Bryon Underwood has been a ball hawk for the Southern Ohio Spartans this season. The second-year strong safety ranks among the team leaders with four interceptions, and has scored two defensive touchdowns. With lightning quick speed and a nose for the football, Underwood has become one of the Spartans’ leaders on and off the gridiron. But Underwood is no ordinary second-year player. He’s 40 years old, and he’s preparing to play in his final home game this weekend.
Nearly 20 years after leaving the Portsmouth High School football team, Underwood has found the football Fountain of Youth with the Spartans. In addition to being one of the team’s best defensive backs, “Uncle B” has spent his time marketing, recruiting and coaching for the team
“He helped us out in the organization: T-shirt sales, talking to sponsors,” Spartans owner Jojo Parker said. “He’s a coach on the field, he’s a coach on the sidelines … he does everything.”
Though it took nearly two decades, Underwood found his way back to football. Now, it’s all coming to a close.
In the early nineties, Underwood was part of a football resurgence in southern Ohio. Playing for Portsmouth High School under legendary coach Curt Clifford, Underwood excelled as a cornerback and running back. But after his sophomore season he was dismissed from the football team because of his poor performance in the classroom. He thought his football career was over.
“I was a knucklehead in school,” Underwood said. “I would have loved to be able to play, but I was too busy doing other things: chasing girls and all types of crazy stuff.”
He would eventually graduate from PHS in 1992, but would never again step on the football field. After leaving high school Underwood would served two years in the Navy and joined the local carpenter’s union. He would remain in the area for a few years, before moving west to Oklahoma. There, he met his future fiance, Jenny Givens. He never though he would return to southern Ohio, and football was the last thing on his mind.
But in 2009, the death of his father, Kim, would change his life forever. Grief-stricken and mourning, Underwood decided to move back home.
“I was kind of having a hard time dealing with (my father’s death),” he said. “I came back home, brought my family down here. They decided they liked it and wanted to stay.”
Underwood joined the local plumber and pipe-fitters union while Givens began taking classes at Shawnee State. On Friday nights, he would go watch his nephew, Tre, play football and basketball for his alma matter. With six children and three grandchildren, he stayed busy. But something seemed to be missing.
Around the same time, semi-pro football began to grow in the area. The Kentucky Warriors were established in 2009, the same year Underwood moved back into town. At first, he scoffed at the idea.
“I heard about the Warriors, and I thought (semi-pro) was just backyard football,” he said. “Then I started to look into it a little more and I thought this is something I can get into. I wanted to try it out before I got too old.”
His chance came when Parker started the Southern Ohio Spartans in 2013. Looking for experienced players to help fill his roster, he offered Underwood a spot on his team. He hasn’t looked back.
“When I put those pads on for the first time, it almost brought tears to my eyes,” Underwood said. “I felt like a kid again. It was great.”
Though he no longer has the speed to play his former position of cornerback, he can still do what he loves too from the strong safety position.
“I missed the hitting part. I love hitting people,” Underwood said. I love defense. I like … where I can deliver some blows and maybe getting some picks to a score a touchdown on an interception.”
Not only does Bryon get to play on his favorite side of the ball, he gets to play it with All-Star defensive lineman Tre Underwood. Just a few years after watching Tre play from the stands at Portsmouth’s Trojan Stadium, Bryon now finds himself teaming up for tackles with his nephew.
“I never thought in a million years that that would happen, that I would be out there, playing on the field with my nephew,” he said. “I love playing with him. When I ‘m out there on the field, I sit there … I stand there and watch him in awe and disbelief.
“It’s awesome. It’s an awesome feeling.”
But after two seasons with the Spartans, Underwood’s time with the team is rapidly coming to an end. Unable to find work after graduating from Shawnee State, he and his fiancee decided to move their family back to Oklahoma earlier this year. In early June, he helped moved his family out west. But with the Spartans fighting for a playoff spot, he knew he had some work to finish in southern Ohio.
“When I left my family out there, I cried,” he said. “It’s still hard now just talking about it, knowing they’re there and I’m here.”
Underwood will join his family after the Spartans’ season ends. Though he misses his family terribly, he has his teammates to fall back on.
“It helps a lot having them there,” he said. “They’re my second family. It’s not the same as my family being there, but it’s comforting.
Even though Southern Ohio can earn a playoff spot and keep its season alive with a win over the Cincinnati Xtreme on Saturday, it will be the last time Underwood will play on the field at New Boston Stadium.
“It’ll be hard to just walk off that field, because I know it’s going to be the last time I play on that field.,” Underwood said. “I’m going to miss all of them, my teammates, the coaches, the whole staff. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.”
He may be thousands of miles away, but Underwood plans on contributing with the Spartans as much as he can in the coming years, whether it’s marketing, recruiting or even just moral support.
“I’m a Spartan through and through. Anything to help my team, I’ll do it,” he said.
A new-found leader, Underwood hopes to leave a lasting legacy in the community and inspire others in southern Ohio to follow their dreams.
“I’ve done some bad things in my life, I’ve had some hard times and I’ve come up out of it,” Underwood said.” Just believe in yourself.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter