Gina Tucker has a large wooden bookshelf at her home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, that displays countless trophies and awards that were won by her son, Celtics guard Terry Rozier. And it is possible that more of them are for football than for basketball. Rozier did not play in college or even in high school. But prior to that, the sport consumed him.
His mother is convinced that if he had tried, he would be in the NFL today. And that seems like an extreme view until you consider that her son is actually in the NBA today.
So whenever Rozier has a chance, he flashes back to those helmet-covered days. He remembers the touchdowns he threw and the interceptions he caught, and he likes to tell his Celtics teammates about it all. Sometimes they roll their eyes, and other times he shows them what he is talking about, and they can’t help but be impressed. That’s what happened on Monday.
“I always brag about my football skills,” he said, “so I’ve got to show that.”
The Celtics trailed the Pacers by 1 point with 9.3 seconds left, and Rozier sensed opportunity. Indiana was inbounding the ball from the sideline, and Rozier was instructed to serve as a kind of rover. As he walked onto the floor after the timeout, he told his teammates: “Let’s play some football.”
Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart trapped Cory Joseph on the inbounds pass and unsuccessfully attempted to foul him. Joseph passed the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic, who stood near the sideline at midcourt. As Celtics guard Shane Larkin swooped over, Bogdanovic threw a jump pass toward Victor Oladipo, who was about 20 feet away, near center court.
Rozier was at the foul line when Bogdanovic released the ball, but he still blitzed the play like a defensive back, deflected the pass, chased down the loose ball, and soared in for a dunk that sent Boston to an improbable 112-111 win.
“Terry was reminiscing about his football games getting that steal,” Irving said later.
Rozier was born in Youngstown, Ohio, a struggling blue-collar town of about 60,000 that has produced 10 NFL players since 2006. In Youngstown, football is more than a suggestion.
Rozier had a Tony the Tiger ball that he would toss around with friends whenever he could, and when he was 6 he joined his first youth league squad, the West Side Patriots, a team Boston fans can certainly get behind.
About four years later Rozier moved to the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights to live with his grandmother, and he played football for the Red Dogs in a Police Activities League there. According to his mother, he was dominant.
“Oh, my god,” Tucker said. “He was like the best player ever. We really thought he was going to go to the NFL. You couldn’t tell us any different. He played running back, quarterback, wide receiver, safety, and linebacker. He was league MVP almost every season.”
Rozier modeled his game after former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, even wearing his No. 7 for several seasons. Rozier’s family enjoyed his games so much that they all purchased Vick’s No. 7 Falcons jersey to wear in the stands.
“He made us all love the game,” his mother said. “We were just amazed by the plays he could make.”
Over time, though, Rozier began to develop into an excellent basketball player, too. When he reached middle school, one of his youth league football coaches and mentors died, and Rozier decided he did not want to play the sport competitively anymore.
“We were all surprised and shocked,” Tucker said. “We thought he’d play football forever.”
Basketball has worked out quite well for Rozier, of course. But his gridiron influences are never far off, as he showed on Monday night.
Tucker always texts her son during games, even though she knows he will not see the texts right away. On Monday, Rozier had completed a quiet first half — 2 points on 1-of-3 shooting, one rebound, and no assists — so his mother sent him a message.
“Keep your head up,” she said. “Keep pushing and play your game, flat-out.”
She had a feeling a big moment was coming, but she had no idea it would come during such a wild, frenetic finish. She screamed with joy when he made the game-winning play.
“I’m like, ‘Oh no, the neighbors are going to think something’s wrong,’ ” Tucker said with a chuckle. “But they should be used to it by now. So I’m going crazy, like, ‘Yes!’ ”
When the game ended, Tucker sent her son one more message.
“I said, ‘I always love that about you, that you never give up,’ ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘You already know, momma. I wasn’t giving up.’ ”