Notre Dame WR Miles Boykin has sights set on transcendent senior season


Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

This is a story about dreams.

And nightmares.

And up-downs.

And mangled middle fingers on otherwise heroic hands.

It is, fundamentally, a peek inside the pages of Miles Boykin’s dream journal. Notre Dame’s senior wide receiver was required to keep the journal last spring for a marketing class called “Imagination, Creativity and Commerce.”

“This class was talking about how we almost need to be children in the way that we think about things,” Boykin said in his signature baritone, sitting inside an empty auditorium at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex one afternoon in early June.

“One of the things we’ve done is just observe kids in preschool and how their minds have no boundaries. Ours do. There’s certain things we just can’t comprehend, because we’re so used to doing things in a structured way.

“So in order for us to push past that, we have to learn how to be creative all over again. That’s what the class is about — learning how to be creative and applying creative situations to marketing issues.”

So, speaking of structure, Boykin’s life is built around it, filtered through it. He obsesses over it and stresses about it. As a student-athlete at Notre Dame, he’s told when to eat, when to sleep, when to study, even when to answer a mandatory daily survey reporting his health to the Irish staff.

And, in this case, when to wake, and when to lift.

“I was dreaming, and all of a sudden I looked at my phone and it was 7:40. And I was like, ‘Dang, lift starts at 7.’ I’m like 40 minutes late to my lift,” Boykin said, explaining the most memorable entry in his dream journal.

“I get to the lift, and (Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Matt) Balis is just looking at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Coach, I just overslept. I don’t know what happened. My alarm didn’t go off.’

“He tells me to start doing updowns, and all of a sudden I’m doing up-downs, and I wake up.”

Like an Irish football “Inception,” Boykin was involuntarily immersed in a dream about a dream.

“I wake up and I look at my phone … and I’m actually late to lift,” he said with a laugh. “I’m like five minutes late to lift. So I sprint all the way there and I get there and start doing up-downs again.”

These days, Boykin’s dreams seem more like spoilers.

“I had a lot of dreams (last spring),” he said with a comical sigh. “That was my worst dream. That was my nightmare.”

Receiver Miles Boykin (81) had trouble envisioning himself eventually ending up at Notre Dame throughout most of his career at Providence Catholic High. 

Boykin’s childhood dreams never included Notre Dame.

“I don’t like doing what everybody else does,” explained the 6-foot-4, 227-pound wide receiver. “I live 25 minutes from downtown Chicago, so everybody just loves the Bulls, loves the Bears, loves the Cubs, and I’m not about it at all.”

Of course, it isn’t difficult to discern the preferred college football program at New Lenox (Ill.) Providence Catholic High School.

Boykin’s classmates and teachers loved Notre Dame.

And, ever the contrarian, he loved hating what they loved.

That all changed, somehow, on Nov. 23, 2013, when Boykin took his first unofficial visit to South Bend for ND’s home finale against BYU. At kickoff, the temperature was 26 degrees, with 20 mph winds and merciless snow flurries — the coldest game inside Notre Dame Stadium in 22 years.

In other words, it wasn’t the ideal environment for a positive first impression.

“That was not a good memory!” shouted Miles’ mother, Felicia Boykin, who sounded as if she had just stopped shivering nearly five years later. “That was next-level cold, OK?! I had layered up for it. I was prepared … but I wasn’t prepared for it to be that cold.”

Boykin was also unprepared … but the weather had little to do with it.

“I got there, and it was still sold out,” he recalled of the 23-13 Irish victory. “I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘Oh, this is a cool vibe.’ It’s snowing. It’s a good football atmosphere.

“After the game we’re driving back, and my mom is like, ‘Miles, I know you don’t like this school,’ because I never liked it before. I was like, ‘Ma, it’s kind of nice. I think I might come back and give it another chance.’ ”

A chance, sure, but nobody ultimately expected Boykin to end up at Notre Dame. Not his coaches. Not his classmates. His mother, like everybody else, “just knew he would choose Michigan State.”

And Miles?

“I thought I was going to go to Michigan State,” he confirmed. “I didn’t change my mind until about a week out from my commitment.”

Ironically, he didn’t truly make up his mind until he visited MSU.

“He went to Michigan State and I actually stayed up there at Michigan State,” Felicia Boykin said. “The next day we met with the coaches and everything, and I thought it was a sure win. We got in the car on the way home, and he was like, ‘I’m going to Notre Dame, mama.’

“He just felt like Notre Dame was a better fit for him.”

So, no, Boykin — who now wears a golden shamrock etched with the ND monogram attached to a chain around his neck — never dreamed of Notre Dame.

Let alone that crazy catch.

Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (81) makes a one-handed catch on a touchdown reception to put Notre Dame ahead in the final moments of the Citrus Bowl against LSU, Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. 

Actually, let’s be completely accurate.

It’s catches, plural.

Because, believe it or not, the catch you can’t stop watching — the catch that still seems impossible, that looks like an expensive use of CGI, the magnetic right-handed snag down the sideline that delivered a Citrus Bowl win over LSU — was not the first of its kind.

The first was literally the first — Boykin’s first catch as a varsity football player, on his first play as a varsity football player. It was the first round of the 2011 Illinois state playoffs, and the skinny freshman whose first love was actually basketball was promoted to varsity for Providence Catholic’s meeting with perennial powerhouse Wheaton Warrenville South.

But, when the fourth quarter rolled around, the Celtics were losing, Boykin was freezing and time was rapidly running out.

“They only had one play for me,” Boykin said. “I’m like, ‘He’s not going to put me in.’ I’m freezing. My legs are cold. And all of a sudden, they said, ‘OK, we’re calling the play. Go in.’ I didn’t even have 30 seconds to run out there. I just sprinted out there, got in the huddle and they called the play.”

Unfortunately, Boykin’s legs had yet to fully thaw. He stumbled out of his break, gathered himself, sprinted down the seam and …

LSU’s defensive backs can guess the rest.

“They threw the ball up, and really it was almost like the same exact play as the Citrus Bowl, except I dove for it instead of staying on my feet,” Boykin said.

“He didn’t score but he was tackled on about the 1-yard-line,” added Providence Catholic head coach Mark Coglianese. “Right there was his first play as a varsity player and his first catch. So he just never ceases to amaze me. He’s got this talent where he can make the incredible play.”

The talent, yes.

But the tools? That’s where this gets tricky. During his senior season at Providence Catholic, Boykin dislocated the pinky finger on his left hand.

“He played the rest of the series with it and then he came back to the sideline and he was like, ‘Justin, my finger’s out of place.’ It was like a Z,” said Justin Hunniford, Boykin’s quarterback at Providence Catholic.

Boykin played with a pin in his finger throughout the playoffs, ultimately capping his senior season with a state title in 2014. After redshirting his freshman season at Notre Dame, he broke the middle finger on his right hand during spring practice in 2016. That required surgery and three screws, all of which was ruined when he broke the same finger again during the final week of fall camp.

The sophomore played all 12 games in 2016 with two fingers taped together and a pair of pads layered underneath his glove, catching six passes for 81 yards and a single score.

“It’s kind of funny, because I had to re-learn how to catch the ball three separate times,” Boykin said. “Being a receiver, all I do is use my hands. It affected everything from getting off press, breaking down in my routes, catching the ball, looking it in.

“I had to re-learn how to do all of that stuff again with a broken finger. I was trying to do what I could to minimize that pain and get through it at the same time.”

These days, the pain is gone — as is any hope for a second career as a hand model. Boykin’s middle finger looks like it could have been painted by Picasso — a skinny tree branch with swollen knuckles poking out at unnatural angles.

His career, like his finger, has not been a straight line.

And that, really, is what makes his most memorable moment somehow more remarkable. Even before “The Catch,” Boykin’s right hand had quite a history.

But it took more than five fingers to make what Coglianese calls “the incredible play.”

“My concentration and my focus is on another level when something like that happens, because of everything that’s on the line in the game,” Boykin said of his 55-yard go-ahead touchdown in ND’s 21-17 win over LSU. “In the Citrus Bowl, we’re making that two-minute drive to win the game. Not to tie it. To win the game.

“So in order for me to be able to do that, I was ecstatic after — not because I had made a play, just because I had done something to help my teammates win. I was able to look Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, guys like that in their eye and tell them, ‘I did this for you.’ ”

Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (81) accepts the MVP trophy following Notre Dame's 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on  Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

Seven months later, Miles Boykin is still dreaming.

“I’m just blessed, honestly. I can’t come up with any words,” the senior wide receiver said of the recognition that accompanied his Citrus Bowl highlight. “But I’ve said this plenty of times before. I just don’t want to be known for that. I want to be known for being a great receiver, not just making one catch. It’s something I was happy I could do, but I’ve moved on from it.”

As his senior season approaches, Boykin has moved on to new dreams, with a new team — and a new title. Without departed standouts Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson, Boykin is Notre Dame’s undisputed No. 1 wide receiver.

But is a senior with just 18 catches and three touchdowns in the last three seasons ready to shoulder the load for a program seemingly primed for a playoff push?

“Definitely. I feel like I’m ready for it,” Boykin said, his grin surrounded on all sides by a black mustache and goatee. “Last year was just a little taste of what I can do.”

“The bar is a little bit higher,” acknowledged Notre Dame wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander in a video produced by ND this offseason. “I think that Miles obviously has the potential to be a 1,000-yard receiver. I think he has a chance to be dominant in 1-on-1 situations, and I think that with the experience that he’s had, he’s going to find opportunities to make plays.”

Even away from campus, Boykin is working to make the most of those opportunities. When he wasn’t interning with a law firm in Chicago this summer, the 6-4 senior with two years of remaining eligibility spent much of his vacation messaging with Alexander, exchanging tapes of Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice.

“Anybody can play receiver. Your technique just has to be sound,” said Boykin, who finished with 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns in 2017. “I think that’s one of the things that a lot of us lose sight of, because we are fast. We are strong. We are physical, and we lose the element of technique sometimes. I think that’s what coach Alexander brings to this program.”

As for Boykin, he brings a flair for the dramatic, a 40-inch vertical leap and two rugged, resilient hands.

He’s also trying to bring consistent leadership to a position featuring just two scholarship seniors.

“I’m trying to set a perfect example,” Boykin said. “I work hard every day, on and off the field. I’m graduating in three and a half years. I have no off-the-field issues — things like that.

“I’m trying to show the kids what it’s about, because it is hard. We’re major college football players. The temptation (to stray) is out there, but the end game is not those temptations. Things will be far greater after this place if you do the things you’re supposed to do before you leave here.”

Boykin’s dream is to leave this winter with a marketing degree and a national championship.

And, if it’s anything like those up-downs, Boykin’s dreams could soon come true. ❚

Can Miles Boykin become Notre Dame's No. 1 wide receiver as a senior? He caught only 18 passes and three touchdowns in his first three seasons with the Irish.

The following story appears in the 2018 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.

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