College Football Career Leaves Receiver Brown and Blue

Former Brown athlete Scott Boylan speaks of the pluses and minuses of sports.

L TO R: Scott Boylan carries the ball downfield at Brown and Duke.
L TO R: Scott Boylan carries the ball downfield at Brown and Duke. (photo: Courtesy of subject)

While 44 college bowl games are set to take place between Dec. 17 and Jan. 10, Scott Boylan, who played wide receiver, running back, punt returner and kick returner, will not be participating in any of them. 

After four years of studying business and philosophy at Brown University, Boylan enrolled in a master’s degree program last spring at Duke University that focuses on philosophy and biblical theology. He was also given a scholarship to the school’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)-level team, which is more competitive than Brown’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)-level team. 

However, the boost to a higher level of athletics was not met with corresponding success. This year’s squad posted an 0-8 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and a 3-9 record overall. Despite the lackluster record and many injuries, Boylan, the grandson of former professional baseball player Billy Cowan, has learned many things about football and life that he hopes to use in the classroom as a teacher and on the field as a coach.  

Boylan, who was recently married, spoke of this and many other things before the college bowl season started. 


Duke did not qualify for a bowl this season, but do you have any thoughts on the teams that are playing in bowls?

Most people love or hate Notre Dame’s football team, but this year they’re more sympathetic, even to detractors. Their coach’s departure for LSU before the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State isn’t exactly the ideal situation for a team. You go through a lot together, so it’s not appreciated when the leader takes off before the biggest game of the season. That makes Notre Dame fun to root for this time.

Cincinnati has a great story this year, and I think everyone outside of the state of Alabama is rooting for them in the Cotton Bowl. Cincinnati is reminiscent of Boise State’s 2006 undefeated season that was capped off with a dramatic 43-42 overtime victory in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma that ended with the “Statue of Liberty Play.”

Then, of course, you want the teams who beat you to do well against future opponents. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest fall into that category for us. Those two teams are also part of the other generality: that you want teams from your conference to do well at the bowls, so even though North Carolina State and Clemson didn’t play us this year, it would be good to see them win.


What did you learn from the experiences of this season? 

I was part of losing teams at Brown, as well, so this season just reinforced, in a very clear way, that football is truly a team sport. Team dynamics are incredibly complex, and there is no easy fix. There are some great leaders on the team, and I know they will be working hard in the offseason to turn things around. 

Coach Cutcliffe is amazing, not only as a coach, but as a man in general. I have been blessed to have gotten to know him as a leader, but also specifically as a Catholic. The Duke community is going to miss him dearly, but I’ve heard great things about the new coach, and I am excited to see what the team does next year.

As for me, I don’t think the book is closed yet on football, since there are good lessons for coaching in the future. Sometimes failure is more valuable than success, since it almost forces you to confront problems and make better decisions.

It’s strange, but in order to know a topic well, you almost have to experience the opposite of that topic. An easy general example is found in good and evil. If you think of good as a vague, pleasant feeling, then you might lose respect for it. 

However, if you experience something jarringly evil, it puts good in a new light. Good is then no longer a decorative pleasantry, but a vitally strong and deeply appreciated reality that can overcome evil. Good gains much more respect when we see what it can fix.


Did you know of record-setting Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, a Catholic who later played in the NFL?

I’m actually a latecomer on Duke’s team — this is both my first and last season with them — so I don’t know Sean, but at Brown I was introduced to Tyler Rowley and was able to pray with him at a pro-life vigil. I know one of his brothers is a priest and another played pro football, but Tyler and I seem to have similar stories, in that we were both Catholic for years but then realized that we needed to take the faith more seriously.


How did that come about for you?

I went to 12 years of Catholic schooling, but it wasn’t until the 12th year that I really started to understand the intellectual depth of Catholicism. I had only the most basic knowledge of the Church, and, like a starving man unaware of his condition, I didn’t even know that there was a whole world of Catholic knowledge available.

As Catholics, we are blessed with the richest intellectual tradition in the history of the world. We have St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis de Sales (who helped me in a special way and whose Introduction to the Devout Life is one of the books in the stack that I will get to), Venerable Fulton Sheen, Pope Benedict XVI and many other men of great faith and reason.

The coordination of these two operations actually came about for me in a class on Aristotle. The great Greek philosopher predated the Church, but St. Thomas Aquinas took his teachings and developed them into a Catholic system, so Aristotle is a good way to start out the reasoning process that is completed by faith.

One of the most important things I learned from my high-school philosophy teacher is that practicing Catholics can be both intellectually convincing and “cool” — a supremely important combo when appealing to young people. Faith and reason, properly exercised, actually make a man more helpful and effective to his fellow men. This runs counter to the idea that if you start reading Aquinas, you become thoroughly useless to your neighbor, because, after all, who cares about Aquinas when I have to pay my rent?

If it weren’t for the natural law being opened up to me in that one Aristotle class, I would have sold my soul in college, would not have met my wife and would not be doing this interview. 

I may have ended up a misguided, unhappy, lukewarm Catholic caught up in the popular slogans of the day. 


How did you take what you learned in high school and develop it in college?

After scouts saw me run sprints on the high-school track team, I was offered a spot on the football team at Brown University. Things like that don’t come along every day, so I jumped at the opportunity. 

Brown wasn’t exactly a traditional school, but I was able to challenge some incoherent ideas and learn more about our rich intellectual tradition in the West. I finished a business, entrepreneurship and organizations degree early, tried to double major in philosophy before my four years were up, but missed that mark by one class.

Now that I am studying Christian philosophy and theology, I feel like I have learned more of importance in one semester at Duke than I had in four years at Brown.

There are great things I’ve learned in my short time here.


Did you think it was odd to be on a team called the Blue Devils?

Well, it’s not the most attractive name for a Catholic who takes his faith seriously. That uneasiness inspired me to look into it. What I found made me feel a little better.

Following World War I, Duke resumed its football program after many years of inactivity. The process of choosing a name for the team included lots of options, but they finally settled on the nickname of a World War I elite French military unit called the Chasseurs Alpins (in English, “Alpine Hunters”). They wore blue pants and were informally known as Les Diables Bleus (in English, “The Blue Devils”).

A number of Duke students returning from Europe admired the French military unit, so they had their way in getting the football team named after it.

There are some strange mascots and nicknames out there, but when fans root for Duke, they’re not supporting demons; they’re supporting athletic teams that aim to be as “fierce” and resilient as the Chassuers Alpins. 

I need a little encouragement when it comes to be resilient. I’m only 22, but in a lot of ways, I feel like an old man. This season alone, I’ve had to endure pulled hamstrings, a concussion and a broken wrist.


After all the injuries and a losing season, do you regret playing football?

I enjoyed playing basketball in high school, but I’m 5-10, so that game only went so far for me. I also ran track in high school and did well in sprints, but football is in a class by itself. The practices and offseason workouts are incredibly challenging, but the games are totally beyond those of any other sport. There are thousands more people in the stands who provide lots of support and energy. 

This dynamic of football is kind of like life here below and life above. Practices are the suffering you have to go through to get to the joy of playing in games. It’s not a perfect analogy, since you can get hurt in games, too, but the basic idea is that heaven does cost something. You can’t just coast in there without any preparation — that is, the exercise of virtue.

Another reason football is beyond other sports is that there’s more complexity to the game, not only because of the sheer number of players, but because there are three “sides” rather than the standard two found in most sports: offense and defense. Special teams provide an extra element in how the offense and defense are coordinated, how to adjust when the other team puts a certain player in, and on and on. The casual fan might not see that complexity, but it’s there for players and especially for coaches. 

So, to sum up: Yes, I enjoyed playing football and learned a lot from it, but it’s not the sport for everyone. Taking football beyond high school requires a lot of dedication and potential for lots of setbacks, so for someone unsure about that, other sports are probably better routes. 

My grandfather — my mom’s dad — is Billy Cowan, who played for the Mets, Yankees, Cubs, Braves, Phillies and Angels, mostly as an outfielder. As you can imagine, my older brother and I played some baseball, but we ended up specializing in different sports. Mine was football, and his was golf — a much safer (an-d some would say, saner) choice.


You do want to coach high-school football, though?

I want to get into teaching philosophy and religion, which will probably end up including some coaching as well. That would be an ideal opportunity for me to help young men learn and live out virtue, a dynamic that was a huge turning point in my life, because it brings about genuine happiness

My ideas of Catholicism had been negatively affected by Masses needing a better sense of reverence. Singing accompanied by not only the type of clapping you’d find in a pep rally, but also by grinding guitars, is obviously not the ideal environment to help a young man grapple with the complexities of the Eucharist.

As faith decreases, the volume of music increases. When there’s nothing profound to ponder in church, raucous music is used to fill the void. Music might be taken as a mere preference, but Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, went so far as to write that music is a moral law. Music — apart from any words joined to it — has a profound impact on our souls. It gives a direct depiction or embodiment of certain virtues and vices, which makes those virtues or vices more easily practicable. 

The ultimate standard for virtue is God, so it is especially in churches that we should be lifted up in a noble way, rather than entertained to the point of wanting to dance or march out onto the football field. Real church music lessens the ego, while fake church music pumps up the ego.


Now you want to influence the culture to see the goodness, truth and beauty in life.

Yes, and one of the best things in that regard is the sacrament of marriage. It is so profound a union that new human beings are created within it. 

I met my wife, Gabrielle, at Brown and found out she was an Anglican from England. She kept asking questions about Catholicism, and I did my best to answer them, while learning a lot along the way. Then she converted, we got married after graduation last spring, and now we’re expecting a baby.

This is a blessed time that would not be mine, had I not started taking the faith seriously. It’s a deeply fulfilling thing, not only to be a husband and father in a superficial way, but in a way that requires you to lay down your life for your wife and children. That’s how Jesus loved the Church, and it’s how men are supposed to love their wives and children.


Do you think sports have a role to play in that effort?

They do. Athletics are inherently good and can be used to promote human flourishing. However, they are often being used to promote vices of all sorts.

Usually, athletes are the most popular kids in school and a party culture surrounds them. Because athletics are so popular in American culture, it is almost impossible to entirely escape a certain mindset as an athlete — a mindset that is proud and vain and destructive.

However, any sport can be used to teach virtue. The most obvious virtue is probably discipline, since, if you actually want to excel, there are certain things you have to give up. There are objective standards, or rules, that you have to live up to in order to succeed. No matter how much a wide receiver wants the end zone to be at the 20-yard line, the end zone is still 20 yards away. You have to keep going in order to get the touchdown.

The parallel in life is clear: If we truly want to meet God’s standard of excellence, we have to be humble enough to first acknowledge it, and then we have to be determined enough to reach it. 

In one sense it is true that it costs nothing to get into heaven. It is a free gift that we can never achieve on our own. However, it is also true that heaven does cost us something. We have to deny our very selves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, as he told us himself. 

He also told us that not everyone who says to him, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but that he who does the will of his Father will enter heaven. There are no part-time Catholics in heaven, so we need to get to work.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.