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Gorman: Tyler Boyd carries Clairton to the NFL

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, April 29, 2016 11:09 p.m
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt's Tyler Boyd plays against Navy in the Military Bowl on Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Everybody in Clairton believed Tyler Boyd was special. It took one look for Tom Nola to see Boyd had the talent to play in the NFL.

“He just made some moves that were unbelievable. You can’t teach that. He has natural instincts,” Nola, the former Clairton coach, said of seeing Boyd as a high school freshman. “He’s the best high school player I’ve seen with my eyes.”

Boyd didn’t just become an All-American running back who led the Bears to a 63-1 record, winning four WPIAL and four PIAA Class A titles, but also a hometown hero who developed into a two-time All-ACC receiver for Pitt.

“The city is so proud of him,” Nola said. “When he played for Pitt, they always put on the screen where he was from. He made sure they didn’t put ‘Pittsburgh, P-A.’ They put ‘Clairton, P-A.’ ”

But believing and achieving are different. Many small-town stars struggle to replicate their success on a greater stage and are left to wonder the rest of their lives what could have been.

On Friday night in the Lawrence Welk Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, we found out just how special Boyd is when he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round (55th overall) of the NFL Draft.

Tyler Boyd, the product and pride of a shrinking steel town (Clairton, population 6,796), realized his childhood dream.

And stayed true to his colors.

Boyd will wear orange and black with the Bengals, just like he did with the Clairton Bears.

“It’s been a long process, and I never knew I’d be back in the black and orange but I’m thankful for it,” Boyd said. “I think everybody would love to see me get back to my high school colors.

“There’s a lot of guys I felt should have had this opportunity, but I embraced it. I wanted to fulfill that thing that everybody else wanted. … To get to this stage, it’s a great feeling, a great accomplishment.”

Boyd isn’t the first from Clairton to be drafted by or play in the NFL. Mike Micka was a first-round pick out of Colgate by Washington in 1944, Jim Kelly a second-rounder out of Notre Dame by the Steelers in ’64. Charles Braswell was an eighth-rounder out of West Virginia by Detroit in ’76, and Davlin Mullen an eighth-rounder out of Western Kentucky by the Jets in ’83.

But that was before the recession, before Clairton became a depressed city and a distressed school district where crime and poverty are facts of life.

Daven Holly was drafted in the seventh round out of Cincinnati by the 49ers in 2005 and played cornerback for the Bears and Browns for three seasons.

But that was before the renaissance of Clairton football, when the Bears would win eight WPIAL championships and four PIAA titles between 2006-15.

Tyler Boyd was a catalyst in that run, tangible evidence that a Clairton kid not only could believe it but achieve it.

“You can see in the kids, that it gives them inspiration,” Clairton coach Wayne Wade said. “They think, ‘If Tyler can do it, we can do it.’ He was in the same locker room. It means a lot to Clairton that he opened the door for the rest of the guys.”

Lamont Wade was on the sidelines for the Bears’ record run as a ball boy. He envisioned matching Boyd’s success, sharing the same dreams of major-college and NFL stardom.

Now, three years later, Wade is ranked as the nation’s top cornerback and No. 8 overall prospect by Rivals.com and has committed to play in the Under Armour All-American Game. He has 31 scholarship offers and counting and attributes much of the attention to the work ethic he learned by watching Boyd.

“Seeing him on the sidelines, doing all of the spectacular stuff he was doing, just had me in shock and awe,” Wade said. “That shows me that coming where we’re from, that it can really happen. It gives kids in the community and even older folks in the community hope, something for them to look up to and something for them be inspired by. It pushes us all.

“The kids never really witnessed it happen. We all saw him play in high school and college. Now he’s going to the NFL. For kids who thought it could never happen, he’s living proof that coming from little old Clairton that it can happen.”

Gary “Blue” Mullen is one of Clairton’s greats who got a taste of the NFL — he played three games for the Chicago Bears during the 1987 strike — and realizes the power of potential Boyd can have on Clairton.

“It’s going to be huge for the town, especially the state that it is now,” said Mullen, vice president of sales for CTS Xpress in Atlanta. “That’s why it’s so important, not only him getting drafted but for him to make it and pump a little life back into the city. I’m not saying it’s life-or-death for the city, but it’ll be a great boost.

“I see an opportunity for someone like Tyler to be in a position to change the city economically. I’m a true believer that all we need is one person to bring life back to that community.”

Most important to Mullen, however, is that Clairton kids realize through Boyd’s example that hard work pays off, that success in football can translate to success in life.

“Everybody has those stories: players who were better athletes who didn’t pan out, who just didn’t do the right thing,” Mullen said. “In Clairton, we’ve had so many athletes. The younger generation, seeing someone they can touch and feel, they know he can make a difference.”

After a tight, tear-filled hug with his mother, Tonya Payne, Boyd posed for photos with family members and friends.

Finally, they all raised a glass to toast Clairton’s chosen one. Boyd thanked everyone for their support, for bringing him to this moment and promised to lead them to many more.

“I want to be that guy everybody looks up to in a positive way,” Boyd said. “When you mention Clairton, there’s not much positive going on except for sports and athletics. I want to change that.”

On this special night, when believing became achieving, Boyd gave a small town a reason to dream big.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review sports columnist. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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