By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
“This is the end
“Beautiful friend” — The End (1966) The Doors
Stars flicker and eventually flame into oblivion, victims of time or circumstance or their own vanity. There’s a durable quality about Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd that’s reassuring, a diamond from the rough and tumble world of the Virginia Tidewater. A precious gem born into a rock solid family where privilege was earned with sweat and not taken for granted.
Despite his generation’s fixation on fleeting stars manipulated for prime time, who Twitter and flitter and sign and whine and prefer rather to preen and pout and wait for the audience vote, thumbs up or down, he is the poster boy for how deep self-effacement and unwavering self-confidence can coexist.
Watching him off field can be nearly as intriguing as when he’s scrambling to buy time, then flicking the ball sidearm through an opening the size of a mail box, or spinning and crashing into a safety in defiance.
He oozes charisma, and from the moment he enters a room, eyes are on him. Before finding a chair he may shake hands and hug a dozen teammates and coaches as if he’s meeting them for the first time, working the room like a politician.
No need. The job is already his, and there’s no debate.
Fans plead to be noticed, and he tries to accommodate. Autographs and photo ops are free, but he has learned to set boundaries. His mama, a generous woman with a wide open personality, taught him.
She works with at-risk girls and they squeal and shiver nervously in his presence, yet he’s patient and makes each feel that he’s there only for her. Larger than life in their eyes, he’s still a kid, a mama’s boy and Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of cereal are part of his routine, and with barely a nudge he breaks into song – preferably a country ballad.
Boyd insists he wants to squeeze the most from every second of this last season as Clemson’s quarterback, every practice, every meeting, every snap and pass and bloody nose.
On a shelf in Dabo Swinney’s office collecting dust for nearly five years is a poster – “Tajh Boyd for Heisman” – that he unrolled during a visit in December 2008 to Boyd’s home in Virginia.
It was a Hail Mary four weeks into his job as head coach. Swinney was selling himself and his vision for Clemson football and in Boyd he saw a potential keystone to rebuilding a proud program.
Clemson never had a Heisman Trophy winner, he explained, so why not Tajh Boyd? Why not Clemson football?
While some quarterbacks can’t help being conspicuous, Boyd and a couple of teammates tried to disguise themselves so they could attend the Georgia spring game for an early look at their first opponent. When the little kids who discovered their ruse badgered them for autographs, they complied.
“It’s never been about me, and I don’t want it that way,” Boyd said. “I don’t like being the center of attention a lot.
“For me it’s never been an act, a fake thing. It’s always been genuine. Some guys do things, not out of their good nature, but to get publicity. That’s not me.”
Other than a tantrum at age eight, when he vowed never to play again, football has been Boyd’s life. He played a little baseball and thought about it briefly in high school then told the coach he wanted only to audition for the junior varsity because he didn’t want to take a spot from a worthier player.
The idea that he might have a future in football became real during his junior year at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Va., when during a playoff game he rallied the team in the fourth quarter with two long touchdown drives.
“After that,” he said, “I thought, ‘I could do this for a long time.’”
When his coach left after his freshman year at Landstown High in Virginia Beach, Boyd transferred to Phoebus where he would play for Bill Dee, an old school disciplinarian with a big heart.
“We were one of the top programs in the state when we got him,” said Dee, now defensive coordinator at Old Dominion University. “When he finished we were one of the top programs in the country.”
Dee noticed Boyd was different from the average player. He was ambitious and bright and driven.Deesaid the first thing he noticed was the arm and the confidence. Beyond that, “was a love for the game,” similar to Junior Griffey and LeBron.
“Yeah, he was athletic, but he was very eager to learn,” Dee said. “He was all about being a quarterback and being the best he can be. He bought into everything we were selling. He was like a sponge.”
Boyd volunteered to quarterback the scout team and served as a mentor to the younger offensive players.
“There is not a selfish bone in Tajh’s body,” said Scott Snyder, dean of students and a member of the Phoebus coaching staff.
Without invitation Boyd became a lightning rod. Phoebus football was a rallying point for a school in a gritty community, and he was the leader of the team by his junior year.
“The kids loved him and respected him,” Dee said. “In fact, the whole community did.”
In games he was a frequent target of cheap shots, and there were things at school that Snyder said quickly tested the young man’s maturity.
“Tajh faced adversity seemingly every year at Phoebus,” Snyder said. “One year we had a few students that passed in consecutive months, Tajh just kept motoring along.”
He seldom went out with friends and rarely ventured beyond home and school with adult supervision. His mother would pick him up after school. Boyd felt as if he was being sheltered.
“I went to the movies once in a while, but mostly I hung around home,” he said. “It was a rougher area and you were bound to get into trouble if you stayed out too long.
“So many players I grew up with didn’t make it because they didn’t have anyone to lean on.”
Phoebus won a state championship Boyd’s sophomore year.
“He didn’t have to win games for us. All he had to learn was to be a leader, and that came easy,”Deesaid. “He was the first one on the field and the last one off. You always had to tell him, ‘time to go.’”
Groomed as a pocket passer, Boyd liked to run, particularly if he initiated contact. Allen Iverson, Michael Vick and Ronald Curry were quarterbacks from schools in the same area and players Boyd admired. In particular he tried to emulate Iverson and Vick, darting runners, while developing a spin move of which Dee disapproved.
“You don’t need to do that,” Dee would say.
A playoff game his junior season foreshadowed his greatest triumph to date.
“We had the ball at the 20-yard line, there were two minutes left and we had to score to win,” Dee said. “He took us the length of the field in about a minute and 30 seconds with no timeouts, and we kicked the winning field goal.”
The next March Boyd committed to West Virginia in an attempt to circumvent the recruiting crush during his senior season but by autumn he was having second thoughts.
“Every college coach wanted a piece of this young man,” Snyder said.
That’s when Boyd switched his commitment to Tennessee, then came the unthinkable, a torn ligament in his left knee during practice. The damage done, doctors told him playing was possible, but ultimately it would require surgery.
Boyd missed two games while a brace was fashioned. He cried because he could not play.
“The kid was worried about his teammates,” Dee said, “about me and the rest of us.”
Despite pain that frequently brought him to the brink of tears, he suppressed the urge to quit. Snyder said Boyd spent more time with the trainers than on the practice field.
Dee adjusted the offense, using more play-action and shotgun to protect Boyd.
“He was limited, and we certainly had that in mind all the time,” Dee said. “He didn’t want to let his teammates down.”
Phoebus finished undefeated with another state championship. In one game, on the bum knee, Boyd passed for three touchdowns in 40 seconds to earn the win.
“The thing is, he could have not played and everybody would have totally understood,” Dee said. “That’s an intangible that will never show up on any test he’s given.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know how many kids would have done that in this day and age,” he said. “One out of a million may be an exaggeration, but maybe it’s close.”
Tennessee fired Phillip Fulmer near the end of the 2008 season, and new coach Lane Kiffin was willing to honor the scholarship though he told Dee and Boyd’s father that Tajh was not part of the big picture. So, Boyd was deciding between Ohio State and Oregon when one of Swinney’s assistant coaches, Danny Pearman, a former assistant at Virginia Tech, called his friend Dee to ask if Clemson could make a pitch.
Before Boyd left for the U.S. Army All-American game, Swinney, who was just hired to be the Tigers’ permanent head coach, visited the family’s home and made his pitch for them to buy into his dream for Clemson’s future. He finished by showing them the poster.
It was heady stuff for a kid who always felt as if the chips were stacked against him.
“It seemed like I was always on the scouts’ back burner,” Boyd said.
Boyd wanted to play at Virginia Tech, to follow one of his idols, Michael Vick.
“It was like I wasn’t the main recruiting priority,” he said.
Buried deep on the depth chart for the all-star game, Boyd came off the bench late in the first half and threw the first of three touchdown passes. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player and Lane Kiffin had an aide call to see if Boyd would reconsider Tennessee.
Suddenly it was a new ball game.
With OSU and Oregon pressing for a decision, Boyd was unsure he would have time for a visit to Clemson because he was trying to complete his final high school class online and wanted to announce his college choice, then have the surgery so he might compete in the fall.
An avid sports fan, Tim Boyd had watched Clemson’s first game after Swinney was named interim coach and was impressed with the team’s energy despite an emotionally draining week. He also saw Swinney’s introductory press conference and was struck by his sincerity.
“It was the kind of person I wanted to be around my kid for the next four or five years,” he said.
The Boyds visited Clemson in January and concluded it was a place their son could thrive. They intended to follow him so it suited them, too.
“It’s a different feeling,” Tim Boyd said. “It’s like no other program.
“People want to know how. How did these coaches get Tajh Boyd, and pretty quickly, too,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to explain.
“I don’t know. It seems like fate.’’
Snyder remembers how Boyd worked at trying to remain above the fray when the drama reached its apex his senior year.
“The one thing that I enjoyed about Tajh was his sense of how to become a leader,” he said.
“He’s just a great kid,” said Dee, who decided after all the recruiting drama that Boyd landed in the right spot. And he’s eager to see what happens next, this season and beyond.
During a visit to Virginia earlier this year he visited Dee and his wife, his English teacher at Phoebus. Boyd sends messages on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and their birthdays.
“There’s no question in my mind somebody’s going to get a great quarterback,” Dee said. “I think he can be as good as any quarterback that came out of the area. He has the aptitude, the heart, the leadership and the ability.”
The Boyds remember the minute details of Swinney’s visit and plan. They marvel at how their son’s career seems to be following it to the letter – a conference championship, two division titles, All-American, ACC Player of the Year.
Now they wonder about his immediate future.
Swinney kept the poster because NCAA protocol dictates he must. Come November, if the season continues to follow the script, he’ll pull it out again for the world to see.