NAPLES, Fla. — Carlin Fils-aime and Tyler Byrd come from different worlds, and yet they’ll both tell you they were destined to be college teammates.
Fils-aime was born in Haiti before coming to the United States when he was 3 years old, ultimately moving in with foster parents Brad and Tammy Simmons, brother Cooper and sister Madison as a fourth-grader.
There there’s Byrd, who Fils-aime remembers was keeping largely to himself when the two met as eighth-graders in Naples.
“We just clicked, and after a while, I was like, ‘Hey Byrd, why don’t you come over?’ “ Fils-aime said in an interview conducted before he reported to Tennessee for summer classes. “He said he didn’t ever leave his house, and I thought to myself, I’m going to change that. So I would bug him and drag him over to my house.”
Byrd, the youngest of Shirley Williams’ eight children, nodded his head.
“It took a while; I wouldn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t like going to other people’s places,” Byrd said. “I was a homebody.
“But then I started going on weekends, and then it became weekdays.”
By the end of his eighth grade year, Byrd was moved in.
“It was like, we were just the same exact person,” Byrd said. “Playing video games, we don’t move much when we’re not in sports, and we don’t get into trouble.”
Beyond their friendship, Fils-aime and Byrd proved great teammates, challenging each other in ways no other athletes they had gone against could manage.
The former Naples High School teammates agree that Fils-aime is the quicker of the two, and might even post a better 40-yard dash time.
Both agreed that Byrd can run down Fils-aime from behind, and therefore he carries the title of being “fastest” between them.
Byrd was selected the region’s Defensive Player of the Year by the Fort Meyers News-Press, and Fils-aime was the Offensive Player of the Year. The pair led Naples to a 12-2 mark and the Class 6A state semifinals.
As if those football achievements weren’t impressive enough, their track results at the Florida high school meet in May say plenty about them.
Byrd, a lanky 6-foot, 195-pounder, won the state meet with a long jump of 24 feet, 3 3/4 inches.
Fils-aime, power-packed at 5-11, 180 with a 41-inch vertical jump, finished fourth in the state in the 300-meter hurdles.
The Florida schools recognized the Naples’ athletes early in their careers, and Byrd and Fils-aime had interest in the Gators and Hurricanes at different junctures.
There’s a good chance the dynamic duo would still be in the Sunshine State if Florida or Miami hadn’t gone through coaching changes these past few years.
NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, the guest speaker at the Fort Meyers News-Press awards ceremony, expressed dismay over Byrd and Fils-aime heading to Tennessee.
“How did they let them out of the state?” Smith said at the event.
The teammates had been talking about going to school together since they were in eighth grade, so when Byrd committed to Florida, Fils-aime took interest.
“I started to want to go there, but then they didn’t show any love,” Fils-aime said. “Then Miami offered me, and I told Byrd about it, and told him to check it out.”
Byrd had started considering other schools once former Florida coach Will Muschamp was fired in November of 2014.
“I didn’t get any contact people from Florida people for a while, and coach (Larry) Scott had started talking to me about Miami,” Byrd said. “The day before National Signing Day last year (February, 2015), I committed to Miami.”
The Hurricanes were in good shape for Fils-aime, too. The only other school he had serious interest in, Stanford, had not offered him a scholarship.
“I probably would have went there, because I grew up following them and wanting to be a lawyer, and I knew they had a great law school,” Fils-aime said. “That’s what was in my head, and then I liked Florida a bit and Miami a bit.”
And then Miami coach Al Golden got fired on Oct. 25, a day after Clemson humiliated the Hurricanes in a 58-0 blowout.
Scott took over as Miami’s interim head coach and won four games but was not retained.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones hired Scott on Jan. 4 to replace tight ends coach Mark Elder, who left the Vols to take the head coaching position at Eastern Kentucky.
“(Scott) is a great teacher, motivator and recruiter,” Jones said at the time, “and most importantly, a great mentor … “
Byrd agrees, and that’s why when Scott changed the conversation from Miami to Tennessee, he was willing to listen.
A visit from UT coaches Jones, Robert Gillespie and Willie Martinez on Jan. 25 convinced him to take a visit to Knoxville on Jan. 29.
Fils-aime had already committed to the Vols the previous summer (July 30), having fallen in love with the campus and the coaching staff before he even met them in person.
“Before I went on my first visit, they give you a pamphlet of the campus and what they have to offer,” Fils-aime said. “I liked the layout of the campus, how everything was right next to each other, from the facilities to the classes.
“And then I saw how the (Tennessee) river was next to the stadium.”
Fils-aime knew Byrd would like it, too — it was the simple matter of getting his homebody teammate to leave the state of Florida for the visit.
Byrd nodded as Fils-aime spoke.
“Yep, I loved it at Tennessee,” Byrd said. I loved the players and the coaches, and being up there with Carlin and Coach Scott. I think I knew then, and I just prayed about it.
“But I knew it was the right choice for me.”
Byrd waited until Feb. 2 to make it official, giving Jones and the Vols National Signing Day momentum.
“I think I always knew we were going to be teammates,” Fils-aime said, “just the way things were supposed to work out.”