The Unlikely Inspiration Behind the Bad-Boy Play of Clemson's Ben Boulware

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterDecember 28, 2016

All-American linebacker Ben Boulware is "dangerously close to dirty," according to one ACC coach.
All-American linebacker Ben Boulware is "dangerously close to dirty," according to one ACC coach.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

He always had this idea of what it would look like and how he'd respond, a mental snapshot of something he never wanted to see. And then it happened.

His brother was facedown and unconscious in the mud last spring in a full grand mal seizure, his body contracting and contorting while the very air he needed was blocked by thick, rust-orange South Carolina clay and dirty water.

"I thought he was going to die," Ben Boulware says now.

It felt like forever for Boulware, running those 100 yards to the woods behind his house where his autistic brother Cameron had fallen off the four-wheeler he was riding. It took longer for that seizure—the one and only thing college football's toughest, meanest player has ever feared—to finally and mercifully stop.

For all the welcome perspective brought by Cameron's beautifully challenging and inspiring life, Ben dreaded this day more than any other. And like every other moment over the 18 years Cameron has been part of the family, the unknown provided a window into what is truly important.

You want to call Ben Boulware a dirty player? You want to say Clemson's All-American linebacker—who faces Ohio State in a national semifinal Saturday—plays the game to the fine line of physical force and crosses it? None of that fire-then-aim reaction from his critics means anything to him.

Cameron and Ben Boulware
Cameron and Ben BoulwareCourtesy Ben Boulware
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An hour after Boulware and his older brother, Garrett, pulled Cameron from the mud, put him on the back of that four-wheeler and drove him to the hospital, they stood in the emergency room covered in mud from head to toe and cried as their brother slowly regained his senses. Then a life that gifts blessings when you'd least expect it did it again:

Courtesy Ben Boulware

On Cameron's feet, his family noticed, was one calf-length black sock and one ankle-length white sock. 

Ben and Garrett and their sister, Bailee, have tried forever to get Cameron to wear matching socks, and it just doesn't take.

They've taught him how to four-wheel and play sports and defend himself. Taught him how to play drums and dance and sing. Treated him like a typical sibling because treating him differently would only enhance his disability.

And son of a gun if they can't persuade him to wear matching socks.

"It's such a cool outlook on life," Ben said. "He thinks, The hell with what everybody thinks; I'm going to live my life how I want to. I'm going to be happy in my own skin. Screw society and the labels they put on me. I'm going to wear the socks the way I want to wear them."

And Ben Boulware is going to play football the way he wants to play.

One ACC coach told Bleacher Report that Boulware is "dangerously close to dirty" on the field.

One NFL scout said Boulware "plays the game how it should be played. We're not having tea and cookies out there."

And Boulware?

"It pisses me off that people think I'm a dirty player," he said. "I'm going to play the way I've been taught to play—with passion and energy and being aggressive while doing it. I might tread that line a few times, but to play at a high level, you have to be an aggressive player."

Understand this: It's a violent game. Human bodies at their physical peak weren't built to bang into one another play after play for 60 minutes. There's a reason concussion specialists for years have compared football collisions to car accidents.

So if you've made the choice to stand between those white lines during those 60 minutes, you better be ready to take (and give) physical punishment. You better know it's coming.

If you're Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, and it's 3rd-and-short and you're trying to reach for a first down in one of the biggest games of the season, you better know it's coming: 

If you're Boston College quarterback Patrick Towles and you've broken containment and are running free, you better know it's coming: 

If you're Syracuse running back Dontae Strickland, and it's 3rd-and-3 and you catch a short pass, you better know it's coming:

Because once Boulware realized that playing football was bigger than winning championships and possibly making money in the NFL—once he saw it as more than just a game—one of the most destructive and driven players in college football was unleashed.

"I know Cameron would love to do the things we do but can't," Boulware said. "I know my time in this game is fleeting and fragile. I'm trying to exhaust every moment for him."

It wasn't long ago that Boulware decided to add a tattoo to his body, one that would join the art that stretches across his back: the biblical story of Daniel in the lions' den. 

Ben Boulware @benboulware7

"Daniel, has your God been able to rescue you from the lions?" Daniel answered, “May the King live forever!” https://t.co/8GlDpMjJcJ

Daniel is condemned to death and thrown into the lions' den by King Darius.

After learning he was tricked into condemning Daniel, the king returns to the pit and asks Daniel if God had saved him. 

Daniel replies that God sent an angel to close the jaws of the lions.

All the way down on Boulware's left foot, just below his ankle and hidden unless he is asked about his inspiration, is a small tattoo of two socks. One is calf-length and black; one is ankle-length and white.

The angel God sent.

It was never really a conscious decision to treat Cameron the same as any other member of the family, never a meticulous plan.

The Boulware siblings as children: Garrett (No. 47), Ben (in blue), Bailee (left) and Cameron (in red), with cousins Cody and Abby.
The Boulware siblings as children: Garrett (No. 47), Ben (in blue), Bailee (left) and Cameron (in red), with cousins Cody and Abby.Courtesy Ben Boulware

Cameron was just one of the three Boulware boys. Even after hundreds of mini "drop" seizures per day when he was a toddler, after he was diagnosed with a chromosomal abnormality and autism, and after he had to wear a bicycle helmet to prevent head trauma during seizures.

There was the oldest, Garrett (now playing baseball in the Cincinnati Reds organization), Ben and the youngest, Cameron. Krystal and Jamie Boulware raised their kids, including daughter Bailee, on the principle that nothing worthwhile happens inside the house.

Go out and explore. Find new and different and strange things, then come back and wash up for supper. Start over tomorrow. That meant Cameron, too.

Krystal says while Cameron is 18, he has "the mind of a six- or seven-year-old." But it has never limited his ability to be one of the boys.

"I'd rather them break an arm outside exploring," Krystal said, "than stay inside and play video games all day." 

They built forts in trees and contraptions that would catapult them over the creek behind the backyard. They'd ride those four-wheelers until the sun went down.

They taught Cameron how to box. Put gloves on him and mapped out a ring and showed him where and when to hit.

And they played football. Man, did they play football.

Growing up around family in Anderson, South Carolina, the boys were surrounded by cousins of a similar age. They'd line up three or four per team to play tackle football, and away they went. Everything was legal, and no one was spared.

Not even Cameron.

"We'd lay him out just like everyone else, and we never thought any different of it. He didn't, either," Garrett said. "He'd get hit and whine every once in a while, and we'd hug him, look him square in the eye and say, 'Suck it up, Cam. Tough it out.' And he'd suck it up and get right back at it."

There are two ways most families with special needs children turn: overprotection and smothering safety, or the introduction of real life. There's no true answer because each child, each situation, is different.

But there was only one way in the Boulware home, and there was never any doubt. The most popular Boulware at Hanna High wasn't the two elite athletes or the 2013 homecoming queen. It was Cameron, who at one point was named one of the "12 Hunks of Hanna" in a calendar. 

Cameron Boulware (center) with, from left, Ben, father Jamie, mother Krystal and sister Bailee.
Cameron Boulware (center) with, from left, Ben, father Jamie, mother Krystal and sister Bailee.Courtesy Ben Boulware

It was Cameron who was named named Mr. T.L. Hanna at a school pageant last year.

It's Cameron who wakes every morning at 6:30, hops in the shower and blares his country music to start the day. He plays it so loud that sometimes the local sheriff has to come by and ask Cameron if he could, you know, turn it down a bit.

And to this day, Jamie and Krystal still are introducing real life in all its glory to Cameron, now that Garrett is off chasing his baseball dream, Ben is trying to lead Clemson to its first national championship since 1981 and Bailee is attending Clemson.

They applied for a spot at Clemson Life, a two-year program that builds academic, employment, social and daily living skills. Special needs adults live on the Clemson campus with supervision and have the ability to earn a certificate of postsecondary education.

The Boulwares still are not sure if Cameron is ready and, frankly, if they're ready to let him go. One of Jamie's friends hired Cameron to work in his restaurant rolling silverware and napkins. Cameron works at Jamie's construction company, doing odd jobs. So he stays busy and happy.

More than anything, Jamie still wants to teach Cameron how to drive. He has tried twice already with no luck.

"Yep, he drove the car into the house both times," Jamie said. "But hey, Garrett did it too, when he was young."

So it's not the most attractive feature of the Boulware men, so what? The reality is, there might be a bug or two in Ben's unruly 12-month beard and he'd never know.

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

But he isn't shaving, no matter how uncomfortablenot until the end of the most anticipated sports season of his life.

Certainly not after all he has been through at Clemson.

Coming in as the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the state of South Carolina, per Scout.com, Boulware played part-time as a freshman before failing to win a starting job as a sophomore in 2014. A month into the season, he'd had enough. He was quitting and wanted to focus solely on going to school.

It was all overwhelming—school, football, family, homesickness—and there was no way out.

"I was in a bad way, and I was really depressed," Boulware said.

When Boulware told defensive coordinator Brent Venables about his decision, he learned how Venables had dealt with his own issues years earlier. He was co-defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and no matter what he did or how well the defense played, he was just part of the process along with co-coordinator Mike Stoops, head coach Bob Stoops' brother.

While Venables loved his time at Oklahoma, he needed more—and he eventually figured it out. He left for Clemson and became the then-highest-paid defensive coordinator in college football. 

There's nothing wrong with change, Venables said, if it's smart, well-reasoned change. And after multiple, emotional soul-searching moments with Venables and his family, Boulware decided to stay.

By the end of his sophomore season, his head was straight, and he got an unlikely opportunity in the Tigers' bowl game against Oklahoma.

Starter Stephone Anthony was suspended for the first half of the game. Boulware replaced him and had a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown, recovered a fumble and was the aggressive force Clemson thought it had recruited two years earlier.

He won a starting job the next year, 2015, and earned All-ACC honors, becoming the soul of a stout defense that helped carry the Tigers to the national championship game. 

This year, he's an All-American, and one NFL scout told Bleacher Report that Boulware "will play a long time in this league," comparing him to former Dolphins All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas.

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 01:  Ben Boulware #10 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after a sack against the Louisville Cardinals at Memorial Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Clemson, South Carolina.  (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

"Guys like him—real football players—are the foundation of your roster," the scout said.

Earlier this year, after Clemson lost in the regular season for the first time since November 2014, Boulware walked out of Memorial Stadium and found his family's tailgate.

Clemson played poorly on defense in the 43-42 loss to Pitt, and the guy who delivers the blows even got one delivered back. Pitt tailback James Conner rumbled around the end in the first quarter, lowered his head and plowed into Boulware. The collision was so intense (think: car accident) that Boulware's facemask broke in two.

"He wasn't happy for any number of reasons, and he wasn't afraid to let everyone know," Krystal said. "'I don't want to talk about the game, I don't want to talk about losing, I don't want to talk about any championship.' No one said a word."

They packed up the tailgate, hopped in the car and turned toward campus to drop Ben off at his apartment. Then, as it always has for 18 years, inspiration arrived in the unlikeliest of ways.

"Cameron looks at me and says, 'Man, you played terrible. You need to play better,'" Ben said. "I looked at him and said, 'You know what, Cam? You're right.'"

Maybe all those years of treating Cameron like one of the boys wasn't just for Cameron's benefit after all.

Maybe God had other plans for his angel.

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