This has been a career year for Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd and not just on the stat sheet, where heading into Sunday night's game in Kansas City (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) he has more catches than A.J. Green and Tyreek Hill, more yards than Keenan Allen and Golden Tate and more touchdowns than Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones.
It's been a lot bigger year than Sunday's debut on the national stage for Fourth and Tyler Boyd. It's been the year of his life. A year he cut people out of his circle and squared up his career with the expectations that draped him like one of those high-low looks. They may be starting to double-team him on the field. But now he's got some room off of it.
"I've kind of distanced myself from a lot of things that have been happening back home," Boyd says, the sweat from Thursday's practice still popping off him. "It kind of allowed me to focus more on my game and just prosper in that area. Before, I was worried about my feelings about the past. A lot of things that struck me in a way, I felt stressed about or felt down. I just think being here every day helped me rise from it."
Tonya Payne, his mother who is now probably also his best friend, has watched it not like a buddy, but a proud parent.
"He's always been overly mature for his age," Payne says. "But I would say his growth into being a man was definitely over this past year."
It probably began a year ago this month, when he was charged with possessing a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia after his Mercedes was found wrecked back home in Pittsburgh, where he owns a high school legend on the unforgiving streets of Clairton and a college legacy on The Hill. The problem is he let his best friend drive it, he had no idea of the wreck and the case wasn't resolved until March when charges were dismissed.
Not long after that this past spring, one of his mentors, Paris Carr, a guy that played for the Clairton Bears a few years before Boyd and became what Tonya calls a "big brother," figure, was shot and blinded by a bullet meant for someone else.
"The young man who got shot is a good guy," Payne says. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time … A tragedy … That did hit him kind of hard … I think it was probably an even bigger realization about being in Clairton."
In the middle of all that he rescued an injury-filled, disappointing 2017 by famously catching that fourth-and-12 fling from quarterback Andy Dalton in Baltimore on the last play of the season for a 49-yard touchdown that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs and put Buffalo in. After catching the $65,000 or so thank yous that spewed from Bills fans, the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association added to its football league basketball and spring football programs, thanks to Boyd and that catch-and-run.
His mother thinks the money ended up being a major donation not just to the kids.
"That gave him (the experience of) being a part of something that panned out in such a major way he was able to give that back," Payne says.
Boyd went back home as recently as last month for the weekend after the Baltimore game. Well, actually Steel Valley, where Clairton played and he talked to the kids on the little league team. Just like he did when he had his camp over there. He also went back to see his five-year-old daughter cheer. But that's about it.
He and his mother moved out of Clairton after the 2016 draft. Now he moved on.
"I had to cut people off," Boyd says. "I had to cut a lot of people off. It's really hard because these were guys that I would hit up most of the time. If I felt like talking or venting, those were the guys I talked to. Now, it's kind of different. I can do that with somebody else or my mom, but not having your best friend, the person you grew up with and you did everything with … It's always rough when you lose a girl friend or best friend or any type of relationship that meant something to you."
Alone with the game that never left him.
"It let me focus more on what I needed to accomplish for myself, instead of what other people wanted to do with themselves," he says. "I had to focus on myself and not worry about outside negativity."
Like when he heard that Carr got shot and had lost his sight. Tough. A blow because, "He had my back since I was a child." That's the guy that inspired Boyd to give back to the community because Carr gave back to him. He calls and sometimes he gets him. He knows Carr loves to hear his voice. He also knows it can be hard to hear because of the memories they can see.
"He didn't deserve it," Boyd says. "He doesn't gang-bang. He's not in the streets. He's doing positive things, like what I'm trying to do. He helps with recreation centers back home. He takes little kids to field trips. He's one of those model figures, one of those athletes supporting the community. That's something I love. That's the people I want to be around."
His circle may be tighter (Payne says he's become choosier with whom he lets in), but those that are in it see the confidence flowing. She believes last year in Baltimore gave him "a confident boost." Asked to sum up Boyd's progress from role player to playmaker in a couple of sentences, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor goes one better and uses just one word.
"Confidence," says Lazor and Boyd knows he has the confidence of Lazor since he tried to recruit him all those years ago to Virginia before Boyd decided to stay home at Pitt.
First-year wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell came into the circle this year and all he saw was the film. Hell of a rookie year, thought Bicknell, of that 2016 season Boyd led all rookie receivers in the league with third-down catches.
Bicknell has been around. He's coached all levels of the game. The colleges. The minors, which is what the World League was in the '90s. He's coached three different positions in the NFL and three different 1,000-yard receivers. Not only did he not know what happened to Boyd last year, he didn't care.
"The third year of an NFL player is a big year if you look at a lot of guys," Bicknell says. "That's when it clicks it seems. When you get a fresh start in anything, maybe it helps you. Truthfully, I think he was ready to do this. He had a good rookie year. Then he struggled. I don't even know what happened. But we've got a lot of faith in him."
Boyd and his mother know all about faith. They've kept plenty of it. She was the one who told the Clairton coach to suspend him for at least part of a play-off game for cutting some classes. And only let him play offense, she told him. The guy who converts simply looking at the chains has been fourth and whatever his whole life.
"He wants to win. Always wants to win," Payne says. "He only lost one game in high school out of about 60."
Boyd grabs a towel. There is a shower and meetings and then he'll be back home in that tight circle, not sure who he'll talk to next.
"Right now," he says, "I'm just looking to get better. And I don't want to lose."
Photos of WR Tyler Boyd.