ALBANY, NY (EYT) – Franklin, Pa. has produced its share of notable sports figures including one native of the tiny Northwestern Pa. town who is now adding a new chapter to his story.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Albany Athletic Communications office)
Home to around 6,000 people and various notable athletes, Franklin has produced baseball players like Kid Butler and Nate Karns and former National Football League talents like Rolland Lawrence and Ted Marchibroda. Former Boston Marathon winner Jack Fultz is also a Franklin native and ran collegiately for a time at the University of Arizona.
These folks sit atop a Mount Rushmore when it comes to Franklin sports with another man who is currently rising in the collegiate coaching ranks – Nate Byham.
Byham, a University of Pittsburgh and NFL alum, is now a rising coaching star, and he’s incredibly proud to call Franklin home.
“To this day, I still say I was raised by the Franklin community,” said the former Pitt Panther standout. “Different family members, coaches, and community members all played a hand in raising me, and I am fortunate for that.”
Growing up, he spent his days playing pick-up sports with his friends, and basketball was perhaps his first love. He saw the 2001 Knights basketball program win the school’s first-ever state championship in basketball, and it was a defining moment not just in basketball but in his life.
“After we saw that team a few years older than us win, my great group of buddies and I made it our goal to win the state title as well. We played in leagues, 3 on 3 tournaments, and even snuck into the YMCA to play as much as we could.”
Eventually, the Knights claimed another state crown in 2006, Byham’s senior year. A major goal for his lifelong friends and himself was checked off, but this story is not about basketball as much as Byham loves and misses the game that certainly gave him a lot, too.
The former NFL veteran remembered a time where things really seemed to come together for him right before his junior year of high school.
“My goal was to play PSAC football for a program like Edinboro or Slippery Rock because they had good football traditions close to home. I was hoping to get on their radar, and I did eventually get offers from them. However, then I started getting mail from almost every school imaginable. I was honestly shell shocked to be getting mail and phone calls from programs like USC, Iowa, the University of Miami, and Pitt.”
Ultimately, he could not say no to former Pitt Head Football Coach Dave Wannstedt and the college that provided him an opportunity to get a top-notch education while playing Division I football so close to home. The decision to become a Panther was one that changed his life for the better.
Not only did Byham and his teammates help hoist Pitt football to a better position than they found it, but they also garnered a great deal of NFL interest, as well. Recently, his collegiate teammate LeSean McCoy became an NFL champion while various other friends and teammates from his college years have had noteworthy careers like Darelle Revis, Tyler Palko, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Dion Lewis.
When talking about his college days, he said: “I was very fortunate to be at Pitt when I was. We took the program and helped rebuild the culture. We came very close to a New Year’s 6 Bowl and even won double-digit games, which was huge for us. Going to the basketball games was also an amazing experience because Pitt basketball was incredible during that time. Going to Pitt also allowed me to meet my wife, who was a member of the dance team.”
Byham went on to become a First-Team All-Big East selection in 2008 and was considered one of the top tight ends, and possibly the best blocking tight end, of the 2010 NFL Draft class. He was invited to the NFL Combine and even appeared on television during the event. Overall, he offered some thoughts of the experience, which may surprise some.
“The combine and my final semester of college was a whirlwind. I was going back and forth from California and Pennsylvania to train, and my professors were front-loading my work so I could train and finish up my degree. The combine finally arrived, and it was not a great time, honestly. It was amazing to be a part of a small elite class of athletes, but the interrogations and hardly sleeping for three days was exhausting.”
Some of the horror stories of interrogation interviews and complex questions were accurate to what Byham experienced from some teams, but ultimately, he survived it all in the spring of 2010, got his degree, and was drafted in the 6th round by the San Francisco 49ers. It was with the 49ers where he would spend the first half of his pro career before heading for Tampa for the back half.
After his time in Tampa Bay, he had a brief time with the New England Patriots before injuries forced him to reconsider if it was time for him to move on. Football had gotten so hard on Byham’s body that he required almost around-the-clock treatment just to practice. While in training camp with the Patriots, he marched up to the offices and told the club that he had decided to retire.
“I had too much respect for the New England Patriots, so I decided to make the decision to walk away. I was icing my knees eight to ten hours per day and sleeping with my knees iced just to try to play. Walking upstairs to say I was walking away was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my entire life.”
While walking away as a player was difficult, finding out what was next was not. He accepted a volunteer assistant coaching position at the University of Albany, and he has remained with the program ever since. Today, he serves as the tight ends coach and running game coordinator. He continues to make an everlasting impression on young men, which he says is the best part of his job as a coach. Another one of his go-to mottos is KISS, which stands for: keep it simple, stupid. By keeping it as simple as he can with his players, the easier it makes it for the players to learn all of their roles and responsibilities.
While Byham loves the University of Albany and coaching for the Great Danes, he hopes that someday, he will have the opportunity to become a college or NFL Head Coach. It is a goal the 32-year-old certainly can accomplish and has been working towards since joining the Albany staff in the fall of 2014.
While this small-town Pennsylvania native’s future looks bright in coaching, he has not forgotten what it was like to be a high-level athlete himself and offered what he felt is overlooked when it comes to thinking about what it is like to be a professional athlete.
“Being a pro is an amazing experience, but the mental strain of always having to worry about keeping your job can be a lot. There is some glamor to the job, no question, but one bad play can cost people their careers.”
In his professional career, Nate Byham caught passes from Alex Smith, Josh Freeman, and Tom Brady for a living. He blocked for the likes of Frank Gore and Doug Martin while sharing a position with Vernon Davis and Dallas Clark. He was blessed to play with some of the biggest names the NFL has had in the last 20 years, but his time in football is far from over.
With coaching in his heart, the Franklin Area High School grad will continue to climb the coaching ranks and someday will hopefully find himself at the helm of his own team or program. His knowledge and passion for the game are as high as ever, and he will never forget where this ongoing journey through football first began.