Up from Narbonne: DSU's Boone chased football from LA to Dickinson
If there is such a thing as high school football nirvana, Los Angeles native Tray Boone reached it on Dec. 9, 2011.
In his final game at Narbonne High School — in the Harbor City neighborhood of Los Angeles — Boone broke records and tackles, rushing 33 times for 301 yards and six touchdowns, leading his Narbonne Gauchos to a 48-32 win and an LA City title over Carson High School.
Lying on the East LA College turf, Boone — a tangled mess of exhaust and elation — began to cry. A teammate came over to hug him.
"You're making it out of here now, man," Boone recalled him saying. "You did it. You're out of here for sure. You're going somewhere."
For a 5-foot-9, 150-pound running back who spent time on junior varsity as a sophomore, and played a backup role as a junior, it was a crowning achievement and a particularly special moment.
His mind was bigger than his neighborhood. He had dreams of leaving it.
As he celebrated Narbonne's first ever outright city title, Boone — whose soft spoken and welcoming demeanor creates a contrast to his running style — thought that was his moment. He had arrived.
"I got shown a lot of love after that game," Boone said.
When quarterback Troy Williams — now the starter at Utah — threw two early interceptions, he told Boone he couldn't do it alone. Boone told him not to worry.
"It was amazing. It was unbelievable. After the third and the fourth, it was like, 'OK, he scored four touchdowns, he's probably not going to get anymore,'" said Tanika Millare, Boone's mother. "Then he got five, then six. Six was unheard of."
That 2011 season at Narbonne, which has recently produced the likes of Williams, Boise State wide receiver A.J. Richardson and Hawaii running back Melvin Davis, there was no shortage of college talent.
Throughout the year, Boone spoke in passing with coaches from a handful of major programs — including a University of Southern California representative after that game — but casual conversation never turned into genuine interest.
One spring night, months after football season had wrapped up, Boone was playing basketball in his high school gym when an assistant coach for Oregon pulled him aside.
Boone was wearing baggy shorts and had on an extra large basketball jersey. At 5-foot-9 standing in front of a college football coach, it was a confirmation. He was too small.
"I know for a fact I didn't pass that eye test. He even told me I didn't pass it. ... It didn't look good at all," Boone said. "It wasn't much. He just said he watched my film, he liked the type of player I was. He wanted me to get bigger, faster. There was nothing I could say after that. I said, 'Alright.' I never heard from him after that."
As a 2-year-old, Boone — currently Dickinson State's leading rusher — began begging his mother to let him play football. She told him he had to wait until he was 8.
When he was finally of age, he reminded her again. Her work schedule was too demanding; she had to defer for a couple of years until she could meet the demands of the practices and games.
So, as a 10-year-old, Boone joined a Pop Warner league and began his football odyssey. It carried on strong until his senior year, when, after running wild on Carson High School in one of the proudest moments of his life, his career hit a sudden speed bump.
While friends and teammates found themselves the envy of big college programs, Boone spent the rest of his senior year unsure of the future.
For some reasons out of his control — his height, his perceived lack of next level strength — and for some reasons within his control — a general phobia of the classroom — Boone found himself at a football crossroads, which eventually brought him to North Dakota and Dickinson State University.
After Boone graduated high school, still without any colleges knocking on the door, he got into contact with a coach from Fresno Community College through someone who worked at Narbonne High School.
Promised a defined role on both special teams and offense, plus a path to a four-year school, he took the five-hour trip to Fresno and joined the team in summer camp.
But when he got there, Boone said the reality wasn't what he had been sold on. After training camp, the coaches told him their intention was to make him a redshirt.
"I didn't want to redshirt. I was more than able to play with those guys, just from how practice was going. I thought I was going to get an opportunity," said Boone, who, at 17, had no intention of sitting out a year.
"You know what, it didn't really work out. I was naive to the program. I didn't know how that stuff really worked. So I just left. I did a semester and left. To me, now that I look back at it, it's pretty childish of me, but I was young."
Next up was West Los Angeles Community College — closer to home and a better football situation — where the coaches promised and held to their word on one thing: playing time.
"When I went to West LA my first year, coach (Marguet) Miller, he let me know the offense was designed for me. So he let me get a lot of touches," Boone said. "And I didn't realize, he really meant that. I really got a lot of touches."
In his two years there, the team went from 1-9 in 2013 to 5-5 in 2014. He split time at wide receiver and running back, totaling 1,600 yards of offense. It was an ideal situation, but it wasn't going to last forever. The goal was the same: a four-year school. But again, no one was was calling.
When his two years of junior college eligibility were up, Boone was in a contemplative state of mind. He was in football purgatory.
He was without any contacts or leads, so he began sinking into acceptance. He got a job — a full-time position at McDonald's. He started working because he didn't know what else to do.
"Anytime your child tells you they're not passionate about something that they've been passionate about their entire life, it's time to worry," Millare said. "I was worried about him and where his life was going to go when he wasn't interested in football anymore."
Boone was readying himself for a life without football.
On to DSU
In Dickinson, offensive coordinator Jace Schillinger had put Boone on his radar before his second season at West LA. But after adding a few other running backs, Boone had escaped Schillinger's mind. He assumed another school had picked him up.
But making sure he was off the board couldn't hurt, he thought, so he gave the West LA coaches a call.
"We thought we were going to be needing another runner, an older running back to come in and mesh with some of our guys," Schillinger said. "He was a kid we noticed right away but then kind of lost touch with a little bit, and actually I thought he signed elsewhere."
So on Aug. 5, 2015, Schillinger picked up his phone and dialed Boone's number.
In California, Boone had been scolded earlier that day by a neighborhood acquaintance. He was angry that the wiry and athletic little kid he known growing up was no longer playing football.
Boone took it to heart, and was thinking about it later in the day when he was hanging out at a friend's house — a friend he later discovered to be the cousin of DSU defensive linemen Noey Tauave.
His phone rang.
"That's the day I got that mysterious phone call from North Dakota," Boone said, smiling. "Like, I didn't even think I was going to answer it at first, but something told me, 'You know what, just answer it.'
"I just said, 'Hello?'" Boone recalled.
"I remember talking about our school and him asking where we were located," Schillinger also recalled.
Then, the most important question.
"He's just talking to me and he's like, "Man, do you want to play football?" Boone said. "Yeah, man, I wanna play."
Three days later, after an extensive sweep of Google and the eventual blessing of his mother, Boone's plane left California for North Dakota.
A kid from inner-city Los Angeles in small-town North Dakota.
Culture shock? Not with football and an open mind.
"I know it's a little bit slower out there than what he's used to, but I did want him to have that experience of being in a different place," Millare said. "I was really worried about the weather more than anything else. I didn't have too much of a doubt about him adjusting because he's a football player."
In the early going, Boone would show up to 70-degree practice with a heavy sweater on; he would shiver when the wind blew—all of which was much to the amusement of his Midwestern teammates.
From the get go, Tauave, a Sacramento, Calif., native, gravitated toward Boone. When he found out Boone was close with his cousin, a no-brainer friendship formed.
"When I found that out, it was kind of like he wasn't no stranger to me anymore. He was like a family member to me," Tauave said. "He knew my cousins, and they told me good things about Tray and who he was. I looked him up and saw his videos, and he could really play. I took him under my wing. I was his friend right away."
After missing the first game of the 2015 season sorting his eligibility out, Boone returned for the Blue Hawks' second game. He has since compiled an incredible stretch of football.
He broke the school's single-game rushing record in a 350-yard performance last season, he has scored 19 total touchdowns, and he, rather spectacularly, became a viral sensation with a full front flip over two defenders into the end zone against Dakota State in last year's North Star Bowl at the Fargodome. The play landed him as the No. 1 play of the day on the 'SportsCenter' Top 10.
In 2015, he was also named the North Star Athletic Association's offensive MVP and was named to a handful of NAIA all-America teams.
Since his arrival in Dickinson, he has changed from what Schillinger thought could be a great situational running back into an offensive star and every-down player.
And not lost upon Boone and his mother is the bigger picture — if Boone's football dreams don't come to fruition, he is on track to be the first male college graduate in his family. He's majoring in communications.
At home, he is a role model amongst the younger kids in the family, Millare said.
In Dickinson, those tall Los Angeles buildings are missing. The people are different. The local corner store is farther away. It isn't what he had in mind when he lay on the ground after his high school finale. He was thinking Florida or maybe Ohio. But that's OK.
"I'm still getting used to it. It's not going to be OK after just a year. It's still shocking to me how quiet it is. It's peaceful. I like it. I like the scenery. There's not a lot of buildings. There's a lot more nature. I like nature, so I really don't mind it. As far as the people, I love the people," Boone said. "The chance to play football, that's great. But the chance to get my degree, to get this piece of paper that's going to really set my life in the direction I want to go; that's probably the best thing I'm getting out of this situation. That's what I wanted. I'm more than thankful for it."