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Motivated by his upbringing, Pitt's Boyd exceeding expectations

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Pitt receiver and Clairton product Tyler Boyd and his mother, Tonya Payne, share a hug as Tyler shows off his football noting freshman achievements.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Pitt receiver and Clairton product Tyler Boyd and his mother, Tonya Payne, share a hug as Tyler shows off his football noting freshman achievements.

Tyler Boyd performed last season like no freshman receiver in Pitt history, surpassing even the revered Larry Fitzgerald.

He admits, however, to carrying the burden of human frailty, just like everyone else.

“It was hard,” he said of his freshman year, of trying to navigate a new way of life while meeting the demands of football and academics. “That's why everyone talks like freshmen hit a wall (during the season), like they can't do anything, like they want to give up.

“I felt like that.”

Then he heard the voice.

The one that got him off to school on those mornings when sleep was a tempting alternative.

The one that taught Boyd and his older brother, Brian, now 20, right from wrong.

The one that wouldn't back down.

The voice that belonged to Tonya Payne, his mother.

“We were the men,” Boyd said, recalling his childhood in Clairton with a single mother. “We didn't feel like a woman could overpower us.

“She just kept pushing and pushing and pushing.”

As he prepares to enter his sophomore season — training camp opens two weeks from Sunday — Boyd, 19, knows he has his mother to thank for how he survived his first year.

“Everything was coming at once,” he said. “They fill your schedule up. It was something I wasn't used to. I was so used to getting the easy way out of it.

“I felt like I had to keep her voice in my head to never give up. Growing up, my mother didn't allow me to do that. She really raised us to be men.”

Payne, a social service worker who often held three jobs to support her sons, called it “tough love.”

“She used to punish us for doing any type of thing that was even close to bad,” Boyd said.

Said Payne: “I wouldn't let up.”

Payne said her sons learned a lesson from their father, Brian Boyd, who she said has been jailed twice for drug-related offenses — once until Tyler was 9 and again when he was 17.

“It was something I tried to teach both of them,” she said. “This isn't the path you want to live.”

The right road

Sports led Boyd and others like him down another road.

“There is nothing positive going on (in Clairton) but sports,” he said. “Growing up, I was blessed with real good friends. We could call each other on the phone, ‘Let's go play baseball or football or basketball.' We were always active.”

Asked to trace the root of his athleticism, Boyd credits his maternal grandfather, Milton Payne, a baseball player of some note from Elizabeth.

But he added, “It just started to come naturally because we kept doing it and doing it.”

Boyd started playing competitive sports at age of 5 in a flag football league in McKeesport. By the time he was 7, he was in pads.

Tonya said she has video of all of Boyd's games from that point, and last season she traveled to all but three of Pitt's road games.

“I kept them involved as much as possible,” she said. “We went from sport to sport. Between their school work and keeping them active, that helped keep them off the street. They didn't have time to get in trouble.”

Boyd admitted he was tempted.

“We grew up not having a lot,” he said. “There were times I felt I needed to make a little bit of money. But I didn't want to put myself in that bond where I felt I could get caught and jeopardize the rest of my life.”

Boyd made money as a teenager, working for the city of Clairton, cutting grass and picking up trash.

“Like community service, but you get paid,” he said. “I had to make a little change, money here and there, to help my mom. I didn't want her to be the provider the entire time.”

‘The ring leader'

Boyd played all sports. “I used to love to crush the ball in Little League,” he said.

But he focused on football in high school until Clairton's baseball team lost 48 consecutive games. He decided to do something about it.

That was spring 2012 after the Clairton football team had won its third of four consecutive PIAA championships on the way to a record 66-game winning streak.

Boyd hadn't played baseball regularly since Pony League, but he decided to join the team. Other football players followed. “I was the ring leader,” he said.

He played in only three games, but Clairton won two, including the one that ended the streak, an 11-9 victory at Avella in which he hit an inside-the-park home run in his first varsity at-bat. Clairton also beat section champion Bentworth, 6-5, after a 10-0, mercy-rule defeat a month earlier.

“He hadn't touched a baseball or a bat, except in the gym when he popped in to take a swing or two on his way to football,” former Clairton coach Kenny Barna said. “Tyler said, ‘We have to end this streak,' and he helped end the streak. I was proud of him to think like that.”

That determination served Boyd well at Pitt, where he was stung by critics who didn't believe a player from a small high school could survive big-time college football.

“Everybody said (Clairton) doesn't play (good teams) and I'm not going to do well in college,” he said.

Boyd responded by breaking Fitzgerald's freshman receiving records with 85 receptions for 1,174 yards while earning Freshman All-American and third-team All-ACC honors.

Meanwhile, he found time to record a 3.1 GPA in business management.

“Algebra is real easy to me since I knew it from high school. It comes to me real quick,” said Boyd, who said he often went to bed after his 8 p.m. class during the first semester.

His dream is to play in the NFL. He said speculation about him entering the 2016 draft — when he will be eligible — is “real wild to me.”

“It's more weight on my shoulders, but I've been going through that all my life,” he said.

Payne said thoughts of the NFL don't consume her son.

“He doesn't talk about it like it's going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “He takes things one day at a time, as he's supposed to do.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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