CLEMSON — Personalities have crumbled under the weight of the responsibility that Tajh Boyd bears as the emotional leader of a top-10 football team. He is the face of a program that’s been the subject of broadening scrutiny and occasional ridicule.
Boyd seems to be a natural as a football player and leader. His smile is genuine. He doesn’t meet strangers. His team has won 28 of the 35 games he has started, including seven of the first eight this season heading to Saturday’s at Virginia. Clemson sits eighth in the latest BCS rankings.
Boyd has built an incomparable resume at Clemson and should finish as one of the most successful and accomplished quarterbacks to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
As a high school senior, he played through a severe knee injury that eventually required surgery and led his team to a Virginia state championship. That left a lasting impression with a coach looking for a leader, which was why Dabo Swinney pursued Boyd in the month after being hired as Clemson’s coach.
“I kind of understood,” Boyd said. “Being a quarterback at a major university, you understand what comes with it good, bad or indifferent.
“It’s something you have to grow into.”
After beating LSU this past January, Boyd contemplated leaving for the NFL. Somebody told his family one team was prepared to take him in the first round, but the draft advisory committee projected him much later. So Boyd chose to spend another year around people who have embraced him and coaches who treasure him as a player and leader — to chase the dream.
Of a settled, mature, talented third-year starting quarterback much was expected, and Boyd seemed willing to invest himself in the role. Every major publication, every network wanted time alone. ESPN insisted on time for TV interviews, radio interviews and podcasts. His name appeared in sentences with All-American, Heisman and first-round draft pick.
The smile never dimmed.
But as far back as the Boston College game, it was evident the wheels were wobbling slightly. The offensive line hasn’t been as good as the Clemson coaches hoped, and Boyd was taking a pounding as the most dependable runner. Entering the Florida State game, there was concern he wasn’t completely healthy. Then the coaches tried to limit his running at Maryland, but relented to salvage the game.
Players from his former youth league football team will attend the game Saturday at Virginia. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn he has worked the Southeastern Virginia Mustangs camp and appeared at its banquet. Boyd is trying to pass it forward, much like the guys from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, such as Michael Vick, with whom he exchanges messages.
Learning to say “no” to the steady demands on his time probably has been the most difficult thing.
Boyd’s coaches knew what he faced this season, which is why they frequently remind him to enjoy his final season, to have fun when he’s playing. It has been difficult.
His mother has been in and out of the hospital, including the Thursday before the Florida State game. He refused to use it as an excuse. Then the question about a rumor he had run up a large gambling debt. Days after perhaps the most devastating loss of his career, less than a week after his mother was hospitalized, he was required to defend himself.
Boyd continued to smile, but the incandescence dimmed.
On schedule to receive a degree in December, he knows his days at Clemson are numbered, and he wants to enjoy the final four games. It might not be enough.
One of Swinney’s favorite sayings is “the fun is in the winning.”
“You don’t play for anything else but the joy of the game, that’s why it’s important for us as a program and as a team to go out there and relax and have fun,” Boyd said. “We’ve done that.”
Boyd admitted he has been puzzled by the criticism they have endured. How can being ranked in the top 10 all year long not be worthy?
“We’ve lost one game,” he said. “It isn’t the end of the world.”