He’s still a part of Reading team
READING - Undefeated Reading plays Stoneham tomorrow morning at 10:15, and Mike Boyd will be there.
He’ll be there when Tino Perrina looks at his wristbands inscribed with “Mike Boyd, No. 12.’’ He’ll be there when fans see his No. 12 on a sign hanging on a chain-link fence behind the end zone. He’ll be there when Stoneham players notice the No. 12 decal on the Reading helmets. He’ll be there when the Reading Rockets line up, shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad, on the 12-yard line for the national anthem.
Mike Boyd will be in the hearts and heads of the Reading High School football players, especially the seniors he coached on every step of their march toward Reading football history.
Only 29 years old, a two-time Super Bowl hero in Reading, assistant coach Boyd died in July after a four-year bout with lung cancer. But he left a legacy of winning and honor with the young men he coached.
“I think the reason why he stayed alive as long as he did was because of us,’’ says Perrina, a senior who scored 25 touchdowns before blowing out his ACL. “He really was a legend in Reading.’’
“Football was a part of Michael’s life since he was 8 years old,’’ says Tricia Boyd, Mike’s mom. “Michael couldn’t wait for this season. He was always saying, ‘They’re my guys. We’re going all the way.’ He was so excited for this year because he knew these boys were going to do it.’’
Boyd was born in 1979, the third and last child of Reading lifers Tricia and Richard Boyd. Mike grew up to be a three-sport all-star and a football champion. As a sophomore, he was a starting safety on Reading’s 1996 Super Bowl winner. He was starting quarterback on Reading’s 1998 Super Bowl champ. After the scholastic glory days, he was a safety and special teams player at Bentley.
Jeff Boyd, Mike’s cousin and teammate, still talks of the day he was mistaken for Mike while standing in line at the now-defunct Atlantic Supermarket. A Reading dad saw “Boyd’’ on Jeff Boyd’s championship jacket and told his young son that they were in the presence of greatness.
“I could have corrected the guy, but I decided to enjoy it for a moment,’’ remembers Jeff. “It was nice for those few seconds to feel what it was like to be Mike Boyd.’’
Boyd was working as a pharmaceutical rep in 2006 when he came back to help Reading freshman coach Tom Darrin. Along with former teammate Adam Briggs, Boyd steered a bunch of ninth-graders to an undefeated season. That was the same year Boyd, a non-smoker, found out he had lung cancer.
The insidious disease never stopped him from coaching. While in treatment, Boyd moved up to help with the varsity when the ’06 freshmen became sophomores. Today “his guys’’ are undefeated.
“He was an inspiration to all of us,’’ says Reading running back Ryan Pollock. “He kept showing up for practice every day. He never gave up. He never focused on his cancer. He focused on the kids and football.’’
Reading’s John Fiore was the team’s defensive coordinator when Boyd and Briggs were Super Bowl champs. Now in his sixth year as head coach, Fiore embraces the culture of winning the alums brought back to the program.
“The guys who played in the ’90s, especially the ’98 team with Mike and Adam, they were really close,’’ says Fiore. “That ’98 team was everything that’s right about high school football. They weren’t the biggest, but they willed each other to win and they willed each other to be great teammates. Mike was the leader of that team. I think when Mike and Adam came on our staff, the two of them passed that on. That was a huge turning point for us.’’
The Rockets were 11-1 last year, losing to Walpole in the Division 2 semifinals. A week from today, they’ll play the winner of the Methuen-Dracut game in the same semifinals.
Reading plays a smashmouth spread offense with seemingly infinite weaponry. The Rockets average 36.7 points per game, giving up only 9.5. The wounded Perrina has yielded the scoring duties to Pollock (146 points). Quarterback Stan Andre, another senior captain, weighs 230 pounds - which makes for a lot of smashed mouths.
Andre, a Metco student from Grove Hall in Dorchester, came to the group as part of the undefeated freshman team, on which he worked closely with ex-QB Boyd.
“He taught me pretty much everything I’ve learned about quarterback,’’ says Andre. “Stance. Throwing. Footwork. Everything I needed to know.’’
Those were the days when Boyd was still healthy enough to throw the ball farther than Andre. As time went by, Andre got bigger and stronger. Boyd kept getting weaker.
“He had cancer, but he didn’t make a big thing of it,’’ says Perrina. “When we were on the field at practice, you could see in his face that something was wrong, but he never ever asked for help. Ever.
“You always hear about people with cancer. But you never realize that death is so close. He looked fine. But all of a sudden, after the season, he got bad to the point where we couldn’t see him, couldn’t call him, couldn’t talk to him.’’
News spread quickly when Boyd died at the end of July. On the day of the wake, players gathered outside the Reading High field house and drove together to the funeral home.
“It was a life-changing experience for a lot of us,’’ says Perrina. “It was the first time we lost someone that we actually knew and cared about.’’
A plaque dedicated to Boyd is bolted to the wall of the football locker room. Underneath Boyd’s name and number, the plaque features an anonymous passage titled “Don’t Quit.’’ It’s the first thing players see when they enter and the last thing they see before they go home.
Nothing short of a Super Bowl victory will satisfy the Reading seniors, many of whom have been playing together for 11 years. Last weekend, Fiore gave his players a tour of Gillette Stadium and reminded them that this is their chance to bring Boyd’s No. 12 jersey there.
“I think our players are trying to demonstrate the lessons Mike taught them,’’ says Fiore. “I knew that he affected them very deeply, but sometimes as an adult you don’t realize the strong impression that someone like Mike can make on a young man or a young woman.
“It’s very clear to me just how much the kids cared for him and respected him and loved him in the time they had him. It’s corny, but it’s so true.’’
Corny, but true. A Thanksgiving story.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.