Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Boykopalooza

Future NFL players spend their drafts differently. 

Some spend it in celebration with friends in the city, or surrounded by family at home.  Some of the big names have the cameras embedded with the players, awaiting with baited breath their reactions, or their expressions of relief.

But LB Billy Boyko didn't do much different than he does many weekends.

"Boyko, the all-league linebacker from Northampton, spent Saturday working on cars at Maple Grove Raceway," the Morning Call reported, "where his family is immersed in the drag racing scene."

Working on his father’s dragster during "the season opener of the Sunoco Race Fuels Money Trail," a release from the Maple Grove Raceway said, he "kept two cell phones in his pockets at all times," awaiting the call from his agent about a possible late round draft pick or a late free agency pickup.

Saturday night, the phone rang with a call from the Raiders.

The term "Boykopalooza", coined by teammates OL Lex Utt and RB Zach Barket, is funny because the idea of a celebration of all things Billy seems so opposite of how he was on the field for the Brown and White.

Boyko was not the type of athlete at Lehigh that would do a lot of chest-thumping, nor was he the athlete that would seek out the media and toot his own horn, a printout of his latest tackle numbers in hand. 

He was the type of player that would be quiet, an intense studier of game film, a kid whose intensity was noticed by everyone around him.

He was also his own worst critic, and would show up on gamedays with his amazing intensity as a keystone player in Lehigh's 3-4 defense.

"Billy goes 100 percent all the time," teammate FS Billy O'Brien said to the Morning Call last season. "I don't know how anyone can go through games and have 13 tackles like he does and then you see him on Sunday and ask him how he feels and he says 'good.' I can't comprehend that. I make six tackles and I can't walk the next day."

His intensity was evident on the biggest stages for the Mountain Hawks over the past two years.

Coming to Lehigh after playing defensive end at Northampton high school, Billy was initially projected as such, or perhaps an outside linebacker, when he first came to Bethlehem for school.

After standing out on special teams tackles, the coaching staff, led by Dave Kotulski, now the coaching staff at Stanford, switched him first to outside linebacker, and then inside, to take advantage of this special player.

He had 44 tackles his junior season, despite battling through a litany of injuries that severely affected his production, especially late in the season.

That's not to say that he had no highlights.  After sitting out two straight games with a concussion, Boyko came back and made a giant fumble recovery late in the game against 63 scholarship Liberty, helping to secure a 27-24 victory.

“It’s great to be back,” he said after the game. “It was hard sitting out two weeks. You have to re-acclimate yourself to everything going on. I happened to be in the right place at the right time [to get the fumble].”

It was a memorable press conference to me, where he rated his own performance as "OK" despite the fact that it was his fumble recovery, and the defense's play, that secured the game in the end.

A year later in Lynchburg, it was Boyko again that played a huge role in another victory over Liberty.

Down 20-14 to the Flames, a quick quarterback draw by QB Mike Colvin put Lehigh up by 1 with about 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter.  On the ensuing drive, it was Boyko's 39 yard interception return for a touchdown that ended up being the deciding score in a 28-26 win.

"Once I got to the 5, there was no way I was not going to get into the end zone," Boyko said, who had a 14 tackle, 1 sack day to go with his game-winning interception return.  "It was a dogfight, but we fought through it as a team."

It was the only touchdown Billy would score in his Lehigh career - in a way which was fitting his quiet, intense style of play inside. 

Billy really became a dominating player, especially by the end of the 2012 season, notching 104 tackles, including an eye-popping 17 solo stops in the epic 36-35 win against Holy Cross.

“I just try to do the best I can even when I’m tired,” he told Mike LoRe of the Express-Times. “If I stop working I’ll be even more tired. Even when I’m broken down on Sundays, I just try to run as fast as I can and get all the soreness out so I can start the next week."

Coach Andy Coen consistently noted Billy's talents all season for those willing to listen.

"Billy was the best defensive player in our league," Coen said following the Lehigh pro day. "He may not have had as many tackles as some other people, but as physical as he was, as reckless as he was and what he did for our defense ... he was MVP of our football team this year because of what he did."

"Billy had a lot of injuries last year, and this year, this was his spot and he settled in," Coen also said. "I don't know how many people take notice of how well he runs and takes on a block and runs to the ball and makes the tackle. He's a great player. He's passionate about the game. He's passionate about everything he does. No one works harder. Heck, he starts practice by running sprints."

Since the season ended, he - unsurprisingly - worked with his usual intensity with Lehigh strength and training members Eric Markovcy and Ed Ruisz to get himself in shape.

"Those guys got me ready along with Speed Advantage Training," Boyko said on Sunday. "I definitely have the confidence that I have the tools to make a pro team. Obviously, I have a lot of work ahead of me. But I am excited to get there and prove myself. It's a new level of play, going from the Patriot League to the pros. There's a lot of doubts, but I just want to prove myself the way I know I can and do the right things."

And it's not like he's ever been any less intense off the field, either.

He's a part of a car racing family.  His sister, Heather Boyko, won a junior NHRA Drag Racing championship.  His freshman year in 2009, he won a race up in Maple Grove in the Super Eliminator division.

"It's a very competitive, very challenging sport and I love it," he told the Morning Call at the time. "They are like two different worlds, though. When I'm out there at Maple Grove, I'm all about the drag racing. When I'm here, it's all about football. I don't think about one when I am participating in the other, but they do kind of work well together."

He had nothing but good things to say about his sister.

"I was so happy for her," he said. "We're very close as a family. She looks up to me and I look up to her. My father [Bill, Sr.] got us started in the sport and to see her win that title was a great thrill for everybody. She was competing against 120 to 150 cars [including boys] in her class from around the country in her category. That was her first-ever win.

"Is she better than me? I guess so. I've won races, but never one like that. She works very hard at it, and prepared hard for that championship. She's a great team player."

Fittingly, he was at Maple Grove helping work on his family's cars when he finally got the call late Saturday night that he was to be signed by the Raiders.

"The 6-2, 239-pound Boyko impressed several teams, including the Raiders, at Lehigh's Pro Day in March," Keith Groller of Groller's Corner reported.  "He said the team's linebackers coach was in touch during the draft."

He even had to use the fax machine at Maple Grove raceway to dot the i's and cross the t's on the deal.

“I’m ready. I’m excited, and I’m ready to go and get this show on the road,” Boyko told Mike LoRe. “I can’t wait to get out there to Oakland and prove myself. I want to thank everyone around me who gave me so much support, especially my family, my friends and God.  I feel so relieved to know where I’m going and now I can start my career.”

From his Lehigh family to his racing family to his Northampton family, his fans have made themselves known in force in the past few days.

“Playing pro football was something that was always in the back of my mind,” Boyko said in his Maple Grove Raceway release. “My goal was to get an engineering degree. I’m thankful that Lehigh gave me an opportunity. We had a goal and I wouldn’t have been accepted to Lehigh if it wasn’t for football.”

Almost as exciting as Billy's shot with the Raiders is the fact that he appears to be entering a favorable situation for himself making Oakland's roster.


"Boyko projects as an inside linebacker at the NFL level," the fan blog Silver and Black Pride opines.  "It is a position at which the Raiders don't have much depth with just the injury prone LB Travis Goethel behind starter LB Nick Roach on the depth chart. This makes Oakland a wise destination for the NFL hopeful. He will have a much better chance of making the Raiders than on most teams."

If he and WR Ryan Spadola stick on their teams through training camp, the potential is there to have three Lehigh players in the NFL at the same time.  OL Will Rackley, NFL draftee, starts his third season for the Jacksonville Jaguars next season.

"I fit in well with either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense," he told me, noting he's spent time in high school and college playing defensive end and outside linebacker as well.  "I would fit in at ILB, but everything may change depending on how they move guys around."



You get the feeling that with his intensity and his skills, the Boykopalooza might very well extend to Sundays in the fall.

“I’m playing this game like it’s the last game I’m ever going to play and this is the only one that’s guaranteed,” Boyko said before his final college football game against arch-rival Lafayette this November. “It’s how I’m going to play every play and that’s how most of these seniors are going to play, too. We’re going to enjoy it because we have no idea what’s going to happen in the future.”

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