Linebacker Pepper Johnson, one solid individual in a shaky Buckeye defense that has rarely let Byars & Co. rest this season, says what also sets Byars apart is his balance. "He takes short steps and his feet are always on the ground," says Johnson. "A lot of backs lift off the ground and don't have as solid a base as Keith. Then, of course, there's his size."
Byars is somewhat perplexed about it. He has never pounded the weights, and no one in his immediate family is that big. "I was just born big, I guess," he says. He has a 19-inch neck, 31-inch thighs, 18�-inch calves, big shoulders, big hands, big feet. "He must put tree trunks in his pants legs," says Minnesota coach Lou Holtz, whose Gophers "held" Byars to 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-22 defeat on Sept. 29.
Byars gets his speed from his father, Reginald, a foreclosure officer for the Montgomery County treasury, an associate minister at the Apostolic Tabernacle Church and a holy terror in summer softball games. "People are surprised how quickly a man 46 years old can get down that line," says Byars. And Keith isn't the only Byars child blessed with the runnin' reverend's speed. The oldest, Russel, 24, challenged Keith, who's 21, to a 75-yard sprint last summer and nipped him at the wire; Reggie, 23, was itching for some of the action, too, but had a pulled hamstring. "Russel's still talking about that race," says Keith, "but the truth is he had softball cleats on and had an advantage."
Byars's speed makes him one of the most feared kick returners in the nation. In a 28-23 defeat of Pitt in the 1984 Fiesta Bowl, he returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown. Against Purdue on Oct. 6, Byars took the second-half kickoff on the two-yard line and barreled down the middle of the field. He cut to the outside and stiff-armed Rod Woodson, Purdue's best tackier, before getting run out of bounds on the Boilermaker 37. Tomczak then gave him the ball three consecutive times, and Ohio State had a touchdown. Even Flutie couldn't have been more spectacularly efficient. Byars wound up with 191 yards rushing and another 102 on nine receptions in the 28-23 loss. "He's the best receiver we've ever had at tailback," says Bruce. Adds Mason, "Sometimes I think he wears a catcher's mitt." Indeed, Byars is first on the Buckeyes in receptions, with 32 for 393 yards.
There has been speculation in Columbus that Byars won't be in school next season, particularly if he wins the Heisman. "All I'll say is that if the decision was made right now, I'd stay and get my degree," he says. "As far as leaving college early, that's down the road."
Whenever he heads to the pros, riches will await, be they in the USFL or NFL. It will be a Byars market. However, if he stays in school, he'll have two legs up—and one shoe off—on all the other Heisman candidates.