Pitt's Boyd feels debt to hometown

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Tyler Boyd didn’t have a glove or a pair of baseball spikes. No, those were all lost in the fire.

But the struggles of the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Clairton High School were becoming too personal for Boyd. He was the catalyst for Clairton football’s state-record winning streak, but baseball is his natural sport. In the spring of 2012, the baseball team’s losing streak was the football squad's ignominious reciprocal. At that time, the football team had won 47 in a row. The baseball team, dubbed in local papers as the “Bad News Bears,” was setting the pace with its 48th consecutive loss.

“Keep hearing that the baseball team is losing and losing, it really hurt me because I’m representing Clairton, not just the football team,” Boyd said. “So me and the other guys rallied up and joined the team.

“We stopped that.”

Inserted at shortstop and batting second, Boyd hit a home run in his first at-bat of his first career high school baseball game. The losing streak -- and the nickname -- was dropped that day.

Boyd quit the baseball team days later. He finished what he set out to do, saving Clairton from at least one black eye in a city battered and bruised from the steel industry’s 30-year decline in Western Pennsylvania.

Now a sophomore wide receiver at Pitt, Boyd, who set school freshman records with 85 catches and 1,174 yards last season, continues to shoulder the load of bringing positive publicity to the Monongahela River town stricken with a declining population and burgeoning poverty.

“There’s no upside there. It’s all negative. The only positive thing there is sports,” Boyd said. “It’s really rough growing up there.”

From 2008 to 2012, census numbers show nearly 30 percent of residents were under the poverty line, more than double the state average.

“In Clairton, we don’t have much so [sports are] what we hang our hat on. We’re the epitome of blue collar and guys coming from the gutter,” said Eric Fusco, a Clairton native and assistant coach at Clairton High who mentored Boyd. “When you truly come from the bottom and you’re not just saying it, you have nowhere else to go but up. I’ve met people like him -- I’m like him -- but it’s personal with him.”

A town such as Clairton tends to swallow its young as survival often supersedes a scholarship, one of the few outs the town provides. Boyd surrounded himself with like-minded individuals in Clairton teammates Trenton Coles, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb, who are now all with Boyd on the Panthers’ roster. If danger ever presented itself and Boyd was slow to react, his friends were prepared to pull Boyd away.

“If [they] didn’t stop me,” Boyd said, “I probably could have jeopardized my future.”

Boyd was never more reliant on the town that raised him than during the Christmas holiday in 2011, just months before Boyd took it upon himself to end the baseball streak. Boyd was playing on Clairton’s basketball team and was on the court during the fourth quarter when he looked to the stands to see his mother, Tonya Payne, missing. With the win secured, he figured she just ducked out early.

As Payne left the gym, she bumped into Fusco, who saw the look of shock and disbelief on her face. Her home was on fire.

Fusco walked to the sideline and told the coach to pull Boyd, who was still oblivious to the fire less than two blocks from the gym. As he left the court, Boyd said he expected a congratulatory handshake from his coach. Instead, he pulled Boyd close. An electrical fire was ripping through Boyd’s home, the one he had lived in nearly his entire life.

“There wasn’t any damage on the outside, but the inside was ruined everywhere,” Boyd said. “I managed to save the bit that I can. It was a heartbreaking moment for me.”

The family was homeless, and not long after, the house’s owner decided to tear it down instead of rebuilding. But the town’s youth football president quickly sought out Payne, offering an empty room in a building he owned only a few houses down from Payne’s previous home. The youth league’s vice president helped set up a bank account for donations, while local businesses in Clairton and up and down the Monongahela turned tip jars into donation buckets. Raffles were held. Rival high schools chipped in.

“We were truly blessed because in a month’s time it was like we never had the fire,” Payne said.

It all resonated with Boyd. When it came to committing to a college, Boyd felt a loyalty to the region. So when Tennessee and West Virginia made late pushes, Boyd was conflicted but never decommitted from Pitt.

“I felt with all that support, how can I leave?” Boyd said. “I can get help from a lot of people, and it’s not even from family or friends. It’s the people out there that respect us as a family and see what we’re doing and that it’s all positive. ... If I went far, I don't think people would have my back like in Pittsburgh.”

So when Boyd moved 13 miles up the Monongahela Valley to Pittsburgh’s campus, he carried with him a civic duty. Clairton, with all of its baggage, helped Boyd to a college scholarship, and he responded with a season unmatched by any freshman receiver in school history, Larry Fitzgerald included. With Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street now in the NFL, coach Paul Chryst views Boyd as the core piece that can elevate a Pitt program from a forgettable 30-year period.

The same way he did for Clairton.