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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tajh Boyd will end his All-American college career just the way he always expected — in a BCS game featuring Ohio State.
Only there is one small difference: He will be on the other sideline.
The Clemson quarterback, who will present the seventh-ranked Buckeyes’ staggering defense with their biggest challenge of the season in Friday night’s Orange Bowl, was once sure he would be wearing scarlet.
In fact, weeks before signing day in 2009, the decision was a no-doubter.
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Former OSU coach Jim Tressel badly wanted Boyd as a successor to Terrelle Pryor — the even more touted Braxton Miller signed with OSU two years later — and Boyd wanted Ohio State.
The four-star prospect from Hampton, Va., grew up such a fan of Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith that he wore No. 10 in high school — the number Tressel promised for him in Columbus. He called the Buckeyes’ uniforms "some of the dopest in the country." And he was awed by the program’s tradition.
"The Woody Hayes Center, when you walk in there, it looks ridiculous," Boyd said Monday from the Embassy Suites in Fort Lauderdale. "There's rings everywhere, trophies everywhere."
■ Ohio State and Clemson are kicking back at swanky ocean-side resorts — the Buckeyes at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood and the Tigers at the iconic Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. You want living large? The five-star Fontainebleau has more than 1,500 rooms and 12 restaurants spread across four towers and 22 acres, replete with a massive oceanfront pool that was featured in Scarface and The Sopranos. The Heat partied there after last year’s NBA title and former Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor apologized there in a circus-like 2011 press conference.
■ The Buckeyes chowed down at Miami Beach’s Texas de Brazil steakhouse Monday night, though not all were up for the feast. Earlier in the day, the mother of OSU freshman linebacker Darron Lee posted on Twitter that several players — including her son — had food poisoning. An OSU spokesman emphasized it was instead a mild flu strain. "It’s four or five guys, but it's a 24-hour deal and they're in quarantine," coach Urban Meyer said. "We'll be fine." The spokesman said no starters were affected.
■ OSU isn’t the only team here dealing with the specter of early departures. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris cracked he can’t wait to coach likely NFL-bound junior receiver Sammy Watkins next season. "On our travel plane, all the seniors get to sit in first class," Morris said. "I reminded him that this week as we got on the plane. I said, ’Just think, next year, you’ll be able to sit in first class.’" Watkins, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound burner projected as a high first-round pick, has 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. On facing OSU, he said, “I think I’m the best receiver in the nation and I think cornerbacks should have their chance. Overall, I think I can’t be guarded."
— David Briggs
By the time of the Army All-American Game in January, 2009, Boyd had narrowed his choices to OSU and Oregon, with the Buckeyes the strong favorite. Pryor even assured Boyd he would leave for the NFL after his junior year in 2010.
"It wasn’t official, but I [gave] a real small verbal,” Boyd said of his talks with Tressel. “It was like, ‘Yeah coach, I’m coming.’"
Yet with an eleventh-hour change of heart, the fates of two programs changed — both perhaps for the better.
While the Pryor era ended in turmoil after the 2010 season, OSU returned to prominence with Miller, and Boyd helped Clemson meteor back into national contention.
Boyd mostly observed for his first two seasons before becoming a three-year starter, an All-American, and Clemson’s all-time leading passer. This season, he has thrown for 3,473 yards and 29 touchdowns on a Tigers offense ranked 12th nationally (502.9 yards per game).
With Boyd, a Clemson team that before his arrival had not won more than 10 games since 1990 has reached the double-digit threshold three straight years and is in its second Orange Bowl in three seasons.
OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell knows Boyd’s ability all too well.
"Yeah, I mean, we recruited him too," he said.
So what changed Boyd’s mind — and transformed Friday’s showdown into a revisionist historian’s dream?
For an impressionable 17-year-old, it may have been as simple as a plea from his buddy. At the Army All-American Game, Boyd grew close to running back Roderick McDowell, a Clemson commit intent on expanding the Tigers’ upcoming recruiting class.
"We were on the bus to the game," McDowell said, "and I was like, ‘Tajh, what schools are you looking at?’"
And so began McDowell’s pitch. He immediately called his recruiter at Clemson, then-running backs coach Andre Powell.
"I told him, ‘Coach, are you looking for a quarterback?’" McDowell. "He's like, ‘Not really.’ And I told him, ‘Well, I'm standing next to Tajh Boyd.’ He must have done some quick research on him because the next minute or so, my phone rings and they were on the phone all day. I’m sitting there like, ‘Can I have my phone back?’"
McDowell’s patience paid off. Boyd agreed to visit Clemson, and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney pounced.
“Jim Tressel was at Ohio State and Mike Bellotti was at Oregon," Swinney said. "They had pretty good track records, and here I am trying to lay it out on paper for [Boyd]. Here’s the vision, here’s the plan. You come to Clemson and we can change Clemson, and we’ll have a lot of fun doing it. But I got to have a guy that’s willing to hitch his saddle up next to me. Bellotti was hanging out in a tree in the backyard with binoculars and Tressel was parked in the front yard waiting for me to leave.”
Boyd dove in, though the decision was so difficult that he said he ignored 12 phone calls from Tressel after pledging to Clemson.
“If you’re watching this, I love you, you’re my guy,” Boyd said of Tressel.
Five years later, he has no regrets.
Boyd is just where he expected to be, with one big twist.
"It is kind of surreal to end your final game as a Clemson Tiger against Ohio State," he said. "It's going to be a fun matchup, and I can't wait."