Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Feeling 22: Riverview running back inspired by NFL legend

The 'brutal runner' has been dominant for the Rams this season.

  • Sarasota
  • Sports
  • Share

Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith made the No. 22 famous.

The former Dallas Cowboys backfield bulldozer, a product of Pensacola, holds the NFL record for career rushing yards (18,355) and rushing touchdowns (164), and set those records while standing 5 feet 9 inches tall. He inspired children of the 1990s and 2000s to play the position like him: With patience, power and, when necessary, a burst of speed to keep defenders’ hands filled with nothing but air.

One such fan was born in Sarasota 17 years ago. Ali Boyce, a junior running back at Riverview High, wears No. 22 in the name of Smith. He always has, even dating back to his Pop Warner days with the Ringling Redskins. Boyce stands 5 feet 7 inches tall (and a half, he clarified) and appreciates how Smith used his size to his advantage, slipping through holes in the defense others may have stuffed. Boyce, similarly, thinks of his own height as an advantage.

“Anyone tries to tackle me high, they just bounce right off,” he said. “Or, I’ll get low and hit them harder. I can run guys over or juke them.”

Ali Boyce was described by Riverview coach Josh Smithers as a 'brutal runner.'
Ali Boyce was described by Riverview coach Josh Smithers as a 'brutal runner.'

The numbers back up Boyce’s analysis. In Riverview’s 42-14 win Oct. 13 against rival Manatee High, Boyce ran for 144 yards and a touchdown, a stat line that has become typical for him. The Rams clinched a district title with the win, their second in as many years.

Riverview coach Josh Smithers saw potential in Boyce from the day he came to Riverview tryouts before his freshman season.

"I watched him in seven-on-seven drills," Smithers said. "He was more elusive than he looked. He looked like a strong runner, and he is, but he could also cut back on a guy and make him miss."

Boyce was named the varsity starter that year, and he played well early in the year, but then-head coach Todd Johnson and Smithers made the decision to play a senior running back over him during the second half of the season. Boyce could have caused a scene about the decision, becoming a distraction to his team. He didn't, Smithers said. He stayed quiet and humble, like he always does. He was rewarded with the starting position last season, and he literally ran with the job.

Smithers called Boyce's low-key personality "refreshing" in a football world filled with boisterous voices. If you had 30 people stand in a hallway, he noted, and asked someone to pick out which of the 30 was the running back who "plays angry," Boyce would be the last guy selected, Smithers said, because of his constant smiling and unassuming persona. 

"He's an amazing young man, and we're blessed to have him," Smithers said. 

Things are different for Boyce and the Rams this season. Last year, beating Manatee was the highlight of the season (he still calls the game his favorite football memory), as Riverview had lost the previous 10 meetings with the Hurricanes. This year, it was the expectation. Boyce, too, has changed. He's a more patient runner now, Smithers said, and is using his vision to find holes in the defense. The result is more game-changing, breakaway runs coupled with Boyce's signature fishing style. Forget Emmitt Smith; Smithers compared Boyce's penchant for delivering pain to would-be tacklers to that of another Hall-of-Fame back: the late Walter Payton.

"He's a brutal runner," Smithers said, meaning it in the best possible way. 

The Rams won’t be satisfied with winning their district this year, either. They defeated Olympia High 56-25 last season for the program’s first playoff win since 2004. Former quarterback Mike Welcer suffered an injury early in their next playoff game, against Dr. Phillips High, and they were eliminated 21-0. Boyce hopes things will be different this go-round. He's the offense's rock, but gets help from senior quarterback Arthur Brantley IV and freshman running back Michael Hayes, who spells Boyce for a few series each game and has impressed while doing so. (Boyce doesn't mind splitting carries, he said.) To reach the third round of the playoffs, all the Rams have to do, in Boyce's mind, is stay on the field.

If they succeed in that endeavor and beyond, local football fans may come to associate No. 22 with Boyce before anyone else. 


Related Articles