If there's anyone who probably shouldn't be surprised about Tyler Boyd's breakout freshman season for the Pitt football team, it's his mother.
Tonya Payne had seen from an early age that her son wasn't the type to let expectations dictate what he could do. To some, Boyd's rise to college football star status may seem ahead of schedule, but to her it makes perfect sense.
"This is a child that walked when he was eight months old," Payne explained.
It started with trying to keep up with his brother, Brian, 18 months his elder. Brian was walking, so Tyler wanted to walk, too.
Tyler never bothered with training wheels on his bike, either, determined to master it just like his older brother and his friends had.
"That's just the type of kid he's always been," Payne said.
That determination continued at Clairton High School, where Boyd dominated in football, starred in basketball, and even moonlighted for a season as a shortstop on the baseball team, where he helped a perennially woeful squad come close to making the WPIAL playoffs.
He chose football as his future, though, and has burst onto the scene as one of the stars in a surprisingly explosive Pitt offense. Just three months into his college career, Boyd carries the confidence of a much older player, with good reason.
"The kids these days, they call it 'swag,' " said Clairton football coach Tom Nola. "He's got that."
Taking the right path
The way Boyd saw it, growing up in Clairton meant he had two choices: Dive into sports or go toward what he called "that other direction."
The other direction was the reason Boyd and his brother grew up without the presence of their father, Brian K. Boyd.
The senior Boyd was in and out of jail for most of Tyler and Brian's childhood, and in 2010 was indicted by a federal grand jury in a major drug sting.
He was charged possessing with the intent to distribute a kilogram of cocaine and unlawful possession of a firearm, and is serving a mandatory 10-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in McDowell County, W.Va.
"I just had to make a real strong bond with my mom, knowing it was just me and my brother," Tyler said.
Payne said she sought out male role models for them in the absence of a father figure. Her father and brother-in-law pitched in to help raise the boys, as did her now ex-husband, Jason Jarrett (whose son, Tyrique, is a defensive tackle for Pitt).
"He does have men in his life, but for the most part it was me," Payne said.
Despite raising them shorthanded, Payne was determined that Tyler and Brian would not follow their father's footsteps into federal prison.
Tyler said he remembers hearing gunshots while in his home, and knew people who had fallen victim to violence.
"It is definitely something that you worry about on a daily basis," Payne said. "Because it is easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd.
"It wasn't so much that I worried about him falling in with that crowd, but my biggest fear was just him being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Nothing could have really prepared Boyd, though, for the time he was pulled out of a basketball game his senior year of high school, with his mother and brother in attendance, to learn that the family's house had been ravaged by an electrical fire on the roof.
While Boyd didn't lose any belongings in the fire, the family had to leave their home and move into a nearby apartment.
"That just pushed me harder to do what I do and have success," Boyd said.
Pitt beckoned first
Before his junior year of high school, Boyd went to a 7-on-7 passing camp hosted at Pitt's South Side practice facility.
After it was done, then-coach Todd Graham brought Boyd and Payne into his office and presented Boyd with his first Division I-A scholarship offer.
Boyd was honored and said that Pitt's early offer ultimately did play a role in his decision, but he and his mother had misgivings about Graham and his coaching staff.
"At the time, when he was offered by Pitt, I knew that that wasn't an option for him at the time, even though it was his first scholarship offer," Payne said.
Graham left Pitt for Arizona State after one season and the Panthers hired Paul Chryst. As Boyd got comfortable with the new coaching staff, staying home became a more realistic option.
At the same time as Chryst and the Panthers were getting blown out by Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl in January, Boyd was playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. During the game, live on NBC television, he gave his verbal commitment to Pitt.
There was some last-minute indecision, and Boyd admits that he was wined and dined on late visits to Tennessee and West Virginia, but he stuck with his word to the Panthers.
"I couldn't take all that fancy and good stuff over a group of people that I know got me in the right direction, people I know and somewhere I'm comfortable with," he said.
Comfort certainly hasn't been an issue for Boyd on the field, where he leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in all-purpose yards per game and has 23 catches for 425 yards and four touchdowns.
He's the best freshman receiver to play at Pitt since Larry Fitzgerald in 2002, and has even accomplished some feats Fitzgerald never did.
Of course, with that success comes the status of campus celebrity. Boyd said he's not quite as anonymous around Pitt's Oakland campus as he was two months ago.
"I see people pointing at me, seeing who I am," he said. "They don't say nothing, but I know they're talking about me. I'm just trying to have fun out here."
For Pitt's open date this weekend, Boyd and the other four Clairton alumni on the Panthers team planned to take part in the high school's homecoming parade.
Boyd said he didn't pursue athletics to escape his troubled hometown; rather, he wants to use any success he has to shine a positive light on a community still plagued by crime.
"I don't want to see Clairton full of everybody I grew up with out on the streets," Boyd said.
Nola said his current Bears team keeps tabs on Boyd's exploits for Pitt, and Boyd tries to make it back as often as he can to talk to younger players about avoiding "that other direction."
"Especially young kids, they look at him like he is an NFL player already," Payne said.
Boyd has big dreams for his time at Pitt -- he's not shy about throwing out national championships as an ultimate goal for the program -- and could very well be an NFL player a few years down the road.
Even now, though, he feels like he has come a long way from growing up on Third Street in Clairton.
"Back there, it's a struggle," Boyd said. "There's a lot of violence, crime, drug dealers. I just hope I can make an impact on the city. Doing what I'm doing is bringing attention. I know I'm going to have the ability to go back and talk to people or kids, try to help motivate them into the right direction."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWerner. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM