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Grandfather knew best for Pitt's Byham

How did he do it?

That's your first thought about Ron Byham, whose life took a dramatic turn in the summer of 1988.

In mid-July of that year, Byham's wife died of a sudden illness. A few months later, he had to decide whether to take custody of his 6-month-old grandson, Nate, whose mother -- Ron's daughter -- was only 16.

"She was just a child herself," Ron says.

The baby's father was out of the picture, which left Ron, a 45-year-old grieving widower and grocery store produce manager in Greenville, with a hard choice: Should he step in and raise the child himself?

Ron didn't see it as a choice. He saw it as an obligation. He went to court, signed the papers and began a new life riddled with uncertainty. He was a single grandfather.

How'd he do it?

He just did.

"I changed a hell of a lot of diapers," Ron recalls with a laugh. "And when I was working, I had neighbors who would take him in the afternoon. I didn't do it myself. There were a lot of coaches, parents, friends, his aunt (Kim Baptiste), so many people who helped."

In fact, Nate, a sophomore tight end at Pitt, moved in with his aunt in Franklin in first grade. He went back to his grandfather in fifth grade and eventually split time among several supportive households through his years at Franklin High School.

But his grandfather remained the rock in his life.

"A very loving gentleman," says Jeanne Klinger, the mother of Nate's friend Billy, in whose home Nate spent many a night. "He kept Nate in line."

It took a village to raise Nate Byham, and the village should feel proud. He is a well-spoken, confident young man - a model student-athlete, by all accounts.

He was a blessing to his grandfather, whose grief over his wife's passing and worry over his daughter's plight couldn't help but give way to gratitude every time he laid eyes on the little fella.

Besides, it's hard to be distracted when there's a dirty diaper calling your name.

Nate became the son Ron never had.

"The Lord provides in so many different ways," Ron says. "When He took my wife, He replaced her with Nate, I think."

The child was amazingly calm.

"I look back on it now, and the kid was never sick a day in his life," Ron says. "You put him to bed, he went to sleep. When he started teething, I didn't even know it."

When Nate started playing sports, everyone knew it. He grew to be a 6-foot-3 220-pound football and basketball star at Franklin, eventually becoming the No. 1-ranked tight end in the country by Scout.com.

Southern Cal, Florida, Michigan, they all came calling. Nate had a special affection for Pitt but admittedly was "tempted" by the glamour programs.

He chose Pitt for two reasons.

"My grandfather and the coaching staff," he says.

Pitt's coaching staff had the kind of NFL pedigree Nate craved, and his grandfather was only 80 miles away.

"He has supported me my whole life," Nate says. "He got me into every sport I ever played, came to every game, paid for everything. I'm very thankful, and I wanted to be able to reward him."

Pitt's offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh, coached star tight end Todd Heap with the Baltimore Ravens. He says Nate(now 245 pounds) reminds him of Heap.

Nate didn't do much his freshman year, outside of a spectacular touchdown catch against West Virginia, but he'll be a starter this season.

That he has gotten this far is remarkable. He saw his father only once, when he was 15. His mother has not been active in his life in recent years.

How many children of similar backgrounds take the wrong path• Ron Byham, now 64, believes his grandson's salvation boiled down to a single word: "Sports."

Well, that plus the village, plus the love of a grandfather who didn't have to think twice about stepping into his grandson's life.

He just did.

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