On the basketball court is where Al Boykin first really took notice.
Big brother was a high school sophomore and had grown accustomed to having to drag Brandon along with him wherever he went. On this occasion, the setup was a two-on-two game against a couple of older kids in their neighborhood.
"At first, it started out as, ‘Man, I gotta play with my brother. He’s six years younger than us. It might not be much of a game,' " Al recalled. "And then we started playing. He was actually killing the other guy. At that point, it was like, 'Yeah, you could play, bro.' It was good. And we just rolled it from there."
Alfred, their father, saw it on the baseball diamond at a much earlier age.
"When he was 5-years-old, I put him in T-ball," he said. "And I saw that he understood exactly what he needed to do right away. I didn’t have to teach him or anything. He was just 5-years-old, a little kid, and he loved it. …He was a fast learner. He loved sports."
In every class, there is a kid who seems to win every race. The guy who plays quarterback and shortstop. The one who’s able to climb the ropes with ease, while others struggle to make it past the bottom knot. The first one picked, and the last one standing.
In Fayetteville, Ga., that kid was Brandon Boykin.
"Al was six years older," said Alfred. "Brandon never wanted to play with the kids his own age. He always wanted to play with Al’s friends, who were bigger. They played basketball together. And I think by him playing with those kids, it helped his skills. But he was always a cut above kids his own age."
By the time he was in seventh grade, Boykin could dunk with two hands. In just about every athletic endeavor, he was running circles around his peers.
But going up against Alfred was a different story. Whether it was basketball or video games, big brother never let him win. You could say that’s where Boykin developed his competitiveness. Or you could put it another way.
"He was a bit of a sore loser in his younger days," said Al with a laugh. "We would be playing Madden, any type of game… and if he lost, he could throw the remote controller at the TV, shut the game off, shut the TV off, cry, all that good stuff. And I took a lot of joy in that. I told him, 'I’m not gonna let you win. You’ll never beat me.'
"I was pretty prideful back then. In the end, it worked out because it made him better, tougher. He figured out how to beat me at some point, but it took him a long time. He definitely worked hard to do it. Never gave him anything easy. ...But he always kept trying. That was the big thing with him. He didn’t give up. He just used to pout a lot. He got to the point where he was really good at everything."
Even now, Boykin’s teammates marvel at his athleticism.
"When we played in an [offseason] basketball game, he came in the locker room, getting ready, he’s like a mini body-builder," said Lane Johnson. "He’s all cut up."
Afterwards, Johnson cracked his teammates up by Tweeting a pic of what he imagined Boykin looked like when he was younger.
"He is a beast in the weight room," said Mychal Kendricks. "He’s a little man child, little buff raisin, little marble head."
As Chip Kelly likes to say, Boykin is rocked up. The athleticism and the build are what often get mentioned first when his name comes up in conversation. He even got offers to play big-time D-1 basketball coming out of high school.
But there’s plenty more to the story of how Boykin became the Eagles’ biggest playmaker on defense and one of the top nickel corners in the NFL.
SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT
Boykin woke up in his hotel room in Mobile, Ala. with an uneasy feeling.
His hands kept itching and he couldn’t get his mind right. Something was clearly off.
Boykin was taking part in a week-long job interview at the Senior Bowl. But there wasn’t much to be anxious about on that front. He capped off his final year at Georgia by earning MVP honors at the Outback Bowl. All week during practice, scouts were talking him up and telling him how impressed they were with his skill set and personality.
But on the morning of the game, Boykin sensed something wasn’t right.
"I had this feeling like I shouldn’t play," he recalled. "I don’t know why. Something in my mind was telling me, ‘Don’t play in this game.' "
He called his agent and also voiced concern to his family.
"I was talking to him on the phone, and he said, 'Dad, I really don’t feel like playing today,' " said Alfred. "I said, ‘Why? This is it. This is your last game to play as a college player.' He just had this feeling that it wasn’t a good day for him. I don’t know why, but I guess he knew exactly what he was talking about."
Boykin decided to suit up. His plan was to participate early and shut it down later if necessary. Aside from playing cornerback, he was also the gunner on special teams, a role he’s filled with enormous success for the Eagles.
With about 20 seconds left in the first quarter, he headed downfield to cover a punt. That’s when his path to the NFL took a sharp turn.
"One of my own teammates runs into the back of me," Boykin said. "But my foot was planted in the turf the wrong way. Broke my leg. I went into the room, and they showed the X-ray, and it was completely broke, crossed over. It was something they said I definitely needed to have surgery on in order to have a chance to play.
"That was just the turning moment in that whole process. It went from being the best couple months of my life. You’re out of college, you’re on your own and you’re about to go to the NFL. And then just that happened with such short time to heal."
At first, Boykin didn’t know what exactly had happened. He’d gotten kneed in the back, but his teammate also fell on top of him. The Redskins’ coaches were in charge of the South team. Boykin limped to the sideline and told then-assistant Raheem Morris that he couldn’t breathe, that he thought he’d ruptured his kidney.
It wasn’t until doctors showed Boykin and his family the X-rays that he realized what was ahead of him. The pre-draft process was supposed to be a chance to improve his stock. An elite athlete, there was little doubt that Boykin would have torn the combine up and drawn his share of positive attention.
Instead, he had to shift his focus to rehab and convince teams that the injury wouldn’t be an issue once he got to the NFL.
"When we went to the room where he was with the physician and they said he had a fracture, it was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was heartbreaking," said his Mom, Lisa. "My heart fell to the floor, and to see the pain and disappointment in his eyes just hurt me much more than probably I felt it did him. It was very hard to deal with."
Boykin relied on his faith, family and girlfriend. He wouldn’t have a chance to wow coaches and GMs at the combine. At Georgia’s Pro Day, he’d be a limited participant. Instead, it was surgery followed by three months of rehab in Florida.
"I was down there by myself, basically," he said. "I didn’t want to be dependent on people, so I started driving with my left foot. I don’t know why I was doing that. Not safe at all. But I was driving and doing everything I possibly could just to keep myself sane."