ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Video games may have saved Larry Boyd.
While most parents try to persuade their kids to get outdoors, it’s a different story in some select parts of St. Louis. Raising her son as a single parent, Angela Boyd couldn’t afford much. But a video-game console always was present in the Boyd home.
Focusing on first-person shooter games helped Larry avoid taking part in the real-life thing. It’s part of how he survived an upbringing in one of the country’s most dangerous cities.
“I put a lot of it on video games because I played video games a lot when I was little,” Boyd said. “I liked Madden, NBA2K and first-person shooting games. It was always something I loved to do. It was a release before I knew football.”
Most cities have their dangerous areas, including Chicago, Detroit, L.A., and even Boyd's new home, Champaign. But those who grow up in St. Louis seem to have a complicated relationship with their city. There’s certainly a pride, a togetherness that comes with the upbringing. There’s also an urge of some to flee a city ranked the country's most dangerous by 24/7 Wall Street and the second most dangerous by Forbes.
“It’s rough,” said Cory Patterson, Boyd's football coach at Trinity Catholic. “These guys, they go through a lot. These guys go through a whole lot of struggle. It’s stuff that normal kids wouldn’t be able to make it through. But these guys, this is their everyday life. Brothers and sisters being shot. Brothers and sisters being killed. Drug problems. These kids go through it all. But you would never know it because they still come back smiling every day. They appreciate every day. They appreciate everything a little more than most kids.”
Boyd still plays video games on his Xbox -- “I’m nice; I’m nice,” he said of his video-game prowess -- but football quickly became what he calls his “release.” Like so many other young men living in poverty, athletics -- especially football -- provide a possible path to life-changing opportunity.
“Football’s really an out," Patterson said. "It’s an opportunity to do something different. It’s an opportunity to be different. It’s an opportunity to get into whatever you want. It’s bigger than football. You have an opportunity to be whatever you want to be."
Boyd was blessed with supreme size -- he’s now 6-foot-5, 340 pounds -- and unique athleticism for someone that size. But his focus and drive, in an environment that pulls so many the opposite way, earned him his out.
Boyd last weekend reported to the University of Illinois, where he is expected to be an immediate-impact player and a foundational piece in Lovie Smith’s rebuild.
“Just staying out the way and make sure that the company I meet was smart because I really didn’t keep any company that was out there in the streets, knowing what they want me to do,” Boyd said. “I just made my circle small, knowing what I can relate to and the guys that are going to be successful when they’re older.”
A 'rock' of a mother and a football father figure
Angela Boyd didn't have what most of us call a career, but she always found the jobs to provide for her son.
“She was my rock,” Boyd said. “She was my handyman. She was all of that. She taught me a lot of things that a father should teach me. My mother was the one teaching me that. Big ups to her because that’s hard. She was able to find jobs to keep a roof over our head and keep decent clothes on my back and for me to be able to eat. Growing up, I was real appreciative of everything I had because I knew if I worked to be better and I worked to be successful that I’d have better and I’d be able to bring better towards my mom.”
Without a father -- and a second earner -- in the picture, the Boyd family just found a way to get by.
“I wouldn’t say poverty," Boyd said, "but growing up without the most money and having to make things work.”
Added Patterson: "He had to learn how to work through everything. Not having a lot. Not having the funds a lot of kids have to get stuff and do stuff.”
Angela Boyd must have done a great job raising her son because the time Patterson met Larry as an eighth-grader, "he was a real nice kid," Patterson said. The young coach then was an assistant at Christian Brothers College High School on the city's west sides, as well as a youth coach. After middle school, Boyd enrolled at Trinity Catholic High School on the north side. A year later, Patterson was hired as the Trinity football head coach. That started a relationship that helped both Boyd and Patterson reach their goals.
“They say that if you play a sport, that coach is likely going to be your dad if you don’t have that in your life," Boyd said. "(Patterson is) basically a father figure. I can go to him to talk about anything, and I can relate to him too. If I couldn’t say certain things to my mother, I’d go to Coach Patterson and talk to him. If I was struggling with something, I’d go to him. Sometimes it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But it was always what I needed to hear.”
Patterson knew he had something special in Boyd, then a massive 6-foot-4, 300-plus pound sophomore. But he needed refinement and an attitude adjustment -- at least on the field.
“He wasn’t quite a dog," Patterson said. "He wasn’t quite aggressive. He was a big kid though. It took a year or so for to become that aggressive kid he is now. He’s still a nice kid off the field, but on the field, he’s a dog. He likes to push people around.”
'Larry built this program'
Patterson inherited a Trinity Catholic program that went 3-7 during the 2013 season. He had confidence he could turn it around. But the young coach knew he had his work cut out for him.
Three years later, Trinity came within one win of a state championship trophy.
“It’s been crazy, to be honest with you," Patterson said. "I knew something big would happen here, but I didn’t know it’d happen this fast.”
Boyd was the foundation of it all.
Trinity went 3-7 during Boyd's sophomore season, but Patterson and Boyd helped attract some of the city's best Class of 2019 prospects, including quarterback Isaiah Williams, receiver Marcus Washington, offensive lineman Ira Henry, receiver Bryce Childress, linebacker Shammond Cooper and running back Alphonzo Andrews -- who all now hold Illinois offers.
The Titans improved to 6-4 the following season and attracted even more talent from the Class of 2020, including offensive lineman Jalen St. John, defensive back James Frenchie and running backs Teriyon Cooper and Reggie Love -- who all now hold Illinois offers.
With all that talent, including a senior leader and dominant player like Boyd, Trinity won its first 14 games during the 2016 season before a Class 2 state-championship game loss to Lamar.
“He dominated the line of scrimmage," Patterson said of Boyd. "He beat people up. If things go slow, you ran behind Larry. Everybody knew it was coming, but you couldn’t stop it because he’d block two or three people.”
Boyd set a business-like and team-first tone, despite so many power-five offers and famous coaches coming his way.
“Larry built this program," Patterson said. "He’s the guy that made people start paying attention, made college coaches come to Trinity. He single-handedly started this program in being what it is now. Now, we have sophomores with 40 offers. If it wasn’t for Larry, we would’ve never got that attention.”
Trinity now is a must-visit destination for power-five programs, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, Florida and Notre Dame -- just to name a few.
“It just took that one head person in charge to come in and turn things around and give the kids a mindset to do something," Boyd said, "That we can be great and we can change this around.”
Illinois hopes Boyd can do the same in Champaign.
An unwanted visit
Boyd seems to enjoy the process of building a struggling program into a winner. Though, he didn't seem to know that last summer.
The three-star offensive lineman watched the Illini's satellite camp at Trinity Catholic last June. But at that point, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Arkansas were the schools he was considering the most. He admits he wasn't really "feeling" Illinois.
But Boyd listed Illinois in his top-four last summer. He also told the Illini coaches he'd visit the UI campus. But when the day came for that visit, Boyd considered standing up the Illini.
He was driving around in the St. Louis suburbs when Patterson called him. Boyd told Patterson he didn't want to make the trip, that he wasn't going to pick Illinois. But Patterson told Boyd he had to keep his word. That persuaded the three-star recruit to make the five-hour roundtrip drive to Champaign.
Boyd didn't hide his disinterest in the visit. The Illinois coaches didn't think the first hour or so went very well.
And then Boyd met with Lovie Smith.
“He sat down with Coach Smith," Patterson said, "and we were walking out he leaned over and whispered to me, ‘I’m glad you made me come.’ To be honest with you, I didn’t really think he’d go to Illinois. I thought he was going to Mizzou. He’d been a Missouri kid forever. From that day forward, it was a little bit more Illinois.”
Two weeks later, Patterson planned a return visit to Champaign with his younger players. Boyd invited himself on the trip.
After watching a training-camp practice, the Midwest's No. 2 offensive guard told Patterson he was ready to make his college commitment.
“I said, ‘We’ll call (Missouri coach) Barry (Odom) tomorrow,'" Patterson recalled. "He said, ‘No, I’m talking about here (Illinois).’ I’m like, ‘What?!’ Usually my kids tell me everything, but he hadn’t told me nothing about talking to Coach Smith. He said, ‘I’ve been talking to Coach Smith a lot. This is where I want to be.’”
Said Boyd: “I came up to Illinois, and I fell in love with it. It was sitting down with Lovie and (Illini assistant coach) Thad (Ward) was a big influence. Most of the coaches I can relate to. When I sit down and talk with them, there’s really nothing to weird. It feels like I’ve known them for a while.”
'Relate to kids in our city'
Patterson also uses that term "relates" to describe Smith's staff.
“I think the whole staff, I think they kind of relate to kids in our city and relate to what our guys need," Patterson said. "It’s not really always football that these type of guys need. It’s not always about X’s and O’s. I think Lovie understands that. I think his staff understands that.”
Yes, Patterson is referring -- in part -- to race. He is one of the few who frankly says that race certainly plays a part in the Illini staff's familiarity with African-American prospects.
Smith was one of just 11 black FBS head coaches to start last season. Illinois is the only FBS program with a black head coach, black offensive coordinator (Garrick McGee) and black defensive coordinator (Hardy Nickerson). Despite the fact that 60 percent of Division-I football players are black -- and an even higher percentage at power-five programs -- Illinois is one of few programs with a staff that is majority black (six of nine assistants).
“People won’t say it because it doesn’t sound politically correct. People won’t say it, but that’s huge,” Patterson said. “Because these guys can relate to these kids. They can talk to those guys. They feel comfortable with them. I think that’s one of those things that got Larry. He felt comfortable with them and open to talk to them about everything.”
Illinois hopes Boyd and fellow Class of 2017 signee Tony Adams, a Belleville (Ill.) native who played at St. Louis University High School, will help the Illini reach further into St. Louis, a city loaded with talent during the next three recruiting classes. The Illini certainly have made their presence at Trinity, where several players wore Illini hats during a photo shoot last Friday.
“It’s a place to be if you’re from St. Louis," Boyd said of Illinois. "If you take a person like me and multiple people in the Class of 2018 and 2019 then they’ll be able to relate to the coaches. The coaches have been through what I’ve been through.”
Illinois has missed on a few of its top 2018 targets in St. Louis. Ritenour four-star linebacker Ayodele Adeoye committed to Texas recently, and Chaminade College Prep four-star defensive tackle Trevor Trout on Tuesday didn't including Illinois in his top-nine. But Illinois is recruiting four-star prospects Michael Thompson, Ronnie Perkins and Cameron Brown (a recent Nebraska decommitment), as well as three-star safety Dallas Craddieth, three-star offensive lineman Nick Williams, quarterback Kaleb Eleby and rising running back Canaan Brooks.
Boyd does his part to help Illinois but tries to avoid going overboard.
“I put it in their ear, but still at the same time, I’ve had experience of kids before I committed being too aggressive,” Boyd said. “So any kid in St. Louis, if they choose to go to another school, I want to support them 100 percent because they come from where I come from.”
Most offensive linemen don't play immediately. But most offensive linemen aren't Larry Boyd. And most Big Ten teams aren't as thin on the front five as Illinois.
The Illini return three starters on the offensive line -- senior tackle Christian DiLauro, junior guard/center Nick Allegretti and sophomore guard/tackle Gabe Megginson. But the Illini dismissed two players who likely would have been on the two-deep, sophomore Darta Lee and true freshman Howard Watkins, following their arrests for residential burglary and aggravated robbery.
Like at so many positions, Illinois -- which will have just eight seniors and 13 juniors next season -- will need freshmen to make an immediate impact this upcoming season. Boyd seems a sure bet to see the field early -- and maybe often.
“I think he’s ready to play right now," Patterson said. "He’ll have to get into a little better shape and get himself together over the summer, but he’s going to be ready to play. ...He’s so athletic. He’s surprisingly athletic. He’s surprisingly fast. He’s surprisingly strong. He can do anything. If he were slimmer, he’d be a tight end.”
During the recruiting process, Illinois sold Boyd as a four-year starter. He certainly has the physical tools, but the Big Ten game tends to be a rough transition for offensive linemen, who don't enjoy nearly the same physical advantages in college as they did in high school and aren't accustomed to the mental aspect it takes to block more-intricate Big Ten defenses.
“They’re going to mold my game and get my skills better," Boyd said. "But from a dog mentality and my heart, I think I’m ready to go in there and make a difference. Basically, just show them that I got the heart to go out there and compete. I know I can do that.”
Boyd begins his career at strong side tackle, which means he likely will compete with Adam Solomon, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound redshirt sophomore who received most of the first-team reps during the spring. If he moves inside to guard, Boyd would likely compete for a top-five spot with redshirt freshman center Doug Kramer Jr., who took first-team reps during the spring with Allegretti moving to guard.
During the weekend, he moved into his dorm room with Vederian Lowe, a 6-foot-6, 350-pound Rockford (Ill.) Auburn offensive lineman.
“I’m real excited," Boyd said. "I’m just happy to get to work with my guys because I’ve been talking about getting to work the past five or six months. Now it’s time to get in there and show everybody what I can do.”
'A bunch of love in this city'
Ferguson is just eight miles southwest of Trinity Catholic High School. The protests and riots that filled our televisions during the summer of 2014 -- following the fatal shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer (who was not charged for the incident, which was ruled self-defense) -- was real life for St. Louis youth like Boyd.
Boyd's generation of St. Louisans lived the unrest through some of their most formative years.
“It was tough to see," Boyd said. "Because the situation that was going on, it wasn’t right. It kind of made me angry. Still, at the same time it put a fire under me to not be like the others. It put the fire under me that I’m not going to stay in St. Louis. I love St. Louis, but when I get the chance, I’m going to leave and do something better for myself and something for me. That’s always been the goal, to get out of St. Louis and do better.”
Football -- and Patterson and now Smith -- provided him that path.
“I can say football, it’s a life-changer," Boyd said. "If I didn’t have football, I probably wouldn’t be able to get into Illinois so it gives me outlets to new things and new opportunities.”
His mother provided him the means and character to survive and thrive. Boyd hopes he can one day receive NFL checks and pay her back.
“I know it’s a long ways down the road, and I’m just taking it day by day," Boyd said. "Each day, I’m just trying to get better. Each day, I wake up thinking about my mom and know that I’m one day for sure I’m going to get her out of her struggles.”
Madden football video games helped shield Boyd from the dangers of the city outside his door. Because of that, a dream of one day being on that video game -- that so many in his city share -- is one giant step closer to becoming a reality.
“Being from the 314, you have all this bad,” Boyd said. "But if you look at it, you have a bunch of love in this city as well. Just for football, everybody knows everybody. If you get an offer, everybody in St. Louis is saying congratulations. It’s just huge to have that support. We do have the bad times. When the bad is bad, it’s really bad. But when we have good, it’s really good too.”