Wrestling is a sport of individuality and uniqueness. It’s fast-paced, can be confusing to the average viewer and ultimately is different from most sports.
The nature of the sport could be considered one the main reasons why it falls short in viewership to team sports in America. The United States has become accustomed to watching team sports for decades, but many fans of wrestling will attest that seeing a match can be one of the most exciting experiences of any sport.
Penn State, unlike most schools, has one of its largest fan bases in wrestling. Perhaps the biggest part of connecting Penn State fans to the sport itself is one man — Jeff Byers.
Byers spearheads the Penn State wrestling broadcast team, and if he’s not the best commentator the program has seen, he’s certainly one of the most beloved in Happy Valley.
To know why Byers is such an important part of the wrestling culture at Penn State, you have to know who he is and how he has left his mark over the course of his 31-year career.
Byers originally had a similar dream to other young kids to be a professional athlete, but he wasn’t “fortunate enough to have that natural ability.” It was during his first year at Penn State when his focus changed on how to pursue a career in sports.
Though it wasn’t his original plan, Byers said he always had an admiration for the broadcasters who came before him. For someone who loved sports as much as he did, that passion was always there — even in his early years.
“I’d recall games as a kid from the sports I was passionate about,” Byers told The Daily Collegian. “I’d follow closely the announcers of my [favorite] teams. I always loved to just listen to the radio at night and see what I could pull in.”
Those childhood fantasies soon turned into reality as Byers joined the WRSC radio station at Penn State his freshman year.
Shortly after, his predecessor moved on to television, giving Byers an early opportunity to cover wrestling on the radio.
“I jumped on the opportunity to do Penn State vs. Iowa at Rec Hall for my first broadcast, and from that point I just fell into it,” Byers said.
The jumpstart to his career would eventually be the beginning of his current reign as Penn State wrestling’s lead broadcaster. In that time, Byers said he learned plenty about the business, but he’s seen how to improve as a broadcaster, too.
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Most importantly, Byers started to take a unique angle to the way he called matches.
“With wrestling, it seemed that there was a lot of discussion forced like a baseball broadcast between pitches,” Byers said. “I focused on the action on the mat.”
Allen Smith, president of the Penn State Wrestling Club, said Byers’ approach to a broadcast gives off a different feel than any other he’s listened to.
“His call makes you feel like you are at the match,” Smith told the Collegian. “I can’t really explain it.”
Smith, a longtime friend of Byers, said he is one of the most knowledgeable people in the sport. However, Smith said people have come to respect Byers for his ongoing connection with the Penn State community and his extroverted nature.
Smith said the mixture of Byers’ outgoing personality, practice of his profession and knowledge of the sport can make for some of the most exciting calls in sports.
“The guy is excitable. During the matches, his voice will go up, and he will sometimes even lose it,” Smith said. “The excitement he brings over the radio, that’s hard to do. Think about it. That’s a gift, and certainly not everyone has it.”
Being on the broadcast for 31 years, one of Byers’ most important traits is longevity.
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Each year he said his focus lies on getting better at his work, and he’s gotten plenty of chances to learn more about the business of media over his career.
Byers’ career path wasn’t necessarily what he was planning when he started in the profession, but he’s learned that diving head-first to something new is part of the business.
“Don’t try to pigeonhole yourself where, ‘Hey, I’m a football broadcaster or a basketball broadcaster,’” Byers said. “If someone has an opportunity for you with a sport you know nothing about, go talk to the coaches. All of them are willing to teach you more about the sport.”
Being flexible isn’t the only top-tier quality for Byers, as he said making yourself versatile is important in such an ever-changing industry.
“The ability to call multiple sports and be comfortable with it is a huge asset,” Byers said. “Putting yourself out there is the biggest thing. If there aren’t opportunities, create them.”
While Byers has been in the industry a long time, it’s ultimately his love for the craft and sport that sets him apart. Byers said he has tons of respect for everyone in the wrestling fandom at Penn State, but he more specifically has an extreme admiration for the wrestlers and matches they participate in.
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Byers has solidified himself as the voice of Penn State wrestling, not only because of his calls of the matches, but also with his ability to connect with the wrestlers and their families outside of the booth. It’s his outspoken personality that has bridged the gap between the program and the broader Penn State community.
“I’ve gotten to know some of the families [of the wrestlers] very well, and it’s easy to understand — when you meet some of these families — why these kids are as successful as they are,” Byers said. “It’s fun. It’s neat to form these kinds of relationships. You get to share the joy with the coaches and the kids when they reach their goals and be there for the guys that don’t.”
Byers has worked to find his own spot in sports media — he did it by being himself. While there’s always room for him to improve on a technical level, he never wavered in the excitement he brought to the booth.
“If you aren’t someone that doesn’t normally scream, you stay cool in the exciting moments, [and] that’s cool,” Byers said. “Obviously, I found my place screaming into the mic.”