Collecting dust in Dabo Swinney’s office for nearly five years is the poster – Tajh Boyd for Heisman – he unrolled during a visit in December 2008 to the Boyd family home in Virginia.
It was a Hail Mary four weeks into the 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?
“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.
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“For me it’s never been an act, a fake thing. It’s always been genuine,” he said. “Some guys do things, not out of their good nature, but to get publicity. That’s not me.”
Boyd insisted he wants to enjoy every second of his last season as Clemson quarterback, every practice, every meeting, every snap and pass and bloody nose.
Other than a tantrum at age 8 when he vowed never to play again, football has been his life. He played a little baseball as a kid and thought about it briefly in high school. But he told the coach he wanted only to audition for the junior varsity because he didn’t want to take a spot from a more worthy 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.’ ’’
Boyd transferred from Landstown High in Virginia Beach when the coach left after his freshman year to 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, ambitious and bright and driven. 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 bought into everything we were selling. He was like a sponge.”
Boyd volunteered to quarterback the scout team during which he taught the younger offensive players the nuances of blocking and route running. “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 who died in consecutive months, but Tajh just kept motoring along.”
He seldom went out with friends and rarely ventured beyond home and school without adult supervision. His mother frequently picked up him and younger brother after school. At the time Boyd said he 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,” Dee said. “He was the first one on the field and the last one off. You always had to tell him, ‘Time to go.’ ”
Though he was groomed as a pocket passer, Boyd liked to run, particularly if he initiated the contact. Allen Iverson, Michael Vick and Ronald Curry were quarterbacks from schools in the same area and Boyd admired them all. In particular he tried to emulate Iverson and Vick, darting runners, and developed a move that displeased Dee. “You don’t need to do that,” he said.
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.”
Playing on a torn ACL, he led Phoebus to an undefeated season and a second state championship.
Boyd had committed to Tennessee but coach Phillip Fulmer was fired near the end of the season. 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 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 visited the family’s home and asked them to buy into his dream. 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,” he said. Boyd wanted to play at Virginia Tech and follow Vick, one of his idols. “It was like I wasn’t the main recruiting priority.”
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 ACL 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 by 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,” Boyd’s father said.
The Boyd family had stopped in Clemson one summer years before during a trip south to a reunion. They visited Clemson in January and concluded it was a place their son could thrive. They intended to follow him wherever he chose, so it suited them, too, the rural small town.
“It’s a different feeling,” Tim Boyd said. “People want to know how did these coaches get Tajh Boyd, and pretty quickly, too.”
Carla and Tim Boyd frequently recall how it seems to follow the script Swinney presented when asked if they were willing to buy into his dream.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Tim Boyd said. “It seems like fate.’’
Swinney kept the poster because NCAA protocol dictates he must. He said that come November, if the season continues to follow the script, he’ll pull it out again for the world to see.