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.”
THE WAITING GAME
About 40 people assembled at the Boykin household on draft weekend.
He had rehabbed his injury and felt his tape would prevent a free fall. Boykin wasn’t expecting to go in the first round, but on Day 2, he sat in front of the TV and saw name after name get called. His phone didn’t ring.
“It was frustrating because he saw some kids go before him that weren’t his talent,” said Alfred. “Because he got hurt was the reason he fell like that. He was frustrated.”
Added Lisa: “It was very devastating because I knew again my child had prepared all his life for this, and here he’s gone through two days and his name hasn’t been called. On the third day, we’re halfway through, and they still haven’t called my son’s name. It was just hard seeing him hear name after name called.”
During the fourth round, Boykin decided he couldn’t stare at the TV any longer. He left his parents’ house and went over to his girlfriend’s. In all, 12 cornerbacks and 122 players were selected ahead of him.
With the 28th pick in the fourth round, Howie Roseman finally made the call. But on the other end, he didn’t hear Boykin’s voice. Instead, it was his Dad, Alfred, saying hello.
“When they drafted me, they called my Dad’s cell phone because they didn’t have my cell phone number,” Boykin explained. “My parents called me and said, ‘The Eagles just called Dad! They’re about to draft you! You need to come back home!’ Talked to them on my Dad’s phone. I didn’t get the draft call like everybody wants.”
Added Alfred: “We were sitting there looking at the draft on television, and the phone rang. That day, I didn’t answer any phone calls. My phone had been ringing the whole time, but I didn’t want to be bothered with anybody. But for some reason, I grabbed the phone and I answered it. It was a Philadelphia number, which I didn’t know. I just answered the phone. …Then I ran to see where Brandon was, and he was out of the house. I didn’t know where he was. He left the premises. I think he was upset because he had to sit so long. He wasn’t expecting to sit so long.”
It was pandemonium at the Boykin household when he returned. He had conversations with Roseman, Andy Reid, Juan Castillo and Todd Bowles.
The wait wasn’t easy. Boykin knew he was better than many of the guys taken ahead of him. He understood the injury cost him, but it was time to leave the past behind and go to work.
Boykin won the nickel job as a rookie. The Eagles, however, suffered one of their most dysfunctional seasons in recent memory, going 4-12. Year 2 would be a different story.
Boykin’s leverage was off. The Cowboys had the ball at their own 32 with 1:49 left. The Eagles were clinging to a two-point lead, and the NFC East title was on the line.
It was man coverage. Boykin lined up about 3 yards off the line of scrimmage and was matched up against Miles Austin. The veteran receiver ran straight at him before breaking inside on a slant.
“I was caught off-guard because I didn’t have the exact leverage that I wanted,” Boykin said. “I tried to get my leverage back, and as soon as I looked up, I saw the ball coming, and it almost looked like it was coming to me. I accidentally got in the right position. I caught it with one hand and it stuck to my chest. I was just worried about securing it. I looked up and saw Connor Barwin like, ‘Get down! Get down!’ So in my mind, I thought I was running around for a long time before getting down, but looking at the film, it happened like that [snaps fingers]. It was a blur.”
In the NFL, there is always an alternate universe. What if Kyle Orton completed two or three passes and got the Cowboys into field goal range? What if the Eagles dropped two of their last three games and missed the playoffs? How is the discussion in Philadelphia different this offseason?
Boykin benefited partially from a bad throw, but when there was a play to be made, he came through. As he headed for the sideline, he was greeted by Kelly.
“I just remember him hugging me, and then I hugged him and I looked at him, and he had half of my eye black smeared all over his face,” said Boykin. “But it was a good time.”
The celebration extended from Dallas to Philadelphia to Georgia.
“I was literally speechless,” said Al. “I remember jumping up and down. And my girlfriend looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ I was just pointing at the TV. I couldn’t get out what I was trying to say. Just kept saying, ‘My brother! My brother! My brother!’ I couldn’t say anything. I was too excited. … Just a crazy moment, a lot of running around, screaming, jumping, a very proud moment for us, especially, for his family. And definitely a proud moment for him.
“Just to see him come so far, all the trying times, and persevere through everything, the injury at the Senior Bowl, the slipping in the draft, all the way to his second year, being second in interceptions in the NFL. … That was just a very surreal thing to think about and realize. We were all just very proud of him.”
Only Seattle’s Richard Sherman had more picks than Boykin last year. In terms of combined interceptions and passes defensed, Boykin ranked fifth with 23, behind only Sherman, Cleveland’s Joe Haden, Baltimore’s Lardarius Webb and then-Titans CB Alterraun Verner.
“His ball skills are what make him so good,” said Barwin. “Some guys can get their hands on balls, but he has the ability to get his hands on the ball and hold onto it. I think that’s definitely what you guys all see, and that’s what I see too.”
Added DeMeco Ryans: “You have to be a very special guy to come in on third down and you know that most teams, they’re targeting that slot receiver. So for a guy like Boykin to come in and make the amount of plays that he makes from a nickel position, you know he’s a very special player. It’s great to see him progress from his rookie year to now. He’s a proven guy. You’re not worried about him when he’s out on the field. You know he can hold his own against any of the top receivers that line up in front of him. I love playing with Boykin. I love his confidence and just the flexibility he brings us being able to step up when we need him.
“He always has a smile on his face. You never see Boykin down. I’ve never seen him have a bad day. He has a really good spirit about himself.”
Five of Boykin’s interceptions last season came with the Eagles clinging to a one-possession lead; four came in the fourth quarter; and two sealed victories.
DIPLOMA IN HAND
There is no element of surprise in the voices of Alfred or Lisa when they talk about their son graduating. This, after all, was the expectation since he first got out of the crib.
“My Mother didn’t get a chance to go to college, and I was the first person from my family to go to college,” explained Lisa. “I knew that education would be the way for me as well as any children that I may bring into this world. It started to be our family tradition. So it was an expectation for both our boys. And they knew growing up that it was not an option. It was an expectation in order for them to be successful.”
Boykin left Georgia after the fall semester of his senior year to prepare for the draft. That left him short of the credits he needed to graduate with a journalism degree.
So the past two offseasons, he’s committed himself to tying up loose ends. That meant sometimes writing six- or seven-page papers at night and suiting up for OTAs the next day. Earlier this summer, he completed his remaining workload and got his diploma.
“I knew the sooner I did it, the easier it would be, so I didn’t really care what I had to do,” Boykin said. “I just wanted to finish.”
He learned to take school seriously from an early age. And if he ever doubted how important getting an education was to his parents, seeing how they treated Al cleared things up quickly.
“He played on the best baseball team in the state. I don’t want to put him out like this, he’s gonna be mad,” Boykin said with a laugh, pausing for a second. “He didn’t make a good grade or something in some class in high school. They were playing for the state championship in baseball. They made him sit. They made him dress and told the coach to sit him in the dugout and not let him play. So he just was wondering, ‘Why am I not in the game?’ And they told him afterwards. But that was crazy.”
Added Lisa: “Brandon knew if it happened to Al, it would definitely happen to him if he made the same error. So he learned from his brother. He didn’t have to go through any of that.”
THE NEXT STEP
Rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews is always looking for ways to get better. So before a training camp practice in early August, he approaches Boykin and suggests the two square off in wide receiver/cornerback one-on-ones that day.
On the first rep, Matthews runs down the seam. He turns towards the quarterback to look for the ball, but Boykin reaches his arm around and swats it to the ground. For Boykin, it’s not about just getting his hand on the football. It’s about playing with a violence and physicality that suggest he wants to bury the ball 10 feet underground. He plays every snap – whether it’s practice or a playoff game – like he wants to send a message to the receiver and let him know he never had a chance at making the grab.
“He’s intelligent,” said Matthews. “It’s one thing for a guy to be physical. It’s one thing for a guy to be fast or athletic. He has a combination of a bunch of things, but he’s extremely intelligent. He’ll come to me after plays and be like, ‘I knew you were about to do that.’ And it wasn’t even about anything you did. It was about how the other guys lined up. Sometimes you don’t even have a chance against a guy like him. The dude’s just really a great player. Working against a guy like that is priceless.”
Later during the same practice, Boykin breaks up a Nick Foles pass attempt to Matthews on an underneath route. Towards the end of the session, he’s matched up with another rookie wide receiver, Josh Huff. Mark Sanchez throws the fade, but Boykin rises up, violently attacks the ball in the air and comes down with the interception.
His helmet gets kicked off in the process, but Boykin doesn’t care. He’s playing with an edge today and stands to his feet in delight, tossing the ball to the sideline as his defensive teammates go nuts.
Any onlooker who watched Boykin that day had the same thought: He very well might be the Eagles’ best defensive player.
So why then does he have to stand by his locker day after day and answer questions about why he only played 51 percent of the team’s snaps a year ago?
“I just think I fit best in this scheme inside,” said Boykin. “The way that we blitz and the types of routes that we get on the outside are fade routes and things like that. And with our scheme, we’ve got tall corners. They want quicker guys on the inside because, believe it or not, I get just as many balls as they do thrown at me. With my statistics, you would think I was outside, but it’s just because how often we’re on the field and how many chances I get. I really, honestly don’t have a problem with it. I am capable of playing outside. I’m capable of playing inside. And I’m sure at some point, I’m gonna have to play both. So it’s good that I get all these reps.”
Boykin’s opinion seems to have changed somewhat from a year ago when he voiced a desire to get a shot as a full-time starter.
But with Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, not having size on the outside is a problem. When Kelly was first hired, he provided Roseman and the personnel staff with a list of preferred measurables at each position. Given the way that Boykin has performed, combined with the Eagles’ issues against the pass, it’s fair to say that him being 5-foot-9 is a sort of deal-breaker. Kelly covets size on defense and believes the ability to match up with big wide receivers is a must.
While we’re only talking about a two-inch gap, there has been no indication that the coaching staff is willing to give Boykin a fair shot at a full-time role – one that would have him start on the outside and move inside when the defense shifts to nickel.
There’s also the financial aspect of it. Boykin can restructure his deal and sign an extension with the Eagles after the 2014 season. Or he can play things out and become a free agent after 2015. Outside corners get paid more than nickels. There’s certainly a chance that another team would give him that opportunity.
“If you continue to just play and not worry about that stuff, do what you’re supposed to do, I think financially you’ll be taken care of regardless,” Boykin said. “I feel like at some point, how much is enough? If you get $50 million as opposed to $70 million, are you really gonna be that mad? I guess you want to get all you can, but at the end of the day, I feel like if I can just take care of my family and be good… I like it here. I love the scheme and the coaching staff and the organization, so God willing, I’ll be here and I’ll let that [work itself out]. I’m just gonna play and try to make as many plays as possible.”
Boykin has talked to Al about the different scenarios.
“I think it’s definitely tough,” Al said, making it clear that his brother loves playing in Philadelphia. “It’s always in the back of your head. But at the end of the day, it’s a win-now league and he has to focus on the here and now. That’s exactly what he’s doing. He just wants to do whatever the team needs him to do to win. And in the end, after the season’s over or once his contract is up or however things shake out, that’s when he’ll worry about the next step as far as his career is concerned with the outside.”
For now, Boykin seems at peace. If he can put together another strong season, he’ll likely be recognized as the top nickel in the league. His family comes to all the home games, and he has his degree in hand. Boykin and his fiancee Tess Echols are planning their wedding in Turks and Caicos for next July.
At just 24 years old, he’s accomplished a lot. But by all indications, there are bigger things ahead.
“When I think about where he is… the first few years, I had to pinch myself,” said Lisa. “Like am I really looking at my son? He accomplished his dream. And just a few weeks ago, he graduated. For a mom or a dad, it doesn’t get any better than that.”