By Matt Walks
When John Boyett speaks to you, he looks you right in the eyes.
He stands upright, in total control of his 5'10" 202-pound frame. The Ducks junior free safety speaks quietly, politely and in concise bursts of calculated athlete-speak.
"I just want to go out there and help my team win," Boyett says for the millionth time. And you believe him. Partly because of the unblinking eyes, but mostly because it's what he's been doing his entire life.
The Early Years
Winning has followed John Boyett his entire football career, since he was nine years old, tallying championships with the Napa Saints Youth Football program. Early on, coaches knew he was special.
"When he was a freshman at Napa High School, their team had gone undefeated — never punted the entire season," recounts Troy Mott, who coached Boyett at Napa. "It came down to the end of the game, and we had a 4th and 8 from our own 30-yard line. Boyett looks at the clock and then over at the offensive coordinator and yells, 'Hey, coach, let's go for it! No guts, no glory!' And I just felt that coming from a 13-year-old kid, I knew how good he was going to be. He's not afraid of anything."
By the time he graduated high school, Boyett had compiled a glittering resume, the crown jewel of which was the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section championship game against St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) during Boyett's senior season. Napa won a 38-36 thriller, and Boyett tallied 291 total yards and four touchdowns while playing every snap of the game — offense, defense and special teams.
Such talent coupled with his work ethic made Boyett into a natural leader — and a MaxPreps California Player of the Year.
"He never, ever put himself above anybody else," Mott says. "When your best player is also your hardest working, the other players have so much respect for him and follow him. They would certainly run through a brick wall for him."
"John's always been driven for success," says Dan Boyett, John's father and a former football coach himself. "We're proud of his competitive spirit and what he's been able to accomplish, but we're more pleased and proud in the person that he is, how caring he is."
In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find someone in Napa, Calif., who doesn't have a good word to say about the kind of person John Boyett is.
"He's done so many things for our community, and a lot of things don't get recognized," Mott says. "He's really a giving kid, especially with his time. He gets swamped when he comes back to town by people who want a piece of him, but he's always patient."
For his part, Boyett recognizes his status as a role model.
"When I was young, guys like [Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle] Mike Gibson used to come back and talk to us," says Boyett. "It was kind of cool to look up to them, and I know now that some kids look up to me. It's my job to help those guys out."
Since leaving for college, Boyett has already spoken to Napa little leaguers and helped out at elementary school field days, and has also spoken to Mott's players about college life on and off the field.
Boyett presents his jersey to a member of the military after this year's spring game.
"He wanted our kids to understand the beauty of high school football and how much fun he had playing it. He didn't want them to take that for granted," Mott says. "The kids respect him so much that anything that I tell them just pales in comparison to the words he speaks to them."
Boyett's magnanimity hasn't gone unnoticed. In addition to his inclusion on the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award watch list –given annually to college football's best defensive back – Boyett recently was added to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list, an award that takes into account personal character as well as athletic feats.
When mentioning the award, named after Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, Boyett gets excited. "You know, I got to meet him once," he says with a smile, referring to Lott. "Great guy. Anytime you can get an award named after you, you know you're doing something right."
If he does pull down the award, one man who won't be surprised is Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who credits Boyett's strength of character to his upbringing.
"He's an A-plus. I went into his home a couple times recruiting him. He's got a great family, a football family," Aliotti says. "They get it."
Dan and Cindy Boyett raised three kids into a world of sports. Eldest son John was born a brother to older sister Danielle. Charles, now a defensive back for UC Davis, came along a few years later.
"We were such a close family, always together," Dan explains.
Things were going well for the Boyett family. Danielle played softball and ran track, Dan and Cindy were both happy with their jobs, the former coaching football and the latter at a law firm. Young John was just getting into football.
Then, in 1997, 12-year-old Danielle began experiencing insuppressible headaches. A trip to the doctor and an MRI revealed every parent's nightmare — an astrocytoma brain tumor in their young daughter.
Their father points to John's love for his sister in explaining his maturity and giving spirit.
"John has a very compassionate side. He's very good, very understanding of people with special needs," Dan says. "It makes him more well-rounded."
The Boyett siblings remained extremely close, developing a ritual of calling each other every game day to wish luck and catch up.
This past winter, only one month after John played perhaps the best game of his collegiate career, leading the Ducks in tackles in the BCS Championship game against Auburn, Danielle passed away.
When the family knew it was inevitable, both Charles and John came home to say goodbye.
"John took it hard. We all took it hard," Dan says, his voice welling with emotion. "We knew many years ago that it was a possibility, that it could happen at any time, but when it did happen, it was just devastating to our family."
John found support in his teammates and coaches at Oregon.
"The coaches took him off the practice field and put him on the first plane home," Dan says. Aliotti, head coach Chip Kelly and secondary coach John Neal flew to Napa for the services, as did Charles' head coach at UC Davis, Bob Biggs.
"That was very symbolic to us about the support that University offers its student-athletes. It meant a lot," Dan says.
When the Ducks opened their season against LSU on Sept. 3, John paced all players with 14 tackles and was four inches away from what would have been a momentum-stealing pick-six. He may have had one less pre-game phone call to make, but his sister was still rooting him on.
'The Quarterback of the Defense'
All signs point to a banner year for Boyett. Although at times he's overshadowed by interception-grabbing cornerback Cliff Harris, there's no questioning who is the leader of Oregon's vaunted secondary.
"He's the glue that keeps us together," Aliotti says. "One of those guys you can count on all of the time."
Ducks head coach Chip Kelly agrees.
"He's the quarterback of the defense, making all the checks back there, getting everyone set," Kelly says. "He's got a ton of advantages physically because of how hard he works in the weight room, but he also combines that with his mental ability. He's everything you want."
On the field, John Boyett is a superman. He's fierce and fearless, a man whose actions speak for themselves. He was a freshman All-American and led the Ducks in tackles his first year on the field — a first in school history, naturally.
He once came out of nowhere to hit a USC wideout so hard that ESPN's camera kept panning over open field before cutting back to find both the ball and the receiver on the ground.
"On the football field, John truly believes he can conquer the world," Mott says. Fan sites reverently refer to him as the Cleat-Seeking Missile.
But it's what he does out of his pads that defines him.
"You have to know your role," says John Boyett, the community idol, the brother and son, the teammate.
And you believe him.