HAMPTON, VA. — Tajh Boyd has always adapted well on the move.
Just as the 22-year-old star quarterback makes calm, collected decisions between scrambling for a first down or flicking a tough throw outside the pocket, Boyd lived with more postal addresses before he could legally drink than most people do in their lives.
How many houses and apartments, in fact? “I don’t even know the answer,” Boyd says, seated in an overstuffed lounger as he fiddles with his phone in Clemson’s WestZone football complex. “A good amount, I’ll tell you that.”
All football players in the Clemson media guide are listed with a “hometown.” For Boyd, the default is Hampton, Va., because, well, that’s where he arrived from directly.
But that word. Hometown. One of the simplest questions in introductory conversation is something of a paradox for Tajh — so much that when asked, his attention snaps away from the phone, biting his lower lip while attempting to fixate on the answer.
Where are you from? More specifically: where do you call home?
“Home? That’s a good question,” Boyd says. “I don’t even know.”
And yet he does. The answer he seeks is tattooed on his left arm.
Spending the past decade on the wall of Bruce Pearl’s family-owned plaque and trophy shop in Virginia Beach, there’s a framed photograph courtesy of The Beacon, a community paper covering Pearl’s youth squad. The two kids clearly visible in the forefront are Virginia Beach Mustangs star players Nick Mayers and James Taylor.
In the background, behind Mayers’ right shoulder, peeks 10-year-old Tajh Boyd.
He’s barely noticeable. Fitting for that time.
“Absolutely, he was (overlooked),” the gregarious Pearl says of Boyd. “But it’s not like he’s overlooked on some little rec team.”
In their inaugural year, the Mustangs won the 2001 Pop Warner National Championship. Greatness was expected in the heart of the ‘757’ area code, a factory producing high-profile athletes.
“You can’t have a water tower that says, ‘Home of Such-and-Such’,” says Boyd, “because there’s so many great players.”
Boyd got a championship ring, but he was a pipsqueak compared to boys a year or two older than him — led by a 13-year-old midget national champion track runner named Percy Harvin — and so his memorable contributions in 2001 were limited to growing pains and gains like this one.
Tackling Bubba Jenkins, a chiseled running back, was like capturing Bigfoot. He’d take the ball, defenders would clear out, and Pearl would shake his head wondering if someone would ever challenge Jenkins.
One day, though, the pint-sized Boyd closed his eyes, stepped into Jenkins’ path and stopped him. Twice. In a row. Jenkins would grin and give Tajh a couple of congratulatory slaps across the helmet after helping him up.
“He gave me a little shoelace tackle, but I’ll count it,” Jenkins recalls with a boyish laugh. Today, Jenkins is a Bellator MMA fighter, and yes, at 13, he had the body to match.
“I could tell he had the heart then, before he was a teenager. He kind of caught me by surprise, because all the other guys were clearing out, but he was brave enough to tackle me. There’s that Virginia homegrown type of attitude: we pride ourselves on being tough as nails.”
As a team leader a couple seasons later, Boyd still wasn’t the Mustangs’ quarterback. Pearl instead tabbed Keith Taylor, a brainy kid who didn’t possess Boyd’s physical gifts. The coach put Boyd at running back for greater contributions, even though Tim and Tajh both insisted he’d soon belong at quarterback.
Tajh wasn’t a star from the start, but his father insisted his son would shine and was willing to make him beat the best to do it.
“I want Tajh to be around winners. Tough guys and good kids, but just learning how to win and being a part of something,” Tim Boyd says. “Watching Percy, seeing all the players on that team, that’s where I think he got the maturity from, being around guys older than him.”
At the end of his third and final year with the Mustangs, Tajh won the Sid Pearl Award, named after Bruce’s father. The award’s true recognition has never really been defined; but Pearl’s explanation is pretty vivid.
“The Sid Pearl Award isn’t the most valuable player,” Pearl says, “or the boy who’s best at football.
“It goes to the kid you’d be proudest to call your son.”
Move across the bay
Born in Albany, Ga., and once a Florida resident, Tajh bounced around Virginia Beach with his family a few times. The son of a Navy man, Tajh attended three different middle schools before his freshman year at Landstown High. But he would finally discover some continuity from 2006-09.
After participating in every game as a freshman at pass-happy Landstown, Boyd was primed to become the starter once the senior quarterback graduated.
However, head coach Chris Beatty left to take a job at Hampton University. Landstown football’s future seemed uncertain, and so then did Boyd’s. So Tim scoped around the area for a potential transfer into Tajh’s sophomore year.
Even if it meant a place like Phoebus, which was renowned for its running game.
“That takes some getting used to, whether you’re winning or losing,” says Beatty, now the wide receivers coach at Wisconsin. “I think he always wanted to be the key reason why things were going well, as opposed to being a facilitator.”
Welcome to Hampton
As the Hampton Roads Beltway dives through the Chesapeake Tunnel beneath Willoughby Bay, you can hear hundreds of squawking seagulls and pick up the smell of fish wafting in from the Atlantic Ocean.
Once emerged from the 1½-mile underwater tunnel, you see a water tower to the right with the U.S. Army emblem on it, overlooking Fort Monroe.
You are now entering Hampton, Va. Where at night, cop lights and sirens — and often gunfire — can interrupt the peace at a moment’s notice.
“It was one of those deals where if you wanted to find it, you could have found trouble,” Tajh says. “We just elected to stay away from it. One time there was a carnival … if things happened there, we’ll leave early if we feel something’s about to happen. We just tried to find any way to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.”
Tajh’s mom, Carla, remembers a time her younger son T.J. called with a chilling message: “Mommy, they’re shooting.”
Carla was there in a flash to rescue her boys. Another day, T.J. and Tajh were separated at a block party when they heard gunshots, but the brothers found each other after a few moments.
Neither Tajh nor T.J. ever found themselves in real danger in a town with its safe zones along with its not-so-safe zones. But that’s due in large part to their watchful mother.
“I didn’t let them idle around Hampton because of the crime,” Carla says.
“She kept a real tight string on them,” says Nina Robinson, a family friend in Hampton and mother of two Phoebus players. “They would go to the movies and things like that, but she didn’t just let them run wild.”
Phoebus is akin to a small, tight-knit family — about 275 per graduation class. Walk the streets, and you’ll see a sophomore high-five someone 30 years older wearing a Phantoms sweater.
The students can be cliquish because they grow up doing everything together, but they adopted the friendship of the Boyd newcomers immediately. Instead of finding trouble, their classmates gravitated around Tajh and T.J., sticking together by raiding pantries at each other’s homes and playing video games until well past bedtime.
There are tennis courts, a golf course, baseball fields and even a small skate park in town. But make no mistake: Phoebus is married to football. That’s why the Boyds moved there in the first place on a leap of faith.
‘Team’ over ‘Me’
The polo shirt Bill Dee wears is blue, matching the walls in his office within Old Dominion’s football department as well as the stone of the ring he twiddles around his finger.
During his 24-year tenure as Phoebus’ head coach, capped by that 2008 state championship ring, he had a uniquely inherent advantage.
“Kids grow up wanting to be a Phoebus football player, and they want to get out and go to college,” Dee says. “It gave me leverage to keep them straight in school. Because I would tell them, you’re not going to get recruited; or I would throw a guy off the team if he didn’t do the right thing. They knew I would bench them or sit them; everybody was hungry to play.”
The move from Landstown — “a state-of-the-art high school, brand-new this, brand-new that,” Tim Boyd says — to Phoebus was life-changing.
“Our school sits in the middle almost of a neighborhood project,” says Anthony Robinson, an assistant coach and former player for Phoebus. “So the image of Phoebus before you get to Phoebus has always been tough; it’s always been ‘don’t mess with us.’ ”
The brick building has few windows. It only recently added air conditioning, making for sweltering days — especially in the weight room, which wasn’t even a room. It’s caged off from the gymnasium by a chain-link fence.
“We didn’t have the best workout equipment or lots of space beyond our gym. But we took what we had and made the best for us,” says Chaz Robinson, Anthony’s brother and Tajh’s fullback who’s now playing linebacker for Division II Saint Augustine’s in Raleigh.
“That’s what really showed the character of the players we had. It wasn’t how we looked or what other people said.”
Phoebus’ motto is “the quiet storm” — players promote hard work over taunting and trash talking the opponent, quelling any negative reputation. That mantra has weaved seven state championships since 2001, including 2006 and 2008 with Boyd on the roster.
Blue double doors lead out from the Phoebus locker room toward the practice field. Above the left door is engraved the word “Team,” and above the right is the word “Me.”
Players are not allowed to exit the right door. In fact, the word “team” is barely readable from generations of Phantoms tapping it on their way outside, while “me” looks like it was carved yesterday.
Boyd enjoyed a monster junior year statistically as the passing game opened up, but the Phantoms were shocked in the state semifinals. The Robinson family kept a framed photo of the Newport News Daily Press with coach Anthony’s big paw around his disconsolate brother Chaz, one mere glimpse of the entire team’s sorrow.
Usually the Phantoms get the holidays off before beginning training in January. Not this year. An unsatisfied Boyd took control and forced his teammates to make it right in 2008.
Phoebus scored 720 points during an undefeated 15-win season despite Boyd playing nearly the entire season with a knee injury (torn ACL) nobody outside the program knew about.
“Tajh took that (2007) season hard, and he drove us all the way,” Chaz says. “All in all, I think that season might have been one of the worst and the best things that could have happened to Tajh.”
Barely a Tiger
Boyd said yes to West Virginia early on in his ballyhooed recruitment, snatched up by Beatty, who’d moved on to the Mountaineers. But when Tajh felt he wanted to at least take more of his official visits, the WVU coaches grew upset, so Tajh moved on.
He fell in love with Tennessee and embattled head coach Philip Fulmer, whom Tim Boyd was reassured would not be terminated by then-athletic director Mike Hamilton. But following the 2008 season, Fulmer was fired, Lane Kiffin was hired, and after not reaching out to Boyd for longer than desired, Kiffin told Dee and Tim Boyd that Tajh would never play in his system.
Back to the drawing board. Ohio State looked nice. Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly had a good rapport with Tajh, whose family was prepared to move wherever he went.
Then one more school came calling. Dee didn’t want to keep cluttering his quarterback’s head with options, but Clemson assistant Danny Pearman was a dear friend, and Dee relented after a few pretty-pleases.
Dabo Swinney and Carla Boyd love telling the story today. There’s Jim Tressel from the Buckeyes in the driveway, Mike Bellotti from the Ducks in the backyard, and then some unknown first-year head coach in the Boyds’ living room with a desperate message.
“He was like, a bright light. Something about him. It was a feeling I had when he left, I could trust him,” Carla says of Swinney.
She looks up at the wall calendar in her new home in Seneca.
“To this day everything Coach Swinney has told us has come to light. It came true. He was like, have faith and believe.”
You can go home
How did Tajh Boyd spend his final Saturday of summer before reporting to Clemson for practice? Back in Virginia Beach, speaking at the Mustangs’ annual banquet and helping at a youth camp the last weekend in July.
Pearl asked Boyd to come home as a favor a couple years ago. This summer, it was Boyd reaching out to Pearl to ask when he should schedule his trip.
“ACC Player of the Year, just torched LSU, and you want to come to my banquet?” Pearl says, dumbfounded. “Are you kidding me?”
Nope. It’s in Boyd’s blood to pay it forward and keep the talent-rich 757 flowing.
“Growing up, you had all these guys to look up to. The Vicks, the Currys, Iverson, Aaron Brooks, Alonzo Mourning, Bruce Smith,” Boyd said. “You grow up wanting to be the next guy. Essentially, I think that’s why the area’s so successful. Because there’s always role models to look at, and guys get out of the area to go do better for themselves.”
A few minutes later, Boyd shows the tattoo on his left arm; P.O.M.E., which stands for “product of my environment,” along with the 757. And he finds the answer to that complicated question.
“It’s a special area,” Boyd said, “because it’s always been home.”
Elsewhere, at her kitchen table, Carla Boyd rattles off a list of family friends and football figures from their former home. Asked for contact info, she doesn’t resort to the new-school method of yanking out her cell phone to check for numbers, which of course all start with the same three digits — 757.
It’s been more than four years, but she knows them off the top of her head.