How Tyler Boyd became the heart of the Cincinnati Bengals

Believe it or not, the Bengals are ready to contend. The reason why may surprise you. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd has lived it all and, now, serves two missions at once. He explains all to Go Long.

They were kids without a roadmap for success, for escape. Living in this dying steel town, there wasn’t much of anything to do. Tyler Boyd vividly remembers playing sports with his closest friends in Clairton, Pa. — day after day after day — as all of their fathers, he says, “hit the streets.”

They started playing midget football together at age 6 and eventually sparked an epic 66-game winning streak in high school. The best in the nation then.

Meanwhile, their Dads were swept away into a different life.

One buddy’s father was shot and killed.

His own father was indicted as one of 42 people in a major drug dealing network and sent to prison for eight years.

Together, the kids decided this life wouldn’t be their life. Joyful moments in Clairton are scant but this imagery still sticks in his memory, this conscious decision. Boyd doesn’t want anybody thinking he was a lone wolf — his entire crew made a pact.

“We sat around and said, ‘That’s not what we want. We don’t want to see each other fall into that place,’” Boyd says. “We all came together. It wasn’t just me. I had a lot of great peers in my class who could at least motivate each other to get us going. … We all had each other’s back.”

Of course, Boyd was the one who became the hometown hero.

He scored a WPIAL-record 117 touchdowns in high school.

He shattered more records at Pitt.

He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and overcame a Year 2 malaise that should’ve permanently destroyed his confidence.

His father was finally released from prison.

He is now the perfect leader at the perfect time for a team trying to surge into Super Bowl contention.

This is foreign territory for the Cincinnati Bengals. With a star young quarterback (Joe Burrow), a star young receiver (Ja’Marr Chase) and a defense that harassed Lamar Jackson, the franchise is oozing with optimism. A loss to the New York Jets last week supplied a friendly reminder that anything can happen in the NFL and the one leader sure to serve as the guiding light? Tyler Boyd. The six-year veteran’s perspective is needed like oxygen in Cincy to once ‘n for all bust down the doors of relevancy, right on into contention.

Boyd is transforming two cultures at once.

He’s changing life in Clairton for future generations.

He’s changing the Bengals.

Quite an undertaking but, to him, it’s not only realistic. It’s happening. Right now. The Bengals are thinking big in the AFC and, in Clairton, he’s scripting the roadmap for kids that he never had. Kids see No. 83 on TV. Kids can imagine a life beyond this depressed town of 6,475 along the Monongahela River where the 22.5 percent poverty rate is double the national average. Boyd knows his own rise makes all of this possible, too. Not only did he navigate through childhood with Dad locked up. He also had a daughter of his own as a senior in high school and, into the pros, few realize the mental toll the 2017 season took on him.

He’s an open book.

Anything feels possible now.

That wasn’t always the case.

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There’s only one way to describe Clairton: Utter nothingness.

No nice restaurants. No means of entertainment.

Only rotting, vacant buildings that reek of dread.

“It looks like an abandoned city,” Boyd says. “It’s tough to see it. It’s better to see it than say it because once you see it, you really understand.

“There’s nothing there. It’s like a black hole.”

He is not exaggerating. The decline of the steel industry in the 80s severely hit Clairton and the town has been hurting since. As Boyd got into high school, the rest of the world learned about Clairton, too. He was the star running back leading the town’s minuscule, Single-A high school to four state championships. Suddenly, even The New York Times was showing up to write about this town on life support because football — Boyd, really — was giving everyone a sense of hope.

Even then, about 200 commercial and residential structures were empty with collapsing exteriors and foraged interiors. More than $3 million in local real estate taxes were owed on 1,000 vacant lots, money the town would never see because the landowners either died or moved. As a result, the school’s tax base is increasingly depressed. Clairton is perennially one of the poorest schools in the state.

The crime rate here is strikingly higher than most all cities in Pennsylvania.

And this year struck another blow. U.S. Steel Corp scrapped its plans for a $1.5 billion upgrade to Mon Valley Works, which includes the Clairton Coke Works plant, while also shutting down three batteries at the Clairton location that were representing 17 percent of the facility’s production.

Us outsiders are dead wrong to assume this corner of the state is nothing but rivers and bridges and Terrible Towels and Primanti Bros. sandwiches doused in hot sauce. Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a fellow Pitt alumn, grew up in nearby McKees Rocks. His father also was locked up and he detailed a similarly harrowing neighborhood.  

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The predicament is the same here, Boyd explains.

His father, Brian Boyd, felt he had no choice but to sell drugs to provide. The merits of such desperation is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact that jobs are especially being siphoned out of Clairton and — making matters worse than McKees Rocks — Clairton is a good 30- or 40-minute drive from Pittsburgh, son notes. A car payment plus gas money plus a resume that warrants a job in the city is math most fathers are unable to pull off.

“Our fathers didn’t have diplomas to show for,” Boyd says, “so that was the quickest way to help provide for the family. I wasn’t particularly accepting it but, at the time, that’s what we needed to get done and have a life to at least get the things we wanted and do the things we wanted. I always supported him because he made sure he did whatever he had to do to sustain with us.”

Boyd believes the problem is only getting worse, too.

He notices kids selling drugs at a younger age.

“And it’s pulling away from other kids trying to really develop into athletes and trying to figure out a different path to success,” Boyd says. “I think there are way more people in the game now than there once was. There are more kids involved. I try to go back and reach out to as many kids as possible, and try to keep them upright. It’s tough. It’s tough living.”

As Touchdown No. 1 grew to Touchdown No. 117, Boyd was a rarity. This corner of the state doesn’t produce NFL talent like it once did.

He did have some guidance. Though his parents separated at a young age, a stepdad particularly helped through seventh and eighth grade. Coached him, too.  

The choice — football or the streets — was always easy for Boyd.

Not so much for his biological father. In its 2010 sweep, the Clairton police and FBI found a kilo press, cocaine, a .380 caliber pistol and $88,000 inside the home of Brian Boyd, who confirmed his guilt to conspire to sell 5 to 15 kilograms of cocaine. The raid was part of a 13-month investigation. Before being sent away to a Federal Correctional Institution in McDowell County, W.Va., Dad told his son not to follow his footsteps.

Right then, Tyler Boyd says he completely “lost” this relationship. He doesn’t remember exactly when he lived with Dad as a kid but, now, Dad was cut off completely. The moments that hurt most were the moments that defined him: State championships. Balling out at Pitt. Getting drafted 55th overall by the Bengals in 2016. Boyd estimates his Dad missed 12 years of his life in all — “the important phase,” he calls it.

Last year, Brian Boyd was released and the two have been making up for lost time since.

Boyd most certainly blazed his own trail. Through high school, he was a leader. Never a follower. By nature, he was the one uplifting others. He says he always felt a need to make others around him “feel great,” a need to “create positivity” because he knew everyone here had it rough. One conversation could change a life.

Now that Boyd is in the NFL, kids on the fence are watching him in Clairton.

Pressure he fully embraces.

He sounds like a guy who wishes he could be two places at once.

“I think the most important thing is time,” Boyd says. “Just like if you have children, you have to be around. You have to show as much as you can talk it. When I first got out of Clairton and into college and went to the league, I had a lot more time to talk to them. … Just to keep the kids down that same direction. I think kids aren’t used to seeing me as much. They know about me but it’s ‘I don’t want to follow a guy who’s not actually here.’ Not to say they weren’t looking up to me. But it gets hard when all they see around them is drug dealing, guns and money and just negative.”

Someone else is looking up to him, too: His daughter, Taylen.

As he dominated … and dominated … and dominated through high school, offers poured in from Notre Dame and Arizona and Tennessee and Michigan State and Ole Miss and Penn State. Boyd admits he never had much of a desire to go to Pitt, too.

He had Taylen. His plans changed.

That freshman year of college was a total blur. Boyd didn’t have a car and his schedule was insane so he couldn’t travel 35 minutes home on command to see his daughter… which hurt. At the tail-end of that year, Mom would bring Taylen back ‘n forth but, even then, Boyd was living in a cramped dorm. There was no privacy.

He felt another distance in his life metastasizing — quickly — and didn’t like it.

“Having a daughter at such a young age was really, really one of the hardest moments of my life,” Boyd says. “When they’re young, they have to see you and you have to be there for them. Time management in college is hard, harder than I thought it’d be going into it. Once the schedule came and I didn’t have too many breaks. … I’d see my daughter and she wasn’t too intrigued by me. She wasn’t too happy to see me.

“Our connection wasn’t there.”

He had a car by the time he was sophomore, he started seeing her more, the relationship took off. Today, Boyd says it’s at “an all-time high.” Taylen is seven years old now and even owns a cell phone. Boyd did not agree with this purchase, no, but he is happy that his daughter can now call him any time.

There’s another reason he’s the right voice to lead the Bengals, too.

He’s the link to an ugly past that quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase could never understand.

Once Boyd left Clairton and Pitt, he needed to overcome one more obstacle.

All people saw in 2017 was his name, his injury designation and, then, the fact that he was a healthy scratch.

After a strong rookie season, Tyler Boyd’s NFL career spiraled south. He missed four games with an MCL sprain and — upon returning — wasn’t featured, wasn’t in the lineup, wasn’t even dressing for games. Boyd finished with 22 receptions for 225 yards. Just like that, like a steel mill shutting down, it appeared the NFL was ejecting him back to Clairton, Pa.

“That hurt me a lot,” Boyd says, “because I felt like this is the only thing I know how to do.”

He says he only encouraged teammates and never complained once to coaches.

Personally, however, he was not in a great place.

Such is the NFL nobody sees, right? The immense stress behind the scenes. Former Bills quarterback EJ Manuel filled us in on his dark place last week, how he spiraled into depression after a 2014 benching. Bring his story up and Boyd says he went through the same thing in ’17.

“My mind was so cloudy,” Boyd days. “I wasn’t the same. I wasn’t speaking to too many people at the time. I think what really drove me was the fact that I had a lot of doubters, people who weren’t believing in me even though I was only there for a year and a half. That’s what really pushed me. That’s what really got me to tell myself, ‘Look, no matter what, once I get this next opportunity, once I get back on the field, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to show everybody.’ That’s what really allowed me to continue to be me. It was hard. I didn’t even think I was going to get back in the rest of the year. I didn’t think I would come back. It was a gray area.”

Asked if was depressed, Boyd nods his head.

“I got lonely,” he says. “My mind was just rambling. It was that one particular thing. My mind was just: ‘Give me another opportunity.’”

Teammates helped keep him sane. They told Boyd the coaches were wrong and he should’ve been playing.

Still, Boyd couldn’t stop “overthinking” everything. Comments on social media genuinely hurt him.

“Everybody is riding with you when you get there and when you’re doing good,” he says. “But once your name isn’t being called and you’re not talked about, they just look at you like you’re a bum. It’s like, ‘Bro, how can you say that? I’ve been hurt. I haven’t been playing.’ Then when I got healthy, I was a healthy scratch. That’s when people started to say, ‘Well, Tyler, he’s not that good.’”

On Dec. 31, 2017, everything changed.

That night, in Baltimore, 49-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Andy Dalton on fourth and 12 with 44 seconds left didn’t merely give the Bengals a 7-9 record. The score took a hatchet to the Buffalo Bills’ 17-year playoff drought. Players, coaches and execs lost it down south in Miami. In Western New York, fans cried, drank, cried some more and then started donating money to the two players who gave them so much joy.

The Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation, which helps seriously ill and physically challenged children, was flooded with $17 donations. By the next year, the total exceeded $450,000.

Bills fans sent money to Boyd, too. Within eight days, he received $65,000 and scrambled to set up a charity with his mother, Tonya Payne, to field contributions. Quickly, the WPYAA (Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association) became an outlet for all kids in Clairton. By 2018, its account grew to $150,000 with Payne serving as the president.

Here, on Zoom, Boyd mashes his hands together.

His little league team never traveled. They felt, Boyd says, “trapped in that hole.” This program removes the trap, allowing kids to travel all over the country to play. There’s a team from Ohio in the league, he says, and the champion now travels to Philadelphia. Win that game and you’re off to Florida. Thus, that 49-yard touchdown catch directly helped fund Boyd’s mission in Clairton: To help a new generation imagine a world beyond gangs and guns and drugs.

The touchdown catapulted Boyd’s career into a new direction, too.

Says Boyd: “That was the spark I needed to get back over the hump.”

The next two seasons, he caught 166 passes for 2,074 yards with 12 touchdowns. The Boyd who slayed all corners in the ACC was now doing the same in the pros and it netted Boyd a four-year, $43 million contract extension in July 2019. His highlight reel is essentially a positional tutorial. His routes are razor-sharp. He outmuscles corners for the ball in traffic. He eats up yardage after the catch. There was just one more problem: He kept on losing games. A franchise that’s won five playoff games in its 53-year existence hit a new rock bottom by going 2-14 in 2019.

Tragedy is never too far away for Clairton natives, too. The godfather to his daughter and one of his best friends since age 7 — Armani Ford — was shot and killed in April 2019. His dead body was found in an alley near the stadium that both he and Boyd put on the national map. Ford was the quarterback.

For someone who only knew winning his entire life, 2-14 wasn’t easy.

Boyd turned all social media comments completely off and attacked life downfield.

“I hate to lose,” Boyd says. “I had to go out there and do my job. The hardest part was trying to rally guys and keep guys motivated and keep guys willing to buy in and play for each other instead of being an 0-fer team. I think me going through the hard times of early childhood helped me overcome that time of minor struggle.

“I feel like if I don’t stay on track mentally that I start to go to a bad place where I may not feel like going out there to practice, then that may cause confusion with me not knowing what to do on the field or me getting injured. I want to always keep a clear mind and a positive mind.”

With the first pick in 2020, the Bengals selected LSU’s Burrow. With the fifth pick in 2021, they selected LSU’s Chase.

The future — across the board — is now brighter than ever.

For starters, Boyd has Dad back in his life and says there’s a “rhythm” to their communication. They hang out back home and Dad has even been to games in Cincy, too. He texts his son the day before every game. This unique path provides a unique perspective in a youthful Bengals locker room, too — Boyd knows he can relate to everyone on the roster.

He wants everyone attacking every practice with the right mentality.

“Every player, every human is going to go through adversity,” Boyd says, “and that was the time for me. Not playing. Being hurt. Not knowing if I was going to come back the same. Not knowing if I’m going to come back starting. Not knowing if I’m going to come back being on the same team. At the end of the day, I knew my value. I knew what type of player I am. I had great friends on the team — all the receivers, all my teammates were good to me. I couldn’t sit there and be like, ‘Why is he playing over me?’ I wasn’t going to talk behind anybody’s back and bring any negative energy to the team.”

This year, he sees Tee Higgins going through the same thing.

The Bengals’ 33rd overall pick in 2020 battled through a shoulder injury earlier this season and, with Chase ascending, is playing more of a complementary role. Boyd keeps telling him that his time will come. His Ravens moment.

And Higgins describes Boyd as the leader who has sincerely pushed him since Day 1. One who has “great character,” is a “great friend” and has been transparent about his own struggles.

He points to a drop in his first game back, the crazy overtime loss against Green Bay. Boyd saw Higgins wallowing a bit and hit him with tough love. “Man, you’ve got to pick it up,” Higgins recalls Boyd telling him. “You can’t let that one drop affect the rest of the game. We need you. The team needs you.”

Boyd doesn’t just speak up to other receivers, either. He’s this way with everyone.

“He’s been here when it was 2-and-whatever,” Higgins says. “He’s seen it all. He’s seen the winning side of it as well. So, he knows what it takes to win. By us knowing he’s been here — and he knows what it takes — we’ll all listen to what he’s saying.”

Any conversation about target shares is a splendid problem for the Bengals to have, too. For decades, this offense was about as flavorful as a bowl of Skyline Chili. Not anymore. Not with Burrow throwing for 2,215 yards and 20 touchdowns with a 108 passer rating through eight games. His ability, to Boyd, was clear right away. Burrow didn’t exactly have the best offensive line as a rookie, yet read blitzes like a 10-year vet.

Boyd’s mind was blown. He’d think the defense was bringing one blitz and Burrow would call a presnap protection for something completely different.

“I’d be like, ‘Bro, why is he doing that?’” Boyd says. “We say, ‘Hut.’ They disguise it exactly to what he knew they were doing. I’m like, ‘That shit’s really coming.’ … He’s so smart. Even when the nickel is disguising the blitz, he knows if he’s really blitzing or not. I don’t know what his key read is to that. He’s super dialed in. Another thing is, the way he plays and the way he carries himself, you’d think he came from a very, very hard upbringing himself as well. Because he continues to play with a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t take games for granted.

“He’s not satisfied with what we’re doing yet.”

Boyd has been a voice of reason for Chase, too. Especially when the rookie battled through those four straight drops in the preseason. As you may recall, Chase was universally mocked for saying that a collegiate football is easier to catch than a pro ball because it’s smaller and has stripes. Isolated in a headline, the comment wasn’t pretty. Viewed in full, Chase absolutely took responsibility for the drops.

Through it all, Boyd told the rookie that the Bengals would go right back to him. Chase was here “for a reason.”

“I don’t know what was going through his head,” Boyd says, “but when you see a guy put his head down, you can tell they’re losing confidence and beating themselves up on the inside. We did a great job of telling him, ‘Don’t worry about it, bro. It’s going to happen for you.’”

Now, Chase has 786 receiving yards (third), averages 20.7 per reception (first) and has seven touchdowns (fourth).

He’s doing just fine.

Boyd, too. The 6-foot-2, 203-pounder continues to make plays from the slot and was a lone bright spot in Cincinnati’s stunning 34-31 loss to the New York Jets last weekend with 69 yards and a touchdown. He says defenses are doubling him on third downs so he has no problem taking a backseat.

The Bengals are winning. Finally. That’s more than enough.

“We can’t force it to anybody,” Boyd says, “and I have a great relationship with the guys on the team so I can’t be that way. Those people who get that way start to bring the team down. Start to bring negativity and guys start to look different directions.”

There’s zero hesitation, too. “Absolutely,” he believes the Bengals are a contender this 2021 season. To Boyd, it’s simple: Cincy should’ve beaten the Bears, should’ve beaten the Packers and they pummeled a perennial playoff team in the Ravens. He sees a top 5 offense and a top 5 defense. He had zero problem putting the division’s forever bully on blast, too, in saying the Pittsburgh Steelers “gave up” at the end of their loss to Cincy. When the mob came for Boyd, he refused to back down, too. (A lesson for all.)

A rematch with those Steelers now looms in three weeks.

He calls the AFC North the toughest division in football because here, he adds, “you’ve gotta hold, grab, pull, it gets dirty at times.” The Bengals are finally talented enough to grime it up with the Steelers and Ravens. Anything can happen these final two months of the season. It’s a total logjam. Two teams have five wins, the Bengals and Ravens. Two teams have four wins, the Steelers and Browns.

“Once we get everything clicking,” Boyd says, “it’s so dangerous what we can do.”

Adds Higgins: “I feel like we’re a legit contender. We have the weapons. We have the defense. We have the special teams. We have the offense. I feel like we’re definitely a contender.”

Boyd isn’t the first player from Clairton to play in the NFL. Before him, Mike Micka was a first-round pick in 1944, Jim Kelly (not that Jim Kelly) was a second-round pick in 1964, Charles Braswell went in the eighth-round in 1976 and Davlin Mullen was also an eighth-rounder in 1983.

Yet this was before Clairton started to decay.

Daven Holly, a corner, was drafted in the seventh round by the 49ers in 2005 but Clairton wasn’t much of a presence in high school football yet. Boyd was the one who truly got people in this town excited about something with all of those state titles. Boyd is the one scoring touchdowns on Sundays.

And this opportunity to change what everyone thinks about both Clairton, Pa., and the Cincinnati Bengals truly began those days sitting around with friends.

Most kids in dying towns never have a moment of clarity like this.

But if they can see Tyler Boyd on Sundays? He will make a difference.

Another walk-off touchdown wouldn’t hurt.