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CLEMSON – Leaning back in a swivel chair, wearing a Minnesota Twins hat and a hemp backpack, tossing a football toward the air and catching it with his free hand, Tajh Boyd is casually chatting through a Fox Sports Radio phone interview.
The world’s biggest little kid this side of Dwight Howard is at his best when he doesn’t take himself or his daily routine too seriously.
He is a goofball, that Tajh. An extrovert. But he’s cerebral, too. He recognizes what he’s meant to Clemson University, and while he’ll let the public decide his place in program lore, it’s clear that stuff matters to him.
Just after that radio interview, he’s got a few final questions to answer. Questions about his legacy. Questions about his track record against South Carolina.
Questions about how those two things might be intertwined.
Six TDs, Six INTs, no wins
“Here are some statistics, Tajh,” it is said to Boyd. “Your last four games against Florida State and South Carolina.”
Boyd: “Right.” He knows what’s coming.
“47 percent completions, 165 passing yards a game…”
Boyd looks down. “Mmmhmm.”
“…6 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and no wins.”
Boyd looks up. “Right.”
“Do those games stick with you? Does that drive you to want to make that right in that last regular season game?”
Boyd is 31-7 in his illustrious quarterbacking collegiate career. Just 1-4 against the Seminoles and Gamecocks, the Tigers’ two chief rivals.
“Yeah, that’s in any competitor’s nature,” Boyd said. “You want to go change that perception, you want to change that image.”
Image often wrestles with Boyd. Whether it’s his own body language on the sidelines if Clemson falls behind by a couple scores, or presenting a lavish portrait of his school for successors like DeShaun Watson, Boyd is ever the ambassador, the face of the program, the carrier of a heavy burden.
If Boyd’s not universally beloved, he’s as close as it gets in this polarizing landscape of college football. He hopes detractors who point out his tough losses remember his great triumphs in the same conversation.
“I don’t think it’s to the point where you just don’t perform in big games; we’ve done that, we’ve won big games,” Boyd said. “But at the same time, each of those losses, the common theme is we didn’t go out there and perform with our best foot forward.”
The Man in the Arena
The Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt strikes a chord with Tajh Boyd. Specifically, one of the former President’s particular speeches, The Man in the Arena.“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt wrote. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Not to be misunderstood: Boyd doesn’t just tolerate, he appreciates those cold and timid souls in the media, and certainly loves the fans even if they hold his losses to the Gamecocks against him.
But when Boyd distinctively quotes Roosevelt – “the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena” – he’s recognizing all he can control is his own satisfaction, through success and failure.
“People don’t really understand that,” Boyd said. “As much as they feel like they can’t walk around the corner with their T-shirt on or something like that, you’re the one getting criticized, you’re the one getting embarrassed, you put the work in for it. As disappointing as it is for everybody else, it’s that much more disappointing for that person out there on that field.”
Boyd is a sensitive soul, not born with the thickest skin (and maybe he was, but it just hasn’t developed at age 23.) When Clemson was walloped 51-14 by FSU, the topic of discussion was whether Boyd was having fun and even if he might be regretting his decision to put off the NFL for a year. (Boyd fervently denies the latter.)
“It wasn’t necessarily not fun, but at the same time, I think it was some situations that if you let the wrong stuff get in your head, reading this or that or hearing this and that, you can let it affect you,” Boyd said. “If you let all that other stuff, all those outside perspectives hit you, then it can make you feel way more disappointment than you would treat yourself.
“That’s all about life, man. You’ve got to handle the good with the bad.”
“One last shot”
Of course, no game means more to Clemson fans than this one every year. Boyd won’t say it, but he wants no part of six dirty words being tied to his cherished legacy amidst all the records and memories.
But he never beat South Carolina.
“You don’t have to remind Tajh Boyd of the importance of this game,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I think in the back of his mind, it affects him.”
Specifically, it’s the mistakes that haunt Boyd in those defeats at the hands of the Gamecocks, who have won the turnover battle each of the past four matchups.
“Against good teams – and they’ve been good over the last few years – you can’t do that, because you lose that game,” Boyd said. “That’s something you hope you can learn from. You get one last shot at it, you have to go out there and try to make the most out of it.”
Maybe Tajh Boyd is the greatest quarterback in Clemson history if he never plays another down. Even if he can’t slay South Carolina. He doesn’t know. He does care, though.
“I think it will be up to what people think it is,” Boyd said. “But I think it’s pretty critical. How are you going to be remembered? By your last game. So I think it’s a big game. I think it’ll be a huge game. But it’s just a game. You’ve got to perform to your capabilities and not make the game bigger than it is. We have to keep our mind fresh, and let the game come to us.”