The following story is the cover story for the October issue of Carolina Blue Magazine. Please visit magazine.carolinablue.com for more information about Carolina Blue, in its 34th year of publication.
Tre Boston knows what you’ve said about him. He’s seen your Tweets and heard your jeers from the Kenan Stadium bleachers. He’s aware of the snide comments you make to each other when the Tar Heels give up a big play — which often concludes with Boston and his trademark dreadlocks running after an opponent who’s gliding toward the end zone.
Through his four-year career, the safety has been criticized more than any other UNC football player — even more than the quarterbacks — by armchair defensive backs. Part of it is his fault — defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said that Boston has a tendency to do his own thing instead of following the play call, sometimes resulting in big-play touchdowns for opponents. Part of it is not his fault — he’s simply the defense’s safety net, and he’s often the closest player to a runaway ball-carrier when another Tar Heel defender blows an assignment.
Deserved or not, Boston has had enough blame dumped on him to drown any college football player in the country. He’s been criticized like the president and heckled like a cruise ship comedian.
But, despite being fully conscious of the negativity hurled his way, Boston stands tall in the UNC secondary. He’s never once sweated a comment that’s been Tweeted at him. He laughs at the boos and shakes off the hate.
“There’s always criticism,” UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said. “As a defensive back, everybody in the stadium knows when he messes up, and they see who’s chasing him. He takes it well; he doesn’t let it affect him. He acts as if people are just talking the greatest about him.”
That ability to carry on past the naysayers is unique to Boston. So often you see athletes at this level become consumed with perception, dependent on adoration from the fans. Fanfare and media scrutiny — both the good and the bad — has eaten away at even the most charismatic personalities. Look no further than Johnny Football or UNC’s own Rashad McCants.
Boston, though, truly loves life. And he’ll keep loving life, no matter what you say about him. It’s rare you find a 21 year old with the fortitude to endure such harassment and maintain the jovial personality that’s defined him his whole life. With exceeding self-confidence since birth and an infectious personality inherited from his mother, Boston is able to do just that.
The first thing you notice about Boston is his loose demeanor. Scratch that. The first thing you notice about Boston is his Bob Marley-like dreadlocks, but shortly after that you get a feel for his ubiquitous sense of humor.
Kareem Martin (left) said Tre Boston (right) has made tremendous strides in his maturity throughout the past year.
Boston is always seen smiling, chirping back and forth with his teammates and bouncing around like a kid on recess. It’s not a front he puts on, either. Boston’s happy-go-lucky deportment is just his natural personality surfacing on the field.
“I’m real positive, and I like to have fun,” Boston said. “You have to have fun … Football’s a great game, and if you love it, it will love you back. You’ve got to have a positive attitude, and I really do think I got that from my mother. Everything she’s ever taught me is to just stay positive, never listen to other people. I can go on Twitter and look up my name and laugh because my mom taught me to know better, to laugh at those people who don’t know you.”
It’s natural that Boston would adopt his mother’s personality. She raised him as a single mother, juggling mother, father, coach and best friend roles throughout Boston’s childhood.
When Boston first started playing football, it was his mother who would play quarterback for him in the park. As he got older, he would race her — a former high school track All-American — to work on his speed, never able to beat her until he was 14 years old. As Boston started playing football in high school, she didn’t miss a single game.
To this day, Boston remains close with her. She makes the trek from Florida to Chapel Hill for nearly every Tar Heel home game. Even if she can’t make the trip, she follows UNC games on her phone while at work and texts Boston words of encouragement.
“My mother did an amazing job raising me. I still text her about every day, just thanking her for everything she did for me,” Boston said. “It’s one of those things where she’s my love, and I’m her love, and it’s one of those best friend relationships that I have with my mom.
“She is an all-around great woman. I think I did inherit everything from her.”
The light-hearted personality he gleaned from his mother has been a blessing and a curse to Boston throughout his career at UNC, though. On one hand, it’s given him the ability to laugh off criticism and keep his confidence. On the other, he’s been mistaken for not being serious enough on the field.
Tre Boston's one-handed interception against Middle Tennessee State sparked life into a UNC defense that was beginning to doubt itself.
The latter is an easy target for fans airing their frustrations with him. But, what they don’t see is how he uses his personality to help others. He tries to spread positivity throughout the locker room no matter the current situation. He said if a defense isn’t having fun on the field, then they aren’t going to play well.
It’s spilled over into his leadership style, too. As a senior, he’s not a serious leader who makes demands of underclassmen. Instead, he welcomes them in with jokes and encourages them to be comfortable with who they are.
Martin said Boston’s emerging leadership is indicative of his personal growth during the last four years at UNC.
“He’s always joking, a lot of energy. He jokes a lot, but he knows when to get serious now that he’s older. When he gets out here, he flips the switch, and that’s been the best thing — just growing up. He hasn’t changed much, but he’s always been fun,” Martin said. “Tre’s always been vocal. But, now he’s a vocal leader. There’s a difference. It’s the same Tre, but now he’s added the encouragement and leadership to go with it. It’s definitely been a positive for the team.”
Koenning — who admits that he’s probably been a little too hard on Boston at times — said Boston’s genial personality made it difficult for him to become a natural leader, but he has been impressed with the way he’s stepped up this year.
“Tre is still a little bit of Tre, so he doesn’t get taken seriously. Tre gets his daily four or five butt chewings from me, so it makes it hard for him to lead because everybody sees him getting his butt chewed for doing the wrong thing or doing his own thing,” Koenning said. “I think he’s made tremendous strides in that venue, and he’s actually being a leader in our group. I gave him opportunities to do that, and he’s jumped up to be a leader.”
Boston’s lightheartedness doesn’t shield him from the criticism alone. It allows him to see it and laugh it off, but it takes a genuine belief in himself to know he’s better than given credit for.
Perhaps no word more aptly describes Boston than confident. He wears his confidence on his sleeves — literally. On his left wrist sits a band with AWESOME=ME on it. On his right, a nearly identical one that reads I AM AMAZING.
Boston got the wristbands his sophomore year and has worn them in every game since then. Of course, his self-confidence was strong long before he donned the bands.
It was there when he committed to UNC because he grew up around the dominant Miami teams and knew he belonged in the program Butch Davis was attempting to replicate. It was there his true freshman season, when instead of having butterflies after he was thrust into a starting role just days before the season-opening game against LSU, he emerged from the contest with an interception and a forced fumble to his name. It was there when he won a starting job under five different position coaches in four years.
Boston’s confidence persisted even when his own fans gave him a reason for it to wither away.
“You have to have confidence in yourself. If you don’t believe you’re the best at what you do, nobody else will,” Boston said. “I believe I’m one of the best at what I do.”
Boston did admit that his confidence has wavered at points during his UNC career. But, at those times, older defensive backs such as Da’Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams stepped in and reassured him of himself.
Now with the roles flipped, that’s something Boston wants to pass on to his younger teammates in the secondary.
“I try to build confidence in the guys and let them know that it’s only as hard as you make it,” Boston said. “I try to give that confidence to other people, even the young guys. When I was a young guy, the older guys instilled that in me … I’ve tried to keep it in me and feed it to my young boys because I’m in a position now to help the team.”
That reassurance from Boston has played a large part in keeping the Tar Heel defense intact. Coach Larry Fedora said that in 2012 his defense lost confidence through the course of the season as it continued to allow big numbers. That same group, under the guidance of Boston, entered spring ball hungry to prove itself, and it has remained an assured bunch through the beginning of the season.
That impact comes through Boston’s actions, too, not just his words. In UNC’s home-opener, Middle Tennessee marched down the field on the opening drive and threatened to break a defense that was fragile following a loss to South Carolina. But, just as Middle Tennessee was about to punch it in, Boston made a miraculous one-handed interception and swung momentum back to the Tar Heels.
As Boston and his teammates do most Sundays to get a laugh, they ran a Twitter search for his name to see what people were saying following that game against Middle Tennessee. This was a good day. The same people blasting him one week prior were congratulating him on his interception, again claiming to be his biggest fan.
It’s a cycle Boston has learned to embrace. Just as he doesn’t let it get him down on a bad day, he doesn’t let it go to his head on a good one. He knows whose opinions are important – his coaches, his teammates, his mother.
“I just like to laugh at that stuff. At the end of the day, it’s what the coach says. It’s about you as a person. You can’t let people on the outside get you down,” Boston said. “People aren’t always on your side. They tend to be fans but sometimes go against you. You have to laugh. You can’t let people who aren’t in your life affect you.”
Next week might be different. The angry Tweets about Boston being the worst defensive back in America might be back.
If they are, Boston will see them. But, you won’t notice that he saw them. He’ll still be out there the next day smiling, laughing, brimming with confidence and happiness. He’ll be Tre.