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November 14, 2011

Racing for Records

By: Jimmy Robertson

Using different styles, receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale have rewritten the Virginia Tech record book, but neither of them really gives that a lot of thought

On the surface, they are as different as black and white. Yet deeper investigation reveals two young men thoughtful in their conversations, unassuming in their nature and steadfastly committed to being better in the classroom, on the field and in life.

They come from completely different backgrounds and maintain unmistakable similarities. They possess all the pizzazz of an accountant and the voice of an elementary school librarian. Yet they have the undeniable passion of a Baptist minister.

They celebrate big plays with the obsolete move of a high five, the Commodore 64 of celebratory gestures in today’s iPad world. And in the ever-expanding universe of social media, neither of them are on Twitter, telling the world that they ate Fruit Loops for breakfast or complaining about being college students and – aghast! – having to go to class.

Jarrett Boykin

Tech fans, though, know that Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the two aforementioned young men, are similar in another very important aspect. They catch passes and gain yards for the Hokies. Lots of both. In fact, more than anyone else in the history of Virginia Tech.

Tech has produced great receivers such as Carroll Dale, Antonio Freeman, Ricky Scales, André Davis and Ernest Wilford over the years, and yet these two are the best. The statistics, the ultimate barometer, say so.

Yet Boykin and Coale have done more than just break records at Tech. They’ve broken stereotypes. The interesting thing is they don’t even realize it.

You notice Boykin’s hands as soon as you shake one of them. His widely publicized mitts simply swallow the average human being’s.

But it’s one thing to possess such gargantuan hands and quite another to be able to catch anything with them. In that respect, Boykin separates himself from most. His hands are big and soft. So soft that you could toss him eggs all day, and he’d never crack the shell of a single one.

Those hands were honed on the streets and parking lots of his neighborhood outside of Charlotte, N.C. He and one of his best friends often practiced one-handed catches, and in two-hand touch battles, asphalt style, everyone wanted them on their team.

“We were the kings,” Boykin said. “Everyone wanted us to play wide receiver. We had a knack for making incredible catches.”

He and another of his good friends occasionally took their practices from the hard top to the field. They would start at the 5-yard line, with the friend, the team’s quarterback, throwing passes to Boykin. They simulated game-like situations, and if Boykin dropped a pass, there would be punishment.

“If you dropped a ball, you had to go all the way back and start over,” Boykin said. “We’d be out there for an hour or so. He’d work on his throwing, and I’d work on my catching. I’d focus on catching the ball and getting better.”

Boykin wasn’t a particularly highly touted recruit coming out of Butler High School, though he caught 60 passes for 1,252 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior season. He visited Illinois because his high school quarterback committed there, but then decided to rule out the Illini because of the distance. His high school coach tried to sell Georgia on him, but the Bulldogs got a commitment from some dude named A.J. Green [now with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals]. South Carolina got around to offering, but the Gamecocks had a bunch of receivers committed, including one named Alshon Jeffery. Both of those guys became All-Americans.

Tech assistant Kevin Sherman saw Boykin while recruiting Boykin’s teammate, Eddie Whitley. He eventually offered, and Boykin, glancing at Tech’s vacant depth chart at the receiver spot because of the departures of Eddie Royal, Josh Morgan, Justin Harper and Josh Hyman, decided to commit.

“My cousin, DeAngelo Lloyd, played at Tennessee, and he said it doesn’t matter where you go,” Boykin said. “You just want to get on the field because four years goes by fast. I didn’t want to waste a step. I wanted to get going. I didn’t want to look back and regret a decision.”

Interestingly, Boykin knew about as much about Tech as he knew about nuclear physics. He had heard of Antonio Freeman, but, “I never knew he went to Virginia Tech.” Instead, his knowledge of the Hokies consisted of what he inferred from seeing a game on television.

Danny Coale

“I was watching a game between them and North Carolina, and I was like, ‘These are two basketball schools,’” Boykin said. “I never would have dreamed I’d be playing for the school I was watching that day.”

When your dad works for a college athletics department and you’re a kid, you find yourself getting to do some pretty cool stuff.

Danny Coale’s dad, Jimmy Coale, has been a strength and conditioning coach at VMI in Lexington, Va., for nearly three decades. As a kid, Danny often roamed the sidelines during football games, carrying the cords for the coaches’ headsets. During halftime, he and some other kids tossed a football around.

“We’d get little passes to be on the sidelines during football games,” Coale said. “VMI’s stadium isn’t huge, and it’s not like there’s a lot of security stopping you. But I always thought it was the coolest thing to do on Saturdays. I did that probably until I was 10, 11 or 12, something like that.”

VMI didn’t win many games in those days, but played some decent competition as a member of the Southern Conference. In fact, a pretty good Marshall squad came to town, and Coale witnessed one of the greatest players ever to play college football. Or pro, for that matter.

“I remember watching Randy Moss when he played at Marshall. They played at VMI,” Coale said. “I remember him returning a punt and running down the sideline. I was just amazed at how fast he was.

“I thought at that time that Southern Conference football was the big dog and the best of the best. Being that age, and it’s not a big stadium, it just felt like an NFL venue. I’d hang out with the players ever so often. It was cool.”

Coale played mostly soccer as a kid, but in the seventh grade, he picked up his love – football. Two years later, he followed his older brother, Kevin, to Episcopal, a boarding school in Northern Virginia. Kevin had left to enhance his football and lacrosse resumé, while also wanting to get a quality education.

Coale played on the varsity football team as a freshman, but not even Kevin’s presence could smooth the bumps he incurred that first year. He loved the experience, but he often longed for home and especially his parents, with whom he has a close relationship.

“I wasn’t used to being away from home that long,” Coale said. “My parents did a tremendous job. They were up for everything. It’s a three-hour trip from home, but they’d come up two or three times a week to watch us play a sport or if we were having a bad day. They were always there for us.”

Kevin eventually wound up at UVa, where he became a standout lacrosse player. Danny played lacrosse and football at Episcopal, but wanted to be a football player in college.

If only someone would take the chance.

Despite catching nearly half of his passes for touchdowns as a senior – 13 of his 27 catches – he sifted through the offers of middling FCS schools and contemplated going to an Ivy League school. He even thought about joining Kevin at UVa and attempting both lacrosse and football.

But Bud Foster invited him to come to a one-day camp at Tech the summer before his senior season. He told Coale that if he ran well and caught the ball well, then he and head coach Frank Beamer would extend an offer.

“I had heard that at four or five other schools before that,” Coale said. “I believe I had done fairly well at those schools, too, and left empty-handed.”

As he and his dad pulled onto Southgate Drive, he felt something different. He saw Lane Stadium in the background, and the morning fog blanketing it. The scene created a calming effect.

“There was something about that morning that I remember,” Coale said. “I told my dad, ‘This is really a unique place. This seems neat.’”

Coale eventually got his offer and committed to Tech. The kid who grew up as a UVa fan, largely because of his friends and his brother, decided to come to Blacksburg.

And like Boykin, he was committing to the unknown.

“I didn’t know much about it [Tech],” he said. “In talking with some of the guys [on the team], they didn’t know much about Tech either, but as soon as you get recruited and get to know the coaches and the place, it becomes a pretty solid option and the favorite for many.”

On Sept. 10, playing in front of numerous family members and friends at East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Boykin became the all-time receptions leader at Tech, snapping the previous mark held by Wilford. He did so in typical Boykin fashion, too, with a leaping snare of a 20-yard bullet from quarterback Logan Thomas.

Boykin celebrated the reception record by making a motion with his hand when he got off the ground after the catch. It was typical Boykin – just a glancing move and then he simply jogged back to the huddle.

A week later against Arkansas State, he reached the double, becoming the all-time leader in receiving yardage at Tech. He slipped past Scales, whose record had stood for 37 years.

In four years at Tech, he’s been a coach’s dream. Consistent as they come since he started as a true freshman, he’s never caught fewer than 30 passes in any season, and now, he continues his assault on another Tech record – career touchdown receptions. He needs six more to tie Freeman’s mark of 22 (heading into the Georgia Tech game).

“It [the records] never came to my mind,” Boykin said. “The first thing I wanted to do was learn the playbook and get on the field, and it took off from there. Then in my junior year, people started bringing it up. That’s one of the things I tried to keep out of my mind.”

That’s how Boykin differs from the stereotype of the prototypical receiver. Other than playing football, being a receiver and being an African-American, he possesses little in common with the Calvin Johnsons, Andre Johnsons, Chad Ochocincos and Terrell Owens of the world.

Boykin is big, but not particularly tall. He’s strong, but not overly fast. He celebrates touchdowns with a stodgy handing of the ball to an official. From a personality perspective, he talks quietly and does everything possible to avoid attention. He keeps his hair cropped close, has no tattoos and rarely wears gaudy jewelry.

Even in team meetings, he sinks in his chair to avoid detection. At a recent one, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring showed some good plays the offense had made in the previous game. Several of them involved Boykin, and he practically willed Stinespring to move on to the next group of plays.

“I don’t like the spotlight on me. I don’t like all the attention,” he admitted. “I don’t like the praise. My mindset is that it’s just something you’re supposed to do. I’d rather be acknowledged for the bad plays. That lets you know what you need to work on other than the good stuff because the good stuff is expected.”

But as the records fall, the attention comes. One simply can’t hide greatness.

“Jarrett is big time,” Beamer said. “He’s a guy that plays every down hard. He’ll block for you. He’s dependable. He deserves to be the all-time leading receiver at Virginia Tech. He puts the effort into it.”

Coale smiled when asked to describe himself as a receiver.

“A possession receiver,” he said, the smile getting wider.

He jokes, but he certainly gets lumped into that category. People compare him to New England Patriots’ Wes Welker for obvious reasons.

Yet, Coale actually possesses better speed than Boykin. He ran the 40-yard dash three times this past spring and ran all three at 4.43 or better. His numbers in the weight room resemble Boykin’s. He possesses enough athleticism to punt and to return punts, something maybe no one else in the history of Tech athletics has done.

“Danny’s just a dependable guy,” Beamer said. “He’s smart, dependable, heady … I’m glad he’s on our side.”

But why exactly is he the “possession” receiver and Boykin considered the “athletic” one?

“No, it doesn’t,” Coale said when asked if the label bothered him. “It might be unusual to other people, but to me, I don’t feel like I’m different. I feel like I’m another one of the guys, another one of the receivers. It doesn’t concern me. I’ve been given an opportunity, and I’ve tried to make the most of it. That’s what I’m most concerned with.”

Coale moved into second place in career receptions behind Boykin on Oct. 1 against Clemson. He then moved into second place in career receiving yards after catching a career-high eight passes for 118 yards in the Hokies’ 30-14 win over BC.

Like Boykin, Coale has been the proverbial model of consistency, catching at least two passes in 40 of 50 games since arriving at Tech (heading into the Georgia Tech game). Those aren’t shabby numbers for a “possession” receiver.

But also like Boykin, Coale never came to Tech to break records – or stereotypes.

“I realized that I wasn’t that type, a Calvin Johnson, many, many years ago,” Coale said. “I was going to be my own receiver. I try to play smart football as best as I can, and doing that helps my athletics strengths kick in, too. Trying to see coverages and knowing where I need to be and being able to do that full speed helps me out.

“A lot of people say ‘possession’ receiver, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. If you’re a possession receiver, that means you’re at least doing something right. I’d like to be more than that. I’d like to be a downfield threat. I feel I have the speed and the ability to do that.”

The future looks bright for these two young men, beaming in anticipation of what their skills can allow them to do. Both will spend the spring working out in preparation for the NFL Draft, but both also have prepared alternate plans. Coale graduated in the spring with a degree in finance, currently works toward a second degree in marketing and may get into coaching down the road, while Boykin plans on graduating in December – in three and a half years – with a degree in consumer studies and harbors plans of owning or running his own restaurant.

Of more immediate concern to them is the Hokies’ charge to another ACC title and the bowl game. In their eyes, adding to their record-setting totals only serves as the means to that end, hopefully a successful one.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’ve talked about it once,” Coale said of the records.

Knowing their departures are eminent leaves Tech fans with a bittersweet feeling. For the past four seasons, they have enjoyed the results of two young men who have spent their time working and improving, attacking their craft with a surgeon’s precision and the flash of a grocery sacker. Tech fans appreciate that blue-collar approach because it has become so emblematic of the Hokie way.

Boykin and Coale don’t want to talk about their records, and they won’t have to do so. Instead, Hokie Nation should.

In fact, they probably will. Perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but they’ll probably be talking about these two for quite some time.

(Maybe put this in a box, like we did with the Hopkins brothers feature)

Getting to know the Hokies’ record-setting receivers

Who is your favorite receiver?

JB: “Terrell Owens. I’ve always looked at him and the way he makes plays on the ball. I’ve always liked Jerry Rice, too, and when I moved to Charlotte, I fell in love with Steve Smith. He’s a small receiver making big plays that a 6-5 guy makes. That makes you think that a receiver can do anything as long as he has the heart and is capable enough to do it.”

DC: “Hines Ward. I love his approach to the game. I love his passion. He’s a lot different personality than me. He wears his heart on his sleeve. But I like how he sticks his nose in there and goes after guys. He’s a smart receiver and can block well. He’s more so than anyone else like who I want to be. He’s an overall solid receiver in all aspects, not just catching the ball.”

Your favorite catch?

JB: “Probably the one-handed one my freshman year against Miami. I tipped it to myself and caught it. I think they’ve still got it on YouTube, but maybe they flagged it.”

DC: “My first touchdown against Duke [his sophomore season]. I waited a long time for that one.”

It’s Friday night in the offseason, and you’re doing …

JB: “I guess get together with some friends and try to enjoy the town while it’s a little calm since a lot of people aren’t here. I don’t go out during the season much, unless it’s Saturday after the game.”

DC: “When my girlfriend was here, it would be hanging out with her. But she graduated last year. So I’d say hanging out with my roommates. That’s the safe thing to say.”

Your favorite hobby?

JB: “Fishing. I love fishing. I grew up fishing all the time with my dad.”

DC: “Well, I don’t play video games. I don’t have Facebook. I don’t have Twitter, so I don’t tweet. I live a boring life. In the offseason, I like playing golf. I like hitting the driving range. I like watching movies and going to the movies. I love trying new food.”

Your favorite class?

JB: “It used to be math when I was younger, and then I got to college. I like writing papers, so anything that deals with writing papers. I figure that’s easier.”

DC: “Intro to Finance with Dr. [Art] Keown [finance professor at Tech]. He was one of the reasons I got into finance.”

Future plans, if pro football doesn’t work out?

JB: “I’ve always wanted to open my own sports bar and grill. In Miami, I thought it would create a lot of revenue. In one of my business classes, I was thinking about some form of entertainment in Blacksburg. I thought if they had a Dave & Buster’s around here, then it would generate a lot of money. For a group project, we made a plan for our restaurant, and we came to find out that it was pretty expensive to get started.”

DC: “When I was in high school, I was in a Spanish class, and the teacher went around the room guessing what people would be when they grew up. She got to me, and she said, ‘You’re going to be a coach.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s lame. I’m more than football. There’s more to me.’ But as I look back and realize, it’s what I know best and it’s what I love, and as a coach, you’d have a chance to influence young people in the same way that I was influenced. So at some point, if I could get into coaching and maybe teach a finance class, that would be neat.”