FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- How does one define a legacy?
With wins and losses, with records set? With character and stature, with leadership and grace? With setting a standard, with changing a culture?
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd has hit each mark as he closes in on the final game of his career with the Tigers. His legacy at Clemson should be unquestioned. Yet the Discover Orange Bowl against Ohio State on Friday night has been dubbed a “legacy game” for him.
His teammates and his coaches dismiss the thought, pointing to a long résumé that spills onto three pages in the team’s bowl media guide. "Whether he takes another snap or not, for what he's done for this program and for this university has been instrumental," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said.
Here is just a small snapshot: Boyd has led this team to an ACC title, to two BCS games, to 31 victories -- second-most in school history. He holds 16 school career records and 11 ACC records. Six more marks are within reach in his final game.
But there is one more record next to his name that is not as pleasant. Boyd never beat rival South Carolina, going 0-3 as a starter. He only beat Florida State once, going 1-2. He was at the helm the last time Clemson played here, a 70-33 loss to West Virginia that still stings today.
In particular, his performance against Florida State and South Carolina this season has been closely scrutinized. Clemson was the preseason choice to win the ACC -- and Boyd the preseason choice for ACC Player of the Year. Boyd and his teammates had national championship hopes.
But Boyd played one of the worst games of his career in a 51-14 loss to the Seminoles, dashing any shot at either the ACC or the national title. Against South Carolina, the offense imploded in the second half en route to a fifth straight loss in the series.
Clemson turned the ball over 10 times in those games, many of them on Boyd. Yet he has never made one excuse, never shied away from a question. He has answered all of them, admitting the Florida State loss was the toughest of his career because the Tigers never gave themselves a chance to win.
“I had goals: I want to go to the national championship, I want to win the Heisman, beat South Carolina,” a reflective Boyd said this week. “Looking at it from the outside, well did you really improve? I can honestly say yeah, just from my growth, my maturation and looking at the season as a whole.
“Now there are some things, some obstacles we didn’t clear but all these things shaped me. It’s how you respond to adversity. I took one of those losses and essentially I thought it ruined some of the thoughts and plans I had but you can’t look at it from that angle. It’s not about you. It’s about this program, you being a leader regardless. We still won 10 games, and we have an opportunity to go out here and finish on a strong note.”
In a strange twist, Boyd almost ended up playing for the team he will face Friday night. Boyd grew up a huge Troy Smith fan and seriously considered playing for Ohio State after decommitting from Tennessee. On a recruiting visit, coach Jim Tressel promised Boyd he could wear No. 10, the same number Smith wore.
Boyd knew nothing about Clemson until current running back Roderick McDowell started pushing the Tigers during a high school All-America game they were playing in. The two were on the bus on the way to practice when McDowell asked Boyd what schools he was considering. McDowell asked, ‘Why not Clemson?’ He got then-Clemson assistant coach Andre Powell on the phone, and handed it to Boyd.
“They had my phone forever,” McDowell said.
Boyd visited Clemson last, to its good fortune. Because that is where Boyd decided to go to school, becoming a part of Dabo Swinney’s first recruiting class in 2009. The senior class has 37 victories, the most since 1991. That includes three straight 10-win seasons, the first time that has happened since 1987-90. They did all that with Boyd, his talent, his leadership and his infectious personality.
“With me, you should not judge a man on his wins and his losses,” McDowell said. “You should judge him on his character and how he handles success and how he handles losing and winning. You look at Tajh, the losses we had -- the next day Tajh is in the film room, studying and correcting himself. When we win, Tajh doesn’t sit there and boast. Tajh is a person who sits there and says take the good with the bad. That’s how I judge a man.”
Boyd nearly left school early last year for the NFL but decided to return, believing more championships were in sight. He wanted to get better; but he also wanted to be there for his teammates, to take them where Clemson had only been once before.
That never happened. But Boyd says he has no regrets. Rather than dwell on what could have been, Boyd has opted to look ahead. His legacy seems secure, no matter what happens with Ohio State, but that remains a hard question for Boyd to answer.
Legacies, he says, are for somebody else to define.