Miles and miles ahead

This story was originally published by CSN Chicago.

Miles Boykin had been dreading this moment.

Two weeks after celebrating his 15th birthday, the lanky wide receiver was thrust into the Providence high school football spotlight. Though not uncommon for a prestigious program to promote its top freshmen to varsity for the postseason, there was nothing ordinary about the 6-foot-4 athlete widely considered the future of a school with nine state titles. Only injuries had kept the Tinley Park, Ill., native from being called up full-time to varsity in the regular season, and head coach Mark Coglianese made it clear to Miles he wasn’t simply there to run prep team routes. Rather, offensive coordinator Bill Green planned on implementing Miles, a few months removed from his eighth grade graduation, if the situation necessitated it against a Wheaton Warrenville South team led by Northwestern-bound Dan Vitale.

For three quarters Miles nervously paced the Providence sideline with freshman quarterback Justin Hunniford, fearing a poorly-run route or dropped pass could mean the difference between victory and the end of the season for a senior group he had called teammates for less than a week.

Late in the fourth quarter, however, with the Celtics trailing by two scores but threatening deep in Tigers territory, Miles heard his coach call for him.

As Miles left the sideline and headed toward the huddle, he knew his time had arrived.

Slot Right, Cup Cowboy, Y-Go.

Boykin locked eyes for a brief moment with All-American senior tackle Ryan Ward, giving the apprehensive freshman a sense of comfort as quarterback Chris Salazar repeated the play call Miles had practiced all week yet hoped not to hear.

“OK,” he thought to himself, suddenly feeling a surge of confidence. “Let’s do this.”

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Lined up to the right at tight end, he stumbled out of his route but managed to get a step down the seam on trailing safety Mike Shelton. Salazar saw him and lofted a pass that appeared too far in front of the sprinting freshman. As the pass floated toward the 5-yard line, Miles lunged forward and corralled the ball with one hand, tumbling to the ground at the 1-yard line. Providence scored on the next play to pull within a score.

Although the Celtics came up short in that game – Wheaton Warrenville South finished as the runner-up in 7A – that play alone was enough for Coglianese, who first heard about Miles when the freshman was in fifth grade, to recognize that the Celtics’ future was in good hands.

“Right there we knew,” Coglianese recalls, “he was definitely going to be a special player.”

* * *

Mark Coglianese was in utter disbelief.

A former collegiate defensive back, he expected his secondary to be an integral part of the Celtics’ 2012 season. With four eventual college-bound athletes, including Iowa’s Kevin Ward, in the defensive backfield, opposing offenses weren’t expected to have much success through the air against Providence. But with each passing practice a certain sophomore wide receiver was leaving those talented defensive backs in his wake. Miles had flashed his potential as a freshman in that playoff game, but this was different.

“Every time he’d run a deep route he would just run by our defensive backs,” Coglianese says laughing. “I’m thinking, ‘Are we being nice to him? Are we that slow on defense?’ Because he constantly made us look bad, and I couldn’t understand it. Our defense was pretty good. He made us look bad.”

As it turns out, those practice repetitions were more about Miles’ talents and less about the secondary. Bumps and bruises kept him from being a large contributor on the varsity team, but Miles still managed 250 yards and four touchdowns in a run-heavy offense built around running back-turned-quarterback Dominic Lagone. The Providence coaching staff had toyed with the idea that year of playing Miles at quarterback, with the idea of the team’s best playmaker having the ball in his hands every year making too much sense. Ultimately they opted against that, leaving Miles at wide receiver to assist in his long-term objective. The move paid off handsomely for both Miles and the Celtics, who went 7-2 in the regular season and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 7A state playoffs.

Staying at wide receiver also allowed Miles to transform that potential into stardom as a junior. He began attending college camps, joined Core 6 Athletes training and became a regular in the weight room with his personal strength and conditioning coach Steve Purvin, who admitted Miles resembled a “Saint Bernard puppy” when he arrived for the first day of workouts.

“He’s got these big old hands, he’s got these big old feet, he’s got this big old lanky frame,” Purvin recollects. “If this guy has any athletic ability whatsoever, wow, do we have a pretty good player.”

Miles turned a corner as a junior, finishing the Celtics’ 7-5 season with 51 receptions for 730 yards and 14 touchdowns. But when the Celtics bowed out of the 2013 playoffs, a 27-26 loss in the final minute to East St. Louis, he realized something.

Having been a part of the varsity football and basketball teams for three seasons already, he had seen three different senior classes fall short of their ultimate goal of winning a state championship in both sports. He had watched tears fall, seen garbage bags filled as seniors cleaned out their lockers, and looked on as his devastated teammates embraced for the last time, having come up empty in their quest for greatness.

“He went through it for three years straight,” says his brother George III. “That was his inspiration to not have it happen to him.”

The next season a daunting schedule that eventually touted seven playoff-bound teams tempered expectations, even for a 2014 Celtics team returning two Division I receivers in Miles and Iowa-bound Nate Vejvoda, a talented sophomore running back in Richie Warfield and Hunniford returning as the team’s starting quarterback.

But Boykin and the Celtics quickly saw the fruits of their offseason labor yield positive results, including wins over three of the state’s most tradition-rich football programs: 21-10 over Joliet Catholic on Opening Night. 33-14 over Mount Carmel in Week 3. 41-27 over St. Rita two weeks later.

A Week 6 hiccup at Loyola, where a last-second field goal resulted in a three-point loss, acted as a reality check. But Miles and the Celtics responded with three straight wins to finish the regular season at 8-1, earning the program’s first conference championship in the CCL Blue, one of the nation’s toughest football conferences.

A dream regular season didn’t come without its cost, though. In the conference championship game against Brother Rice in Week 9, Miles suffered a fracture and multiple torn muscles in his left elbow. After sitting out two games, including a Round 1 win over Quincy, he returned against St. Rita – he borrowed a friend’s hockey elbow pad for extra protection – and dislocated his left pinky finger while completing a reception. It resulted in a partially chipped bone and torn ligaments, forcing doctors to insert a pin that kept him out of the Celtics’ quarterfinals win over Wheaton Warrenville South.

Around the clock treatment from his mother, as well as more equipment adjustments – Miles manipulated his “lucky glove” to allow the pin, which stuck out of his finger, room to maneuver – permitted him to get back on the field for a rematch with Mount Carmel in the semifinals. It was then that the legend grew again. Miles, with his left elbow padded up and his left hand wrapped up, caught seven passes for 121 yards and a score and threw a touchdown, leading Providence back to the state championship game, 48 minutes from his lifelong goal.

“At that point,” Miles remembers of his injuries,” it was championship or bust.”

It’s not cocky, but rather a true strategical assessment, that Miles admits taking it as “disrespect at this point” when he’s not double-teamed. Undefeated Cary-Grove, Providence’s opponent in the 8A state title game, agreed with the evaluation. Shadowing Miles with their top cornerback and safety, who at times lined up on the numbers, the Trojans limited Providence’s All-American wideout to a pair of receptions for 8 yards in the opening half. It paid off, too, as they led 14-10 with two quarters remaining in the season.

But 17 years of preparation, an elbow brace, a Styrofoam-wrapped pinky finger and a school’s hopes and dreams weren’t going to waste because of an opponent’s defensive strategy.

Late in the third quarter, Boykin showed why it wouldn’t be enough, either.

For the first time all night, he signaled to Hunniford for a sluggo route, dipping inside cornerback Zach McQuade before turning upfield toward the sideline. A perfectly thrown ball from Hunniford resulted in a 38-yard reception to break the game open. Providence scored later in the drive, with Warfield adding two of his four scores after halftime to lead the Celtics to a 31-28 victory, the Celtics’ 10th state title. The “Quest For X,” the team’s mantra at the start of the year, was complete.

In previous years Miles would watch each state championship game. Except one. Whichever class the Celtics had been placed in and eventually eliminated from, he turned off the television when that game aired, knowing he and the Celtics were talented enough to beat the eventual champion. He had always imagined what it would be like, to stand on a podium hoisting a state championship trophy for his teammates, family, coaches and school.

“You just dream about it, and words can’t describe what it actually feels like,” he reminisces. “I just remember being happy in that moment, and all the hard work that it took to get to that moment is what made me happy. Not actually winning it, but all the hard work that it took to get to that moment.

“We did it for ourselves of course, but doing it for the program and everyone around the program, that was huge.”

* * *

Before Miles Boykin was rewriting the Providence football record book, winning a state title and filling moving boxes with recruiting letters, he was simply George’s little brother.

Growing up two years apart with an equally strong enthusiasm for sports, the pair quickly became both each other’s favorite teammate and fiercest rival. Soon after their grandparents introduced them to the movie “Space Jam” and bought them a Little Tykes hoop, the duo was off and running. Basketball became a passion, with their mother, Felicia, acting as the PA announcer – complete with flickering lights, introductions and play-by-play – for 4-year-old George and 2-year-old Miles. They eventually outgrew the plastic basketball hoop and graduated to the driveway, with the elder George tallying an undefeated record against the younger, though certainly not smaller, Miles.

And when they had finally lowered the rim to dunk on one too many times – “George breaks everything,” Miles said, laughing, with George later confirming – they moved to the local community center for drills with their father, George Jr., and park district teams that produced the first of what would become countless trophies sprinkled throughout the house.

Miles wanted nothing more than to be like his older brother, and George was happy to oblige. Not only because the pair became best friends through their common bond with sports but also because Miles was keeping up. George went as far as lobbying his eighth-grade basketball coach to allow Miles, then a sixth grader, to play on their team. Coach said no, yet a year later Miles moved up, and in eighth grade dunked for the first time.

“George was always taught to go and set the example,” their father says. “Miles would blaze the example.”

Nowhere was that made clearer than when it came time to pick a high school. Miles was set on attending Marist “all the way,” with Brother Rice also piquing his interest as multiple schools in the area courted the young rising star, mostly for basketball. But the recruiting pitches were over as soon as Felicia gave her input. She made it clear that as long as George was around, Miles would be following in his footsteps. That wouldn’t change. Once George graduated in two years, she said, Miles was free to choose whichever school he preferred. George had been the guiding light for Miles growing up, and he too was confident Providence was the right decision for his younger brother.

It became an important decision for George, too. Early in his junior year he suffered a concussion that ended his season abruptly. He played out the basketball season that winter before a doctor ruled that lingering effects from the injury would keep him out of all contact sports, including football and a promising soccer career.

He remained a focal part of the football team as a senior, providing leadership and acting as a de-facto coach for the tight ends. He felt close with the team, especially with his little brother having moved up full-time to varsity. But nothing could fill the void of strapping on the pads and donning his forest green Providence jersey one last time, so he did the next best thing.

He willed his No. 81 jersey to Miles.

By that time Miles, a sophomore, had grown to love Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, also No. 81 – the stark similarities in their builds and style at wide receiver helped – but understood that jersey preference was reserved for the seniors. But with George sidelined, he made the decision to have his younger brother, who had worn No. 81 as a freshman, carry on the legacy he had started by wearing his number. Miles proudly accepted.

For years it had been George carrying Miles. Now it was time for Miles to carry George.

“It was all for him. Every time I step on the field I’m always thinking of him, because he’s thinking of me,” an emotional Miles admits. “He’s always wanted me to win, always wanted me to succeed, never been jealous of me. He’s been the greatest thing that’s happened to me.”

Miles’ biggest fan hasn’t relinquished his title. Not by a long shot. George attended Quincy University during Miles’ junior year and hosted his younger brother when the Celtics drew a road contest against Quincy High School in the second round of the state playoffs. Miles caught a touchdown and threw another in the 55-27 victory and, as George remembers, “the whole town praised his name the next week.”

George transferred to local Lewis University as a sophomore to focus on becoming a pilot, and it also put him 20 minutes away from Providence. He attended all 14 of the Celtics’ games, with his brother honoring him every step of the way wearing No. 81. It’s the same number Miles will wear at Notre Dame.

Many will think of Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer Tim Brown when they see No. 81 run through the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturdays. But as Miles jogs on to the field, living out his dream, he’ll think of George.

“It makes me really feel like I did my work. Even though I may not have thought I was the best brother, it makes me feel like I was,” George reflects. “It’s not hard growing up when you have a little brother that’s always there with you.”

* * *

No one close to Miles Boykin thought he would pick Notre Dame.

His mother was convinced Michigan State had wrapped up the commitment late in the process. His head coach thought Missouri had the right recruiting class to earn Miles’ commitment, while Illinois was also picking up steam on his list. His older brother thought Michigan could have been the choice, while Florida also figured to be a destination. Most Providence assistants thought Miles would look somewhere in the Big Ten.

“I was shocked when he said Notre Dame,” his father remembers, speaking for just about everyone closest to the highly sought-after recruit.

Miles’ decision to attend Notre Dame should have come as a surprise for one reason. He hated the Irish growing up. The majority of students at Providence Catholic were fans of the Irish, and Miles couldn’t stand it. So when Brian Kelly and the coaching staff began sending him letters, he brushed them off. He tossed them in one of three giant moving boxes that included letters from just about every major program, and went on with his recruitment. When then-offensive coordinator Chuck Martin first showed up at Providence, Miles wasn’t there because junior appreciation day allowed him to leave school early, which he did.

Notre Dame finally broke through when current offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock became Miles’ lead recruiter, convincing the talented junior to attend a game in South Bend.

“If you don’t like it, fine,” Miles remembers Denbrock telling him. “But at least we tried.”

Accompanied by his mother and quarterback (and Notre Dame die-hard) Hunniford, Miles got his first real taste of Irish football. The Golden Dome. 81,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium. Touchdown Jesus. The majestic 1,250-acre campus. Despite a snowstorm and frigid temperatures in the 20s, Miles quietly soaked it all in and watched the Irish defeat BYU with a brand new perspective.

“I loved it,” he recalls of his first visit.

Later that winter Miles attended a Notre Dame-North Carolina basketball game, stayed with wide receiver Chris Brown and got his first real look at the practice and training facilities; it was an important part of Miles’ recruitment – “I wanted to see the equipment all the time” – and cemented the Irish as one of his three finalists. It was about that time that the recruiting process forced Miles to grow up, a maturation process that helped him weed out other schools.

“Not every person is going to be 100 percent truthful to you, and you’re naive to think that if anybody does,” he says. “Around my junior year I started learning what was real and what’s not real. And at that point, that’s when you know you need to start cutting colleges down.”

After receiving 25 official offers he narrowed his list down to 10 schools. Of those 10, he visited Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Ole Miss and Wisconsin, while Oregon and Virginia Tech remained in the mix.

And each school had its pros. Michigan State had been the first school to contact Miles. Wisconsin had sent him his first real recruiting letter, a piece of mail he still remembers receiving. Illinois had been his first scholarship offer. Florida had impressed his mother most on their visit. His brother had been persistent on keeping Michigan alive as an option. Missouri had locked up one of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 class, Drew Lock. Joining Ole Miss and the incomparable SEC West seemed like a winning proposition for his NFL aspirations. The Oregon Ducks wowed him most when they visited Providence, and for a kid who loved equipment, well, the Ducks had that box checked.

Everyone close to Miles knew what those programs had to offer. But for Miles, each lacked the same thing: None were Notre Dame.

So in March 2014, when Kelly extended an official offer to Miles, it meant something more.

“That was the offer I was most excited about,” Miles says. “My mom cried in the car she was so happy for me, saying, ‘I know this is what you wanted.’ And at that point I knew it was going to come down to two schools: Notre Dame and Michigan State.”

He visited Notre Dame again in late March and once more in June, but what sold him most on the Irish was the trip to East Lansing he took two weeks later. The Spartans were his clear second choice, but he needed to place himself in a college setting that wasn’t Notre Dame to realize how much he appreciated the Irish and everything the university could offer him.

“The only real reason I took that (last) Michigan State visit was so I knew Notre Dame was the right place for me,” he admits. “And that’s what happened.”

It finally hit him as he and his mother drove home from Michigan State that early summer morning. He recalls with a smile his relationship with the players (“they’re just like me”), Denbrock’s enthusiasm (“he’s really what did it for me”) and Kelly’s embrace (“he accepted me, and that was the best part about it”) making South Bend the only place for him.

“I said, ‘Notre Dame? Miles, you didn’t like Notre Dame,'” Felicia remembers. “When we came back from the Michigan State he said, ‘I’m going to commit to Notre Dame.’ Do you want to take some time to think about that? And he said, ‘No, that’s what I want to do.'”

A shocking decision, his mother and father agree, but one that made too much sense for Miles.

* * *

One day after the 2014 8A playoff bracket was released, Miles Boykin received a peculiar Twitter mention.

A player from Quincy, the Celtics’ first-round opponent, wrote that he wanted an autograph from Boykin when the two teams squared off in six days.

It was yet another reminder that Boykin isn’t a typical 18-year-old kid. That much is true because of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. His 38 1/2-inch vertical and his status as one of the country’s best high school wide receivers separates him, too. After Miles recorded a Providence-record five touchdowns in a Week 2 win over Minooka, Indians head coach Paul Forsythe sought him out after the handshake line and told him how special a player he was. The ever-humble receiver politely said thank you before Forsythe cut him off and repeated, “No, I really mean it.”

Football has become not just a passion for the Notre Dame freshman, but his life. His mother knows the correct way to receive a handoff, thanks in large part due to Miles carrying a football around the house 24/7. When his friends were hanging out on the weekend, Miles was attending Core 6 showcases, putting his talents on display for a national audience. When his classmates were attending parties, Miles was in the weight room working with Purvin on strength and conditioning routines Notre Dame had sent him to complete.

“When you’re an athlete and you have dreams such as mine you know that,” he says. “You know the sacrifices you have to make not being a normal kid. But that’s part of it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I know what I want to do and I know what my goals are. It just forces you to mature a lot quicker. I’m grateful for that.”

But at its core Miles is just a kid. He and fellow wide receiver Connor Creed ate hot dogs religiously before every game. He loves LeBron James, listens to Drake and plays Call of Duty. He retweets viral Vines on Twitter to his 4,000 followers, he still gets yelled at by his mom when he leaves the screen door open and ribs his father and brother, both lifelong Michigan football fans, about the 24-karat gold helmet he’ll be wearing on Saturdays.

But he has also grown up. And his parents have seen it firsthand. On recruiting trips, Felicia took a backseat during interviews and tours, allowing Miles to ask relevant questions and discern what was genuine interest from coaches and what was simply recruiting talk. She saw a maturing Miles in their car trips to college campuses, learning everything about her son what others had told her for years. Over the summer it was Miles coming to her with his weekly schedule, letting her know the dates he’d be working out and what books he needed to read for his upcoming classes in South Bend. His father marvels at Miles’ ability to listen, to be a “technician” with his game and still appreciate that he’s doing what he’s loved since first seeing Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan on the big screen.

He does it,” Felicia says. “He’s responsible to know what he has to do to get to the next level.”

Ask him about Providence’s journey to their 10th state championship. You’ll never hear the word “I” or “me.” As he tearfully embraced his father in the aftermath of the victory over Cary-Grove he told him, “I can’t believe we done it.” Donning the No. 81 with a championship medal around his neck, like his brother had so desperately wanted to do before the concussion, Miles clutched George and told him, “We finally did it.”

“I don’t even want my name to be singled out,” he says. “I just want them to remember us a team.”

He won’t get his wish. Long after Miles completes his business degree from Notre Dame and perhaps plays on Sundays, Providence will remember it all. They’ll remember moving his fifth-grade football “B” team to the “A” team playoffs because he was so dominant. They’ll remember the team player who re-joined the varsity basketball team as a senior after doctors took the pin out of his finger, leading the Celtics to an unlikely conference championship. They’ll remember the All-American wide receiver earning the Chicago Tribune Preps Player of the Year award that put him in the same sentence as past winners Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor. They’ll remember the friendly face eager to share a smile and a hello with students he passed in the Providence Catholic hallways.

And he’ll remember them, too, long after his final walk past the trophy case he helped fill.

His journey is far from finished, and as his story shifts to South Bend he’s relishing the opportunity to add to his legacy. One more memory for those most important to remember him by.

“Those are the types of people they want to recruit, just winners,” he says. “I can definitely help add to the winning tradition (at Notre Dame), adding another championship.”

It’s a moment he’s no longer dreading.

Video produced by Scott Changnon.

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