Tyler Boyd and daughter Taylen take a food break at Kennywood Park.
CLAIRTON, Pa. - Tonya Payne, who retired from social work at the tender age of 42 last week to manage her son's affairs, believes the plan for Tyler Boyd had been set long ago.
"I was thinking about this after he got drafted," she says under a rare stretch of shade at Kennywood Park, where Greater Pittsburgh goes for amusement in the summer. "During his high school years somebody gave him a pair of Cincinnati Bengals gloves. They had the B in the middle.
"At the championship game he scored a touchdown and they were going to commercial and he held his hands above his head. You could see those gloves. They were black and orange, his high school colors. He was a Clairton Bear, now a Cincinnati Bengal, which is CB . . . Honestly, he's exactly where he's supposed to be."
But to get to Cincinnati, Boyd, the quicksilver wide receiver who arrived in the same second round as the Bengals receiving royalty of Chad Johnson, Cris Collinsworth, and Carl Pickens, had to negotiate a tenuous path here along a bend in the Monongahela River 13 miles from Pittsburgh.
Check out some of the pregame fireworks at Paul Brown Stadium!
The "City of Prayer," hasn't had many answered since the coal industry imploded three decades ago, shattering dreams and lives, not to mention the tax base. The Oscar even eluded the place. Clairton was the setting for the movie that won Best Picture in 1978, the last shudder of the good old days. "The Deer Hunter," boasted the greatest cast of their generation (Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale), but it shot its scenes in the surrounding towns.
Yet more than 30 years later when Boyd and his Bears turned Friday nights into Sunday morning-like pageants of passion, faith, and comfort with 66 straight wins and four Pennsylvania Class A titles, everybody had each other's back before he went up the hill to play at the University of Pittsburgh.
"During the week people would be arguing and not getting along," Boyd says. "But Friday nights would come and everybody would be at the games and it doesn't matter. They walked in with us and we walked in with them and they loved us and we felt the same."
In the late '50s, Clairton was a river boomtown straight out of Happy Days. Shops. Restaurants. Churches. The population soared toward 20,000 riding the wave of U.S. Steel's sprawling complex of steel mill and coke thought to be one of the biggest facilities of its kind in the world.
Now there are about 6,000 people left, many in the age group of 66-year-old Frank Ripinski. Ripinski is retired three years from the shipping department at Eastman Chemical and is standing in the Clairton High School parking lot admiring Boyd's new Mercedes, a symbol of the shiny old days.
"Unbelievable," Ripinski says of those Friday nights. "Every time Tyler touched the ball, we thought he was going to score. Unbelievable. He played everywhere. Running back. Wide receiver. He'd take snaps as the Wild Cat quarterback, sit back there and read, and then he'd be gone. Hey Tyler, you remember that game you reversed field and the whole team was chasing you for about a 70-yard touchdown? Unbelievable."
Boyd smiles. He remembers. That was the state title game his junior year. Ripinski remembers another play-off game that sounded more like a novel.
Taylen, with Grandmother Tonya Payne, finally gets her appointment with Doc McStuffins.
"It was a foggy night. He came out for the second half with his game face on. He wouldn't look at anybody," Ripinski says. "You intercepted the first play in the second half. He just took the game over completely. Unbelievable."
"Fort Allegheny. Raining," he says. "It was tied up at the half. I was playing safety, too."
This place has AFC North coated in coal dust all over it with the Steelers flexing their muscles just around the bend. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis grew up seven miles down Route 51 in McDonald. To get to Clairton High School, you can turn on Ravensburg Street. One of the only Clairton Bears to play in the pros, defensive back Daven Holly, played 29 of his 32 NFL games with Cleveland a decade ago. After playing his college ball at Cincinnati, naturally.
Boyd has become synonymous with his town. Both are gritty, resilient, and have overcome crippling odds. The challenges just keep coming for both.
"It's depressed, dilapidated," Boyd says. "People leave one by one."
He says the temptations of easy money selling weed almost overtook him when he was a junior and senior at Clairton. But there were too many eyes, particularly the glare from his mother, and football meant too much to him and his life-long friends. College scholarships beckoned.
"We had other hustles," Boyd says. "We'd go down to the (basketball) courts and we'd say, 'We'll play you for a hundred.'"
The Mercedes drives by boarded-up gas stations and empty parking lots that look more like cemeteries. It doesn't begin to get lively until Route 837 creeps past an asphalt plant on the way to Duquesne and a three generation outing at Kennywood's amusement park with his mother and two-year-old daughter Taylen. Not only is the Mercedes heading out, but he just bought his mother a three bedroom ranch in the town next door where she grew up in Elizabeth.
No more apartments. No more renting. And yet Boyd and his family aren't giving up on their town simply because the town didn't give up on them.
It's not as easy as you think to leave. Tom McCloskey, the principal, is from the Clairton class of 1990. His father retired from Eastman as a chemist after starting out laying pallets. When McCloskey got out of Penn State, he jumped at the chance to come back and teach even though the school has so many students qualifying for free lunches that now everyone gets them with one of the highest rates in the state.
"He made me watch a few Pitt games the last couple of years," McCloskey says in the school's lobby, nodding at Boyd. "This is where I'm from. A lot of the kids I went to school with would say they wanted to get out of here when they graduated. But this is where my family is. I want to see the kids do well. They can do it. The proof is right there."
"The Proof" has a plan. The design to put Boyd in the middle of the Bengals' whirring offense in the slot got off the ground during the spring. His plan to give back is just starting to be sketched out. And Payne isn't looking to copy any specs.
"We want to start a foundation to help families with kids," Payne says. "What may work in Cincinnati or Atlanta may not work somewhere else. We're going to start it here in hopes we can branch out. We're doing it off what I've done for a living and the volunteer work we've done."
Why not? The blueprint has survived everything and anything the town has thrown at them. After Boyd hardly knew his father early in life because he was in and out of jail, Brian Boyd was charged with possessing with the intent to distribute a kilogram of cocaine and unlawful possession of a firearm and according to published reports is serving a mandatory 10-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in McDowell County, W.Va.
When Tyler was in a basketball game during his senior season the coach called him to the bench to tell him why he was pulling him out of the game. His house two minutes away down on Third Street was in flames.
Boyd, who also played basketball at Clairton, made one out of ten but it was enough to win a toy for Taylen.
Just before the start of his final season at Pitt a year ago in June, he told police he had "a couple of shots," while watching the NBA playoffs and was arrested for DUI.
"If I could have grounded him I would have. I was angry, but I was supportive," Payne says. "Obviously I didn't want it to happen. But if it was going to happen, then I'm glad it happened at that stage. He knows he's got a lot of people looking at him and it was everywhere."
Boyd calls the DUI "a turning point." Little, tiny Clairton that is supposed to be irrelevant came up big again with support.
"A lot of people were furious with me. Everybody expects a lot," Boyd says. "They don't want me to be somebody who had an opportunity and blew it with one . . . incident. Everybody tried to help me. Everybody reached out to see if I was OK and tell me to keep my head straight and do the right thing.
"I haven't had anything handed to me," Boyd says. "I've had to work for everything I've got. I guess some people call me cocky. I guess I am on the field. But I don't look down on other people. I think in order to play great, you have to have confidence."
Boyd uses that easy confidence to walk into Kennywood looking for his mother and Taylen, but a group of girls who watched him play in high school stop him first. He pleasantly poses for cell phone pictures all the way around.
"I like talking to the fans, the people who appreciate what I did. Not people that just want to hang around," Boyd says. "I think it's why a lot of people around here like me. I went to Pitt. Everybody loves it if you go to Pitt."
It's like when one of the Kennywood workers approached Boyd. Stefan Savic, who comes from nearby South Park and goes to the University of Akron, had no trouble recognizing him and simply wanted to say hello.
"Wow, you know, Tyler Boyd. It's crazy," Savic says. "He said he appreciated me coming over to say hello and I told him to have a good time and to come to Kennywood more often."
There were a lot of reasons Boyd stayed to go up the hill to play for the Panthers. Some of the boys from Clairton got the call, too. Penn State was heavily sanctioned. But the biggest is probably the little girl with the endless energy and vocabulary waiting in line to see Doc McStuffins.
"Just like him when he was little," Payne says as she wearily watches them sit in the "Crazy Trolley," ride. "Never stops."
His mom points out that Boyd wore No. 23 at Pitt (above) and No. 8 between the ages of 7-14. So 83 is the perfect number in Cincy.
At 21, Boyd is not only trying to replace Mohamed Sanu in the slot, he's also trying to be the father he never had. Brian Boyd was never around much, certainly not at his games, and while his stepfather and youth league coach has been a steadying influence as well as Payne's father, there is only so much that can be done for two boys. Tyler's older brother is 23.
"I'm not a man, so I couldn't teach them to be a man," Payne says. "I did the best I could to teach them to be the type of man not to be. They had my father. They had their father's uncle. My ex-husband was a strong, positive role model."
But Tyler Boyd admits his mother set the tone early and often. There's one play-off game they don't reminisce about down in the school lobby. It seems he skipped some classes.
"I want to say his junior year they had a play-off game and they called me and said he had an in-school suspension but that he would still play in the game on Friday night. That didn't make sense to me," Payne says. "They all knew that I didn't play like that… I talked to the coaches. They sat him out the first quarter … and they let him play only on offense."
To this day Tyler Boyd isn't all that surprised that his mother got him suspended from the biggest game of the year. She also periodically randomly drug tested her sons before they turned 18.
"Never got anything back," she says.
Working with referrals for Allegheny County in the department of social work, she saw it all.
Pet feces on the floor with kids walking through it like it was always there. The most monstrous forms of sexual abuse. Heart-gashing scenes of families breaking apart.
"There were unconventional hours. You'd get called in at night. All those books you study and it doesn't get you ready for what you're going to see. You never know what you're walking into," Payne says.
"What I tell people all the time is you can't always expect somebody to know what to do. In the field that I work in, it's always easy for young people to say, 'My father is a dead beat.' But if he was raised in a house with only a mom and he only sees the dad dropping off money here and there. That's all he knows."
Boyd, who shares the parenting with Taylen's mother, just talked to his father last week and he's trying to get the paperwork together to visit him before he heads to training camp later this month.
"It's not like I don't love him," but what he's got he's pouring into Taylen.
"You're eating all the cheese," he jokingly barks when she attacks the French fries he's trying to share with her. But he doesn't like her tasting Nana's Mountain Dew. "What are you doing drinking pop?" Then when she climbs into the little war planes he keeps yelling up to her, "Pull the lever, Tey. Pull the lever."
She's smiling down at him and he has to be thinking the bad old days are long gone. Thanks, really, to their gritty little town. When an electrical fire swept across the roof of their home four years ago, they retrieved a lot of their belongings but had no place to live.
Until the saintly Paulette Bradford got involved, another example of those sticking around to watch your back. A 1963 graduate of Clairton who went on to become the first female electrician journeyman at the U.S. Steel plant, she later became vice president of the school board. Her husband owned an apartment building, of all places, next to Boyd's burned-out home. Arrangements were made and an account set up at PNC Bank.
It wasn't like the donations yielded glittering and new gaudy baubles or anything like that. But what struck Payne is the amount of donations that piled up from not only Clairton, but the environs. Places like Elizabeth, McKeesport, Jefferson Hills.
"We were able to replace everything. It was like the fire never happened," Payne says. "That's the amazing thing."
Boyd brought enough of his Clairton moves in the spring to give the Bengals encouragement.
William Bradford, who also came back home to help, lost Paulette to cancer last year and the gym where Boyd first heard about the fire on the roof now bears his wife's name. Boyd's family isn't the first to be helped.
"Everybody knows everybody. It's a close-knit town," William Bradford says. "My wife and I ran the Midget program for 13 years, so we've known Tyler since he was seven. We help anybody. That's the way the town is.
"We lost the steel mills. That was the basic income. Even after that we still survived. We're fighters and survivors."
William Bradford, class of 1956, played mostly played basketball and baseball before he joined the military. Then he landed in New York for 26 years driving the Brooklyn to Manhattan subway before he came back home.
"I've been back 28 years. I retired and I've been giving back to kids since I came back," says Bradford, who also coaches junior high basketball, girls softball, and whatever else the town needs. "It's really rewarding to watch them grow up and become guys like Tyler.
"It's not like a place where there are strangers," he says. "All the athletes have grown up within a three-mile radius of each other. They've known each other since they were five years old."
That's about when Bradford nicknamed him "Smooth." But it never seemed to come that easy for him and his town. "Smooth," embraces the idea of being a Pittsburgh guy who just happens to play for the Bengals is not a smooth look.
"A Pittsburgh guy is definitely blue collar. It's a blue-collar city," Boyd says. "There are a lot of tough teams around here. Not just the University of Pittsburgh. There are a lot of tough kids. It's tough growing up here. One point I can say about a Pittsburgh native is you have to have that sweat equity."
Everybody, it seems, has it. Paulette Bradford's replacement running the Clairton Midget program is Tyler Boyd's mother.
"Fighters and survivors," William Bradford says.