P.J. Byers is no stranger to pressure — it surrounds everything he’s done in the past, everything he does in the present and everything he will do in the future.
As an active member of the U.S. Navy, Byers is a diver. He spent five years between Connecticut, Florida, Pearl Harbor and San Diego doing underwater repairs and working with explosives. He is used to working under pressure — including water pressure.
At Penn State, he’s a walk-on football player and competes on the scout team. He also serves as a team leader. Listed as a fullback on the team’s roster, he constantly deals with the pressure of an opponent’s defense.
But once he graduates, Byers has expressed interest in handling a different type of pressure overseas. The rank of officer would only be a small perk compared to the job description. Byers would come face-to-face with explosive devices and he would attempt to disarm them.
Surely, Byers has heard all the clichés of how failure translates into success. As an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)officer, failure translates into death.
Pressure is at its most extreme form.
It scares the hell out of his mother, Ella McGhee, but she trusts her son with his life.
“Would it concern any mom?” she said, laughing. “It’s not really the best thing I’d like to hear, but I know he’s always had a very good sense of knowing what’s right and wrong. He has very good judgement, so I trust him in that.”
Byers’ level head was one of the reasons McGhee wanted him closer to home, from San Diego to Pennsylvania. She knew Byers would be a good influence on his younger brother, Jacob, who also plans to join the Navy. Jacob is nine years younger than P.J., but as a senior in high school, Jacob is only four grade levels behind P.J.
P.J. and Jacob make it a point to communicate — at the very least, by text message — every day. McGhee said P.J. is always on Jacob about his academics, an area where P.J. struggled in high school.
McGhee said their family moved frequently when P.J. was younger, and his grades suffered accordingly. He mentally committed himself to the Navy as a senior in high school, but the decision process began much earlier.
“[9/11] means a great deal to me,” Byers said. “It happened when I was a sophomore in high school and it was one of the small things that triggered me to push forward and join the military.”
His dream school was the Naval Academy, but Annapolis accepts only the most elite of students. Last year, it was the sixth-most exclusive school in the country, with an acceptance rate lower than the likes of Yale, Princeton and the MIT. Byers didn’t have a chance.
Byers doesn’t hold a grudge against the Midshipmen, but he likely hasn’t forgotten his brief cup of coffee with them.
“He probably wants to beat them now,” McGhee said. “He’s always had a good head on shoulders so he doesn’t think bad about anybody. He is always looking ahead.”
In a sense, Byers has been looking ahead to Penn State since he was a seven-year-old. His father, a Penn State alumnus who interned under Joe Paterno in 1992, hooked his son up with an autographed program from the coach.
“I’ll be waiting,” it read. McGhee said she thought it was a nice gesture, but a little dubious to say the least.
Twenty years later, Byers is here. But there are still reminders of military life all around him. The first, he said, is Paterno’s successor — Bill O’Brien.
“He’s a great leader,” Byers said. “I see Bill O’Brien as our commanding officer. I compare him to some of the COs that I dealt with. He doesn’t see anything that’s happened in the past. He’s just moving us forward.”
Furthermore, Byers said he recognized freshman Brent Smith as a Marine the moment he saw his newly whole-grown beard and distinct tattoos.
“You can have an aura about you that you’ve accomplished a lot,” Byers added. “You could just tell that [Smith] carried a confidence level that not too many people carry, that he’s here to do something and no one’s really going to stop them.”
Smith, 26, had just finished two tours of duty in Iraq. Byers said the two have instantly hit it off.
As President Barack Obama has pulled nearly all troops out of the nation where Smith served, Byers would likely be deployed elsewhere if he were to become an EOD.
But whether he’s fixing submarines underwater or defusing bombs on land, there’s always that element of risk and danger Byers is so accustomed to dealing with.
Byers added there's also an element of unity and resolve in the military that is similar to his experience on the Penn State football team.
“I think it’s a lot of taking a challenge and pushing it forward and completing that challenge,” Byers said. “Completing a mission. We have one mission here, and that’s winning every game. As one team, we work towards that mission just a like a dive team would when I was a diver.”
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