Byrd is voice of Pisgah sports
Basketball, football, wrestling, cheerleading — if it's considered a sport, there's a good chance Rhonda Byrd knows all about it.
After years of writing for The Mountaineer and broadcasting games on WPTL radio, she's become a predominant voice in the sports world of Pisgah High School.
It's clear she's in her element as soon as she enters the high school gym, hugging friends and families of the players and diehard Bears fans.
Though she's lived with her husband in Asheville for the past 25 years, she grew up in Canton with a family that loved Pisgah, especially her older brother, Randy.
When she's not working at Target, it's likely you'll find her at a Pisgah game. Last Friday evening, as always, she got to the Pisgah Girls' varsity basketball game against Franklin a little early. With papers strewn in front of her with numbers and charts, she prepared for the radio broadcast for the night.
"There's a method to my madness," she said, laughing and pointing to her pile of stats.
The night before each game, she spends four to five hours on the computer working on her "homework," going over conference standing, the roster for the opposing team, leading scorers, etc.
"I can tell you exactly what we did the last time we played Franklin," she said, pulling out charts that would be confusing for the average person. "I look at the shot chart and try to figure out why we lost the last game. So that will be something I bring up and start talking about."
Female voices may be a rarity in the sports world, but that doesn't bother Byrd one bit.
To put it simply, "I love the game and I love the kids," she said.
Growing up in Canton, Byrd didn't have much of a choice but to love sports.
"Growing up, football was king in Haywood County. Everybody at my house was a football player for Pisgah. I learned growing up that if I didn't go outside to play ball, I had to stay inside," she said.
Her brother, Randy, was a big reason for her interest in sports. He played on the Pisgah football team that won back-to-back state championships in 1975 and 1976. When the two got older, Randy was an avid sports writer for The Mountaineer.
The two talked six to eight times every day, almost always to discuss what was happening with Pisgah sports that week. But on his way to a Pisgah basketball game one night in 2008, just minutes after talking to his sister about the boys team's standings, Randy suffered from a brain anuerysm and passed away.
It was a devastating loss for his family and the sports community.
The first time Byrd ever broadcast a game on the radio was in 2010, when the Pisgah girls softball team won the state championship. No one else was able to make it to the game, so she was left to do it for the first time all alone. It was two years after her brother died.
When it came time to announce the exciting first-time win, Byrd said she couldn't help but cry thinking of her brother.
"I knew how much he loved these kids," she said. "When they won that championship I said, 'you know, I wish Randy had been here because he always said they were going to win it one day.'"
When first approached to write sports articles for The Mountaineer, Byrd refused. But when she learned her brother had come up with the idea for beat writers in the county, she decided to pick up right where he left off.
"I said if Randy started it, I'm going to finish it," she said.
She's now the regular beat writer for Pisgah and said she loves writing every story.
It wasn't until she started learning more about the student-athletes that she began to finally understand what her brother loved so much about following and writing about Pisgah sports.
"We have the power of the pen, or the typewriter or the keyboard, to change a kid's decision in life to go right or wrong and there's so much negativity going on, someone's got to be positive," she said.
Not only does she know the game inside and out, Byrd takes the time to get to know more than just the athletes. When the teens come off the court after a big win or a painful loss, Byrd is there to capture that. She's also there to delve a little more into the personality and the life of the students.
"You've got to get to know the whole kid, not just the athlete — not just the person that comes out on the court Friday night," she said.
She hopes that working with the teens and sharing their successes and their journeys with others will encourage them to keep trying and striving for the best. She tells them not to make the same mistakes she did growing up. One of her biggest regrets is not playing school sports while she had the chance.
While at Bethel Junior High School, Byrd played basketball and made it to all-state the first year she was on the team. But when it came time to play in high school, she quit.
"I was so scared I would fail my classes. I wanted to concentrate my first year," she said.
During her junior year in 1980, she decided to finally become involved in sports and signed up for a powderpuff football game — junior girls versus senior girls. She was quickly voted to be quarterback of her team because, "I could throw a football better than most boys," she said.
But during the game, she was tackled and tore her ACL, a ligament in the knee, which was the beginning to a nagging and painful problem that would last for the next 33 years. The injury also meant that she would never be able to play sports at school again.
"I never got to don the Pisgah High School jersey and play for my school, even though I wanted to many times," she said.
Instead of sports, she joined the band to play the trumpet as first seat and soloist, making all-state her junior and senior years.
"I've always loved competition and I don't strive to be anything but the best," she said.
After graduating from high school, she worked as a CNA at Britthaven Nursing Home for one year before signing up for training at the NC Highway Patrol, which was heavily recruiting women at the time. She joined the 72nd basic training class in 1983 and was among only eight women in the state.
"Everything was man-oriented," she said, adding that women were expected to qualify under men's standards in every category.
As with everything else in life, Byrd considered it a challenge instead of taking offense. But when she was only weeks from graduation, after most other women had given up, she had to drop out of basic training because of knee problems once again.
"I cried the whole way home," she said.
After two surgeries, doctors told her that should would never walk again.
"But I said, 'no, I'm not going to accept this,'" she said.
Today, after a total of seven surgeries and a total knee replacement last summer, she is finally able to use her knee, all because she never gave up.
If she has a chance, she shares her experiences with the students she talks with. In one case, she remembers a promising male athlete who was failing his classes and in turn, was placed on the bench from basketball games. When Byrd saw this, she told him she was disappointed in him and encouraged him to try harder.
"He still comes up and hugs me and thanks me to this day," she said.
To her, that's what it's all about.
"Maybe I can have an influence on just one kid," she said. "This is not about me. I don't care if my name is under a story. It's all about the kids."