Javonta Boyd fought back the tears all day. For the Kansas State defensive tackle, even the smallest things on senior night touched off a wave of nostalgia.
He pulled on the purple home jersey in the locker room and rushed onto the field one last time.
Boyd was allowed to invite his parents. Instead, the former Northeast High standout asked Anita Gerhart, a reading specialist at the school the past 10 years, to be here with him. Arms shaking, chin quivering, Boyd ran across the field to deliver a rose to Gerhart. The two embraced as they reflected on a journey in which Boyd overcame a wayward home life and a learning disability to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and become a key contributor for the Wildcats during a magical season.
“I had to overcome a lot to get this point,” said Boyd, whose Wildcats face Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. “And I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without the help from a lot of people, especially Anita.”
As a freshman at Northeast, Boyd was 6 feet 1, 240 pounds, earning him the nickname “Shaq.” He was moved up to the varsity after five games and became a fixture on the defensive line for four seasons.
His home life was not as stable.
Boyd moved from place to place, transferred from school to school. By the time he was in high school, he considered Northeast his home. To escape the instability, Boyd slept on whatever couch a friend would provide for him.
“There was a violence and stuff like that where I grew up,” said Boyd, who preferred not to go into too much detail about his earlier life in St. Petersburg. “I wanted to get away from that and stay close to Northeast so I could do what I needed to get done at school.”
By his junior year, Boyd was already getting scholarship offers, including one from Georgia. As a senior he was ranked the 58th best player in the state, according to rivals.com
But for all his brilliance on the football field, he had a history of not doing well on tests, potentially missing out on a Division-I scholarship because of low SAT scores.
Something was not right.
Boyd, one of the most popular students at Northeast with his generous smile and appealing poise, discovered his reading comprehension was well below college level, and his ability to process information from a book and in lecture classes was impaired.
Gerhart, 55, became his mentor. She suggested he would need more concentrated tutoring, that he might benefit from untimed tests and slower-paced courses.
There were some people who thought Boyd’s low test scores stemmed from disinterest in school, and their belief was that he would not make it to college.
But Boyd did not just want to play athletics, then flunk out and be adrift. He wanted a college education and listened to what Gerhart had to say.
“There were some people who thought Javonta would not make it through high school,” Gerhart said. “People thought I was crazy to work with him and try to get him to a Division-I school. But he had such determination.”
Boyd took the SAT and didn't get close to the minimum of 700 to gain entry. He took the test a few more times, with similarly disappointing results. Boyd still wanted to play football, but the big-time offers went away.
Kansas State, however, stuck around. Mo Lattimore was the recruiter for the Tampa Bay area and had had success landing defensive linemen before. Darren Howard, a star at Boca Ciega, played with the Wildcats before starting in the NFL.
“Mo told me if Javonta didn’t get the test score, he wouldn’t have that many friends when it came to recruiters,” said Kenny Crawford, who coached Boyd on the defensive line at Northeast and is now the head coach at Pinellas Park. “Mo stayed with him all the way through. He came down with the coaches and presented a detailed game plan for Javonta. And everything he said has come true.”
Boyd’s motivation was strong. He didn't buy the argument that if you're from a disadvantaged background and can't get a scholarship to a D-I school, then there is little hope of getting a college education. And Boyd would not accept any sense of victimization, either in how or where he grew up.
Kansas State had Boyd enroll at Butler Community College. He played two seasons and won a junior college national championship in 2008. He earned his associate’s degree and transferred to Kansas State.
After redshirting one year, the now 6-foot-2, 297-pounder has been in the defensive line rotation the past two seasons, and played a key role in helping the Wildcats go 11-1 and earn a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s been a great year and a great career,” Boyd said. “I wouldn’t change anything about the experience here.”
In his final regular-season game, Gerhart waited for him outside the locker room. It was the second time she had watched Boyd play college football, and she had rooted for him until she was hoarse.
“It’s been a pretty amazing story,” Gerhart said.
Gerhart, who has no kids of her own, has helped Boyd with his courses in college and sent him care packages of winter clothes.
“I’ve helped plenty of kids before, but never like this,” she said. “It’s just hard not to do stuff for Javonta because he’s such a likable kid and is so determined to do well.”
Now Boyd wants to give back. If he doesn’t make it to the NFL, he wants to return to the Tampa Bay area and become a teacher and coach.
“I would love to come back and help kids,” Boyd said. “I want to give the same kind of help that given to me.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.