Clairton seniors hurdle tragedies, find success
The story of the Clairton Bears giving hope and pride to a distressed school district and depressed steel town through their high school football team has been chronicled by national news outlets like the CBS Evening News, New York Times and USA Today as they won their fifth consecutive WPIAL Class A championship and set a state record with a nation's-best 62-game winning streak.
Often overlooked is the amount of adversity Clairton's seniors have overcome, starting with the shooting that killed assistant coach Demonje “Monch” Rosser in March 2009 and continuing with their personal hardships throughout the Bears' run to their fifth consecutive PIAA championship game. Three-time defending champion Clairton (15-0) plays Dunmore (14-1) at 1 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium.
“I think it definitely plays a part in our success,” said Bears defensive coordinator Wayne Wade, a 1990 Clairton graduate. “There's the adversity a regular kid has to go through, then there's the adversity a kid from Clairton has to go through. They have to deal with death, drugs, losing friends and relatives. That's what makes our team, because we're a tight, close-knit community. Everybody feels it and rallies around it.”
TYLER BOYD 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Sr., RB-DB
On Dec. 15, 2010, Brian K. Boyd was one of 42 people indicted by a federal grand jury in a drug sting. He was charged with possessing with the intent to distribute a kilogram of cocaine and unlawful possession of a firearm.
Two days later, his son, Tyler, caught touchdown passes of 37 and 83 yards to help Clairton rally from a 24-point deficit to beat Taylor Riverside for the PIAA Class A title.
Boyd has since become one of the state's premier players, as evidenced by his 2,467 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns this season, as Clairton is riding a state-record and nation's-best 62-game winning streak.
“I had to learn the hard way because he wasn't around,” Boyd said of his father, who is serving a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. “I had to handle it myself and mature. My mom showed me how to hold it down. It influenced me, in a way.”
Tonya Payne is proud of her son, who has shown maturity beyond his years in serving as not only a football star but a role model to elementary students in Clairton, especially after an electrical fire last February destroyed the Third Street home they had lived in for 10 years.
“Sometimes, you think your kids should think as kids and be hurt, but he just accepted it on a grown-up level,” Payne said. “He's just always been overly mature for his age.”
Clairton offered support, as Payne and her two sons moved into an apartment next door to their home, which was later demolished. A Tyler Boyd Fund was started at a local bank, and the community deposited money for the family.
“We just had to recover,” Boyd said. “It felt good that people tried to help. It showed that it's not just about football. It feels like everybody is looking out for us.”
TERRISH WEBB 6-foot, 175 pounds, Sr., WR-DB
The Clairton locker room at Heinz Field was empty, except for Terrish Webb. He took a knee, saying a prayer as he does before every game for his father and former youth football coach who were both shot and killed.
“I thank God I'm still playing football and say a prayer to my dad and coach (Demonje) Rosser,” Webb said. “I just use that as motivation. It definitely lets me know that it's game time.”
Webb has developed into one of Clairton's stars this season, with a team-leading 36 receptions for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns and a WPIAL-best eight interceptions.
Terrence Russell was 33 when he was shot while driving and crashed his car into a house on Dec. 15, 2006, near Clairton's Neil C. Brown Stadium. Webb remembers that it was in the second quarter of a middle-school basketball game when his mother, Tinisha Webb, had him pulled from the game so she could deliver the bad news.
“I remember when his dad was killed,” said Clairton senior tackle Devonte Harvey, who is Webb's uncle. “He was devastated.”
Adds teammate Robert Boatright, one of Terrish's best friends: “Terrish's dad was real popular. He'd give the shirt off his back to you. I felt that, too, especially because it was my best friend's dad. Terrish is a pretty good dude. He had his tough times. Now, to this day, he says he still misses his father.”
DEVONTE HARVEY 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, Sr., RT-DL
Devonte Harvey didn't play football until his sophomore year, focusing instead on his first love and overcoming his family problems. When he wasn't bouncing from home to home, he was playing basketball.
Both of Harvey's parents have been in and out of jail, so he moved in with his grandmother, Bertha Harvey. Since she died of cancer when he was in kindergarten, he has lived with an aunt, Barbara Boozer.
“It ain't easy; it's kind of hard,” Harvey said. “I think that's what really brought us together as a team, because some of us got the same stories. Everybody on the team has had to deal with something. We're all in the same boat. That's how I look at it.”
Harvey had developed into Clairton's most dependable offensive lineman, calling out signals and blitzes and reveling in blocking for Tyler Boyd. Then Harvey tore the meniscus in his right knee against Sto-Rox in the WPIAL Class A championship game at Heinz Field.
“I knew it was serious. What went through my mind was, ‘Dang, I'm out for the season. That might be my last time playing with my teammates,' ” Harvey said of the Bears' 58-21 victory that broke the state record with their 60th consecutive. “It was tough because they were celebrating when we won it, jumping up and down and I couldn't do neither.”
After missing the past two PIAA playoff games, Harvey has been cleared to play in the state final.
“I really never knew I'd be a key contributor to the team or even the best linemen we've got,” Harvey said. “I really fell in love with football. I would like to play college football. That's the reason why I stay with the plan, for football. That's one of the reasons why I came back.”
TITUS HOWARD 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, Sr., WR-DB
The left sleeve on Titus Howard's black warm-up jacket hangs limp, as his left arm is tucked inside in a sling. With his right hand, he holds his mobile phone and shows its display photo of his cousin, Tauvea Hurt.
The 20-year-old Hurt was shot and killed shortly after midnight on New Year's Day in 2011, the first homicide in Allegheny County that year.
“It was real hard because me and Tauvea were kind of close,” Howard said. “He used to stay at my house when he was younger.”
Thus, the disappointment Howard felt Monday when doctors told him he could not play in the PIAA final pales in comparison to the devastation of learning of Hurt's death nearly two years ago. Still, the news stung.
“The way my arm looked, I knew something was wrong. My arm didn't look right,” said Howard, who has committed to Pitt. “When (the doctor) told me, I just paused and looked at him and said, ‘Are you saying I can't play?' It was heartbreaking.”
Howard dislocated his left elbow in the second quarter of the PIAA quarterfinal against Berlin Brothersvalley, when he tried to brace himself from falling. Teammate Tyler Boyd called it an “emotional” moment for all of the Bears when Howard was hurt.
“Even at the beginning of the season, that's all me and my teammates talked about: winning a state championship,” Howard said. “It's going to definitely be hard not to be out there with them.”
DYRAN DAVENPORT 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Sr., LT-ILB
Dyran Davenport missed the first three games of his senior season when he was ruled academically ineligible, costing Clairton its starting left tackle and inside linebacker. And, almost, its winning streak.
The Bears barely beat Chartiers-Houston in the opener, winning, 22-20, without Davenport and a dozen other players either ineligible or injured. It was a wake-up call for the three-sport athlete, who earned a 3.7 grade-point average this past semester in an effort to play college football.
Life hasn't been easy for Davenport, who rarely sees and hardly knows his father. He was raised by a single mother, Vatus Davenport, one of many Bears growing up that way in a city rife with drugs and violence.
“I've had to deal with a lot,” Davenport said. “Everybody sees that violence is coming. The more we see, the more ambition we have to get out of here. That's the reason I have the ambition I have now. My mom has had to play both roles. It has been tough, having a lady trying to teach you how to be a man.”
Davenport takes a look at the football field at Neil C. Brown Stadium, and takes note that those outside of Clairton don't know much about the city other than its famous football team.
“People that don't live in Clairton, they just come to see this,” Davenport said. “They don't see what happens outside the school. That's why we're the team we are today, because we've had to handle adversity and we've come out stronger.”
ROBERT BOATRIGHT 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Sr., OLB
Robert Boatright grew up in the Terrace section of Clairton, where there are plenty of temptations for a teenage male to be led astray.
Fortunately, he had football.
“I didn't grow up in the best part of town,” Boatright said. “I could've chosen either path, but I chose this path. Luckily, I was a bright kid. I was tempted, but I didn't do it.”
What concerned his parents, Michael Boatright and Annmarie Ford, is that they couldn't pay for Robert to go to college. He understood the alternative, that if he wasn't in school he could be running the streets.
Boatright played his best in his biggest game of the season, recording a dozen tackles and three sacks against Sto-Rox in the WPIAL Class A championship, which was televised live by ROOT Sports. He was thrilled to receive his first scholarship offer, from St. Francis (Pa.).
“It's a big relief because we were so worried about paying for college,” Boatright said. “Now I know I can go somewhere without paying for college. I've made them proud by doing this.”
TYUS BOOKER 5-foot-6, 165 pounds, Sr., RB-OLB
Since age 9, Tyus Booker has had four concussions: The first came in Little League, when a cousin cocked his bat back and hit Tyus in the side of the head; the second, at age 11, during one-on-one drills in midget football; the third, at age 14, in an Oklahoma contact drill.
Booker also suffered a broken foot and torn ligaments in his left ankle when he and Tyler Boyd were hit by a car while riding on the same bike as seventh-graders. Booker's most recent concussion, on the first day of training camp this past August, caused his father, Tyus Wright, to drive to Clairton from Columbus, Ohio, and put an end to his football career.
“He said, ‘It's over. You can't play no more,' ” Booker recalled. “I was like, ‘I've got to play. I've got to finish the year out.' ”
Booker sat out five weeks, missing the first three games of the season, before he was cleared by doctors.
“It's not the most important thing in my life — family and school are — but it's one of the top things that keeps me out of trouble,” Booker said.
In youth football, Booker would be rewarded with $10 for scoring touchdowns or making big hits by his cousin, Demonje Rosser, the Clairton assistant coach who was killed in March 2009. Booker remembers his grandmother waking him in the middle of the night to tell him that Rosser had been shot. The Bears have dedicated their state-record 62-game winning streak in Rosser's honor.
“That was painful, losing a person you loved,” Booker said. “Any problems we have, we take onto the football field and play with aggression. We let go of all of our problems on the football field.”