for the city of Greenville and the fans and Pirate Nation.”