NCU’s Javonte Byrd carries heavy heart through Beacons’ breakthrough season

The Register-Guard article by Austin Meek


A picture hangs in the locker room at Northwest Christian, showing Javonte Byrd in a blissful moment before his world crashed down around him.

Byrd’s teammates are holding him in their arms, celebrating a last-second win against rival Corban. It was a tradition the Beacons started, to hold up one player after a victory and let everyone snap a picture.

Byrd was a hero that night. He’d hit a deep three-pointer — 27 feet, coach Luke Jackson estimated — with 1.5 seconds on the clock and the score tied. In the picture, his expression is one of pure joy, fitting for such a feel-good moment.

“Just the biggest smile on his face,” said NCU assistant Mark McCann. “He’s so happy.”

This has been a season of celebrations for the Beacons, who are 20-4 and off to their best start since joining the NAIA in 2007. A 13-game winning streak has them atop the standings in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, bidding for their first conference title since 1982.

The emotional highs — the buzzer beaters and the wild finishes — are only part of their story. The other part is what happened after the photo, when a perfect moment turned to tragedy in an instant.

On Dec. 22, the night Byrd hit his game-winning shot, his younger brother Markel was driving home for Christmas break. Markel, a starting safety on the New Mexico football team, had planned to stop in Phoenix and drive on to San Diego, where he and Javonte grew up.

Just outside Gallup, Ariz., Markel’s car blew a tire. He was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.

As he was leaving the gym that night, McCann got a call from Javonte’s mother, Stephanie Threadgill. McCann started to tell her about Javonte’s game-winning shot, but he could sense from her voice that something wasn’t right.

Threadgill didn’t want to tell McCann the news without telling Javonte first. She’d been calling his phone but hadn’t been able to reach him.

Javonte, on his way to McMinnville to spend the holidays with his girlfriend, saw the calls come in but didn’t answer because he was driving.

“I’m like, ‘OK, maybe she wants to talk to me about the game,’ because she normally watches the games online,” he said. “I get a call from coach McCann, and he’s like, ‘You need to call your mom as soon as you get a chance.’ …

“I get to where I’m going and I get a call from my mom saying he’s gone. It was just a complete shock. It was unreal. I just didn’t want to believe it.”

Javonte and Markel, separated by only two years, could have been twins. Whether they were playing basketball or fishing in San Diego Bay, it was rare to see one without the other.

McCann knows the Byrd family well from his time as an assistant coach at San Diego’s Lincoln High School, where Javonte played on a basketball team with Oregon defensive back Tyree Robinson and former UCLA guard Norman Powell.

Every time the team had an open gym, McCann said, Markel was always eager to join his brother.

“They did everything together,” McCann said. “Those two were inseparable. Every picture you see, they’re right next to each other with (football) pads or gym shoes on.”

Markel attended a different high school, Horizon Christian Academy, where he played quarterback on a team with Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington. Javonte, Markel and their older brother all were accomplished athletes, but Markel was the only one to earn a Division I scholarship.

“He followed his dream and did big things playing football, while me and my other brother went to smaller schools,” Javonte said. “It was great to see him on a big stage, doing what he loved.”

Javonte’s career followed a different path. He didn’t have the grades to play Division I basketball, so he tried the community college route. When that didn’t work, he figured he was out of options.

“Coming out of high school, I wasn’t the best student academically,” Javonte said. “Trying to find a school was rough. I tried a juco one year and didn’t really like it, so I wasn’t planning on doing anything after that.”

That’s when McCann called to offer him a spot at NCU. Byrd now leads the Beacons in scoring as a senior, averaging 14.7 points while shooting 45 percent from three-point range.

Playing at NCU has given Byrd a support system as he deals with his brother’s death. McCann and Jackson traveled to San Diego for the funeral, and the team has shared in Javonte’s pledge to play the rest of this season in Markel’s memory.

“I think the group has really rallied behind him to try to support him as best we can,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure I have the right words to say, to be enough to be there to support. I think this is a great family, a great place to support what he’s had to go through.”

The scene captured in that locker-room photo, of Byrd suspended in his teammates’ arms, shows a moment of joy that couldn’t last. And even though he can’t go back in time, Byrd found that feeling again in the days after his brother’s death.

On Jan. 22, a month to the day after Markel’s accident, NCU trailed Eastern Oregon by three points in the closing seconds. The Beacons missed two shots, grabbed the offensive rebounds and found Byrd for a game-tying three-pointer with 2 seconds remaining.

After the inbounds pass from Eastern Oregon hit a light fixture on the ceiling, the Beacons regained possession with no time off the clock. Jackson called a play for Byrd, who drew a foul and sank the game-winning free throw with 0.8 seconds to play.

For the Beacons, it was one more wild finish, one more celebration, one more chance to carry a teammate in their arms.

It means something different now, knowing the weight of what they carry.

“It may have brought us closer together as brothers, because you understand the brotherhood of a team like this,” Byrd said. “If somebody loses a brother, everybody’s got to come together and make him stronger.”

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG.

“I get to where I’m going and I get a call from my mom saying he’s gone. It was just a complete shock. It was unreal. I just didn’t want to believe it.”

Javonte Byrd

Northwest Christian Guard, on hearing of his brother’s death in a car accident

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