There’s something about being a high-level football quarterback that most of us either don’t or cannot understand.
To be exceptional requires a wide range of traits. Athleticism to avoid a charging, 275-pound defensive end. Toughness to take the hit when you can’t. Precision to fling an oblong ball 30 yards into a location the size of a salad bowl. Extreme intelligence to, in an instant, process what 11 guys wearing the other jerseys are doing ... and might yet do. For the great ones, it also takes humility and determination to recover from inevitable adversity.
And, perhaps most important of all, being excellent at the most important position in team sports requires an internal desire to lead — a burning passion to win coupled with an innate ability to lift others up.
Ryan Boyle, there’s no doubt, was born to lead.
And that’s why, as he approaches his 23rd birthday, Boyle is not heading into his final year of college football as a backup at the University of Iowa.
He wakes up every day in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he has become the Ryan Boyle again.
“The chips fell where they were supposed to,” Boyle says, “and here I am now.”
For Boyle, sitting didn't sit well.
It’s not a stretch to say Boyle is one of the most accomplished players in the last decade of Iowa high school football. A case could be made that he is one of the best in state history.
Boyle left Dowling Catholic with that iconic program’s records in passing yards (4,566), passing touchdowns (63), rushing yards (3,043) and rushing touchdowns (45). As a senior, he led Dowling to an incredible state-record 698 points that may never be broken. The dual-threat QB rebounded from a torn ACL as a sophomore to direct Dowling to back-to-back Class 4-A titles. He was Iowa's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year. A model citizen. A high-end student. The unofficial “mayor” of Dowling.
He did it all.
Then for nearly four years, by his standards, he did nothing.
From November 2014 to September 2018, he didn’t take a single game snap as a football quarterback.
"In those four years, I was mad in a way,” Boyle says. “I wasn’t playing.”
Here’s another thing about quarterbacks: They usually think they should start instead of the other guy.
It’s no wonder we see so many college QBs these days seeking transfers. It’s a position of ego, after all. And maybe that’s OK. Being a backup can drive them nuts. That unsatisfied mentality is part of how they're wired; it's what makes the good ones good.
“It’s not a conceited mindset,” Boyle explains. “It’s a necessary arrogance to believe in your abilities.”
Entering his third season at Iowa, Boyle thought it was his time.
After spending the previous eight months as a barely used wide receiver for the Hawkeyes ("I wanted to help out any way I could," he says), he returned to his natural position.
Multi-year starter C.J. Beathard was gone as a third-round NFL Draft pick to the San Francisco 49ers. Here was his chance.
"I know I’m meant to be a quarterback,” Boyle says. “I had full confidence I was going to be (the starter). But things, I guess, didn’t pan out the way that I thought that they should have.”
Boyle was running third in a three-way competition with sophomore Nate Stanley (the eventual starter) and junior Tyler Wiegers entering Iowa's 2017 season.
Although he didn’t know where he would end up, Boyle decided then it was time to prepare his path out of Iowa City.
But he wasn’t ready to transfer yet.
By the NCAA’s rules, a player must sit out a year of football if he transfers to another FBS institution as an undergraduate. But if he could graduate early … he could transfer and be immediately eligible anywhere, with two years to play.
That was the plan; albeit, a bold plan.
An undergraduate degree at Iowa requires a minimum 120 credit hours. Boyle needed to complete almost half of that — 57 credits — from June 2017 to June 2018.
All the while, he needed to soak up everything possible from Iowa’s quarterbacks room. Just transferring wasn’t going to satisfy his desire to be a Division I starter. He needed to be at peak football performance if he was going to step into his new school and play immediately.
"I took each day as an opportunity to get better,” he says, “even though I wasn’t playing in the games."
He took everything head-on.
He maxed out his academic schedule: 12 credits in the summer, 18 in the fall, another 18 in the spring. A daunting schedule for any student, let alone a Big Ten football player. Then finally, a cram session of nine hours via online classes from mid-May to late June.
“I had to embrace the suck for about six weeks,” he says.
After a 13-month whirlwind, he was a University of Iowa graduate. With a 3.5 GPA, to boot. All in three years.
But now what?
During that spring, he consulted with his parents, Ken and Marian, and Dowling coach Tom Wilson, to seek a good fit.
"He needed a spread-style offense where he could run and pass,” Wilson says, “and do the things that Ryan does best."
One name kept coming up.
Curt Mallory, the head coach at Indiana State.
Mallory had a deep history with Wilson (they were on Ball State’s staff together in the late 1990s) and former Dowling Catholic players. Mallory was an assistant coach at Michigan when wide receiver Amara Darboh was there; he was the defensive backs coach at Wyoming when he recruited cornerback Rico Gafford out of junior college.
Now, maybe the best player in Dowling history was available.
Mallory, in turn, trusted Wilson about Boyle’s abilities — and what Iowa's program had done for him in three years.
“I’ve coached in the Big Ten for 12 years, and there’s not a program in the country I respect more,” says Mallory, the son of former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. “Coming from both those programs, I thought, ‘Wow. What a great opportunity.'"
Boyle wasn’t deterred that Indiana State went 0-11 in Mallory’s first season in 2017. And even though he would drop to the FCS level, it was still Division I. He embraced the idea of trying to lead a team that in 2017 was outscored by an average of 38.4 points per game in Missouri Valley Conference play.
“I felt that was an (opportunity) to maybe change the program around,” he says. “I felt that I could … go in there on Day 1, and just help the team become a winning team.”
As soon as Boyle's final class at Iowa was in the books, he was on the warpath at Indiana State. A four-week injury kept him out of most of the Sycamores' first two games. But in his first start, Week 3, he completed 13 of 18 passes for 209 yards and led the program's first win against Eastern Illinois since 2005.
To his surprise, he felt no rust. The muscle memory was still there. Indeed, he was reassured that he was born to be a quarterback. Born to lead.
“He can make plays with his arm, he can extend plays with his feet," Mallory says. "He’s a thrower and a runner. He can do it all.
"I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in FCS."
It was a strong first season. But there's more to come.
Boyle kept getting better as the season wore on. In an overtime win against South Dakota, Boyle passed for 193 yards and rushed for 187 while accounting for seven touchdowns. Indiana State finished the season on a five-game winning streak.
Boyle completed 62.4% of his passes for 1,627 yards with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He rushed for another 610 and six scores. He was a team captain, the MVC's newcomer of the year and second-team all-conference.
Boyle has accomplished the first half of what he came to Terre Haute to do. A program that went 0-11 without him went 7-4 with him — and nearly made the FCS playoffs.
And he's still got one season to go. His final season.
He's there this week, already leading the Sycamores' offseason workouts, trying to bring the younger guys along quickly. Hopes are high, with the entire offensive line back and 16 returning starters.
"Realistically, if we’re ever going to lose," he says, "it’s going to be us beating ourselves."
Off the field, he's taking summer classes. (Of course.) In December, he'll have a master's degree in sports management. Yes, if you're keeping track, that's undergraduate and graduate degree in just 4½ years.
He holds no animosity toward Iowa; in fact, he praises Iowa coaches for helping him "become a man." Likewise, Kirk Ferentz has said Boyle was exemplary in how he handled himself at Iowa while knowing his intent to transfer.
"I believed I should have been the one playing," Boyle says one more time, reflecting on his Iowa days. "But I’m not one to live in the past. I was able to take those experiences and shape the way it would be at Indiana State."
Indiana State opens the season at Kansas. What a story that would be, if Boyle helps an FCS team spoil the coaching debut of Les Miles.
"That’s the plan," he says. "... We’re going to hit them in the mouth and see how they react."
Spoken like a man born to lead.
It's clear from Boyle's tone; from his history. His story's not done yet.
"I didn’t want to be the backup," Boyle says. "I wanted to be the guy that helps the team win."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.