The Harvard football captain was a published poet before he began playing football.
In fact, Joshua Boyd didn’t play team sports until high school.
He was a shy child, who learned to read before pre-school. In elementary school, a poem he wrote about family ran in a literary magazine. Another was read aloud at the West Roxbury library.
In high school, a coach told Boyd’s father that “Josh is too nice to play football.”
“I’d like to see that coach now,” Eric Boyd said. “Because look where he’s come.”
“He’s arguably one of the two or three toughest, most physical players in the [Ivy League],” said Crimson coach Tim Murphy.
Born in Jamaica Plain, raised in Hyde Park, Boyd is a 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound linebacker and the 140th captain of the Harvard football team.
The Crimson have only one captain, a position voted by the players. It’s been that way for almost every season since 1872.
“Our identity is as a blue-collar, hard-working football team,” Boyd said. “So to be captain, you have to be a hard worker — the hardest.”
And so goes the story of how a quiet kid from the suburban shadows of Boston morphed into the leader of the area’s most storied program.
“They say that about sports, that it really matures you,” said Tonya Boyd, Josh’s mother. “And I just can’t describe how proud I am of my son. How far he’s come in five years.”
Boyd actually wanted to begin playing football at the Pop Warner level, for the Hyde Park Cowboys. It’s a story Eric Boyd likes to tell to illustrate his son’s discipline.
“He was a chubby kid,” Eric said. “His older brother was, too, and he was an offensive guard in high school. But Josh didn’t want that.”
Because of Josh’s size, he was only eligible for the “A” team of the five-tier system.
“He had no experience, so that wasn’t really fair,” Boyd’s father said. “He didn’t make it.”
So Josh instituted a self-imposed diet. No more Dunkin’ Donuts, no more McDonald’s.
“All he ate was grilled chicken salads,” Eric Boyd said. “He became a stringbean. We had to take him to a nutritionist.”
When Boyd enrolled at Catholic Memorial High School, he was encouraged to try sports. He chose wrestling, track, and football — earning 12 varsity letters.
“Just because he wasn’t interested in sports when he was little didn’t mean he wasn’t athletic,” Tonya said.
In wrestling, he won 100 matches, including the Division 2 state championship in the 215-pound weight class. And in football, despite one coach’s concerns about his toughness, Boyd was twice named All-Catholic Conference. (Regarding the “toughness”: Boyd led Catholic Memorial in tackles in his final two seasons.)
In the classroom, Boyd excelled.
“I focused on grades before football was even in the picture,” he said.
“School always came easy for him,” Tonya Boyd said.
In eighth grade, the school hosted a competition in which teachers voted for the most exceptional student to earn a full scholarship. Boyd finished second.
He graduated as valedictorian.
The academic and athletic success made him a perfect Ivy League candidate. The coaches — from Brown to Dartmouth to Harvard — began expressing interest toward the end of his sophomore year.
“And truth be told, I wasn’t so sure about the Ivies or Harvard,” Boyd said. “Growing up around here, you have a perception of what type of students go there. I didn’t know if I’d fit in.”
Boyd’s father grew up in Jamaica Plain and attended English High School. He played basketball there, but remembers sitting in Harvard Stadium to watch his brother play in the famed Boston English-Boston Latin football games.
Eric Boyd, who works in construction, did not go to college.
“When all these Ivy League schools were looking at Josh, my brother said something to put it in perspective,” Eric Boyd said. “There’s so many thousands of people trying to get their sons into Harvard, how does it feel to have the Harvard coach come to your house because he wants your son?”
Josh’s reaction when he toured campus fits into a cliched fairy tale.
“I fell in love,” he said, with a sheepish laugh. “Everything you hear outside is just stereotypes. Everyone there is extremely hard-working and extremely driven. That’s something I could relate to.”
“Really, it’s just a bunch of regular kids from regular families,” said Tonya. “Especially on the football team.”
Boyd is the third consecutive linebacker to captain the Crimson. He knows the past two captains well and stays in touch with both. He has seen great leaders come through Harvard and knows he has a reputation to uphold.
“But when I came here, did I think about being captain?” Boyd said. “Not at all. I was more concerned with getting through my first camp.”
He got through camp. Then in the third game of the season, he broke his left fibula. Out for the season.
“That was kind of a dark time for me,” Boyd said. “First time away from home, and here I had this setback.”
He felt separated from his teammates. He wasn’t with them all the time and he couldn’t contribute on the field. When he came back — sophomore year, fully healthy — he knew he wouldn’t take anything for granted.
There is no way to pinpoint where the transformation occurred, but gradually Boyd emerged as a leader for the Crimson.
“Leadership comes very natural to him,” Murphy said. “He’s not afraid to hold people accountable to his very high standards.”
Boyd has held internships in law, investment, and urban planning, but wants a career in marketing.
He has a dozen tattoos, adding two a year since he was 18. His favorite college course included an assignment to sit on a public bench and write about what he saw.
“I just love noticing details,” Boyd said. “I’m a pretty artistic person with a lot of different interests. You really can’t define or pigeonhole me.”
He does fit into one college football stereotype: His girlfriend is a Harvard cheerleader.
“She’s so sweet,” Tonya Boyd said.
Tonya Boyd has adopted the role of team mom for the Crimson. She organizes team tailgates after games, including cooking 25-30 pounds of chili.
Over Easter, because she knows some of Boyd’s teammates live far away and can’t be with their family, she invites eight or 10 of them over for dinner.
Framed, in the Boyd’s home, is a Mother’s Day poem he wrote for Tonya in sixth or seventh grade.
“I was so proud of that,” Tonya Boyd said. “So proud of everything he’s done.”