Mike Boryla was torn. He had everything he wanted, but he didn’t want what he had.
The direction of his life hinged on that realization. He was an All-America at Stanford, and a Pro Bowl quarterback. But he walked away from football … for 35 years.
The Plays & Players Theatre isn’t Broadway, but it doesn’t have to be. Tucked on the third floor of a historic brick building just off Rittenhouse Square near downtown Philadelphia, it is home to one of the oldest professional theater companies in the country. It is here that Boryla emerged from his self-imposed exile.
Boryla provides a voice to his conflicted career during an autobiographical one-man play called "The Disappearing Quarterback," that continues through Feb. 2.
It can be funny. Ask him about hosting high school hotshot quarterback David Jaynes (“the best player from Kansas,” he was told) on a recruiting trip.
“Naturally, I took him to a bar in downtown San Francisco to see if I could get him arrested for underage drinking.”
Boryla: “David, here’s your fake ID.”
Jaynes: “But Mike, he’s black!”
Boryla: “Oh, don’t worry about that. Trust me, they never check.”
It also could be dark. Ask him about Stanford teammate Roger Stillwell, a defensive lineman left so ravaged after an NFL career that he could barely function. Stillwell died at age 54.
The opening scene reflects a glimpse of the brutality of the NFL:
The stage is dark. Heavy breathing can be heard as Boryla barks a play in the Philadelphia Eagles’ huddle, with a special instruction to All-Pro lineman Jerry Sisemore to watch for the blitz.
“All right men, third and seven. We need this. Black right zip. Run pass 37. Six-55 choice. ‘Khunya,’ watch for the red dog.”
A spotlight knifes through the darkness and rests on Boryla’s face. He’s on the bench, immobilized by a concussion.
* * *
For those who can’t quite identify Boryla’s place in Stanford history, longtime team chaplain Jim Stump can fill you in:
“He’s the best Stanford quarterback that nobody’s ever heard of.”
One reason is his company. Boryla followed two Rose Bowl winners – Jim Plunkett and Don Bunce – and was among nine quarterbacks in succession (1969-1985) to become a pro.
The lineage of Plunkett, Bunce, Boryla, Mike Cordova, Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils, Turk Schonert, John Elway, and John Paye would be a golden age for any school and cemented Stanford’s reputation as Quarterback U. They would combine for 60 NFL seasons, 433 starts, and five Super Bowl victories.
In other words, Boryla was good during his two years as a starter in 1972-73, but being sandwiched between Plunkett and Elway did nothing to distinguish his legacy.
He arrived at Stanford on a basketball scholarship in 1969. In fact, Boryla was preternaturally a basketball player. His father, Vince, won a gold medal for the U.S. team at the 1948 Olympics and went on to play and then coach for the New York Knicks before becoming an executive with the ABA’s Utah Stars and NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
John Ralston, Stanford’s coach from 1963-71, loved quarterbacks. They usually were the best athletes on their high school teams. Ralston could hold on to a few and siphon the rest to different positions. Boryla seemed predestined for the latter. First, Boryla talked Ralston into letting him try out for the team, and then talked the coach out of moving him to wide receiver. When he arrived, he was among seven quarterbacks in camp.
As a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder with a long stride, strong arm, and a talent for the option, Boryla made an impression on Ralston. And after Boryla’s second spring practice, Ralston convinced him to stick to football.
Boryla watched as Plunkett and Bunce led Stanford to back to back Pac-8 Conference titles and Rose Bowl victories. But after opening the 1972 season as a backup to Dave Ottmar, Boryla seized the job. He threw five touchdown passes against Washington State, twice won the Pac-8 passing title, led Stanford to two winning seasons, and emerged second only to Plunkett on Stanford's all-time passing yardage list.
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Today, Boryla chooses to downplay his athletic persona. He calls himself a “faux athlete” and “a long-haired hippie quarterback.” Yes, he went to his share of Grateful Dead shows, dancing to “Sugar Magnolia,” but his “hippiness” was a label for his countercultural intellectual views rather than a dive into the psychedelic drug culture of the era.
“I consider myself a scholar and a Renaissance man,” he told Philadelphia Citypaper. “Even to this day, I reject the greed here in the U.S. … I rejected materialism then and I reject it now.”
Some of his favorite recollections of Stanford were conversations he had with Bunce, his roommate on road trips, and talking into the night.
“Mike, you’re not here just to play football,” Bunce told him. “There’s so much more than that. Don’t let them define you as a football player.”
Boryla resisted such definitions and found further inspiration in the mentorship of Stump, and his spiritual guidance.
In Chicago for a photo shoot with the rest of the Playboy Magazine All-America team, Boryla joined the other college stars in a night of partying and womanizing at the Playboy Club. But at some point that night, Boryla realized this was not the man he wanted to be, and left. He returned to his hotel room and spent the rest of the night studying the Old Testament book of Isaiah. It was a pattern he would maintain throughout his NFL career.
“That’s how I made it through pro football,” Boryla said.
A fourth-round draft pick, Boryla clearly was not what the NFL was expecting. What other player would return from his rookie season and live in a blue Econoline van for the next six months?
“When I got out of Stanford, I considered football a game,” Boryla told Citypaper. “When I got to Philadelphia … people thought of it more as a religious cult.”
Boryla felt exposed for reading Aristotle and Socrates, while teammates were reading Superman comics and Sports Illustrated. He felt the need to keep his intellectual side secret for fear that a lack of understanding would cost him his spot on the team.
However, there was one thing Boryla was adamant about. In this era, coaches were taking playcalling duties away from quarterbacks. However, Boryla insisted on calling the plays himself.
"No matter what happens," Boryla said to Sports Illustrated at the time, "I'm going to get the blame, so I might as well call the shots."
In 1975, Boryla unseated veteran Roman Gabriel in midseason and started five games. That was enough to make the Pro Bowl after six NFC quarterbacks bowed out with a variety of excuses. No matter, Boryla fired two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to lead the NFC to a 23-20 victory at the New Orleans Superdome.
Houston Oilers receiver/kick returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was named MVP, but if the voting had been tabulated after the game instead of during, Boryla may indeed have won.
“Sportswriters apologized to me in the locker room,” Boryla said. “Billy got the nice car, but I had my van.”
Heading into 1976, Sports Illustrated made this prediction: “New Philadelphia Coach Dick Vermeil has a five-year contract, so he plans to sink or swim with inexperienced Mike Boryla. This year, at least, it will be glub, glub, glub for the Eagles.”
Boryla started 10 games, but was hampered by a concussion during a 4-10 season. According to Sports Illustrated, Boryla wanted out and the Eagles were willing to work out a trade. However, the Eagles forgot to send Boryla his mandatory option letter by a stipulated date, and Boryla became a free agent and arranged a deal with Tampa Bay.
In 1977, the Buccaneers were coming off the worst season in NFL history, going 0-14 in their inaugural year. Boryla was to stabilize the position, but those plans were shelved when he tore up his knee when hit by Green Bay tackle Mike McCoy in an exhibition game.
Asked if he felt sympathy for the quarterback he injured, McCoy said, “No. It sounds cold, doesn’t it? But I didn’t feel sorry for the guy.”
Boryla started one game in 1978 and remained in the Bucs’ plans even with the arrival of first-round pick Doug Williams. But Boryla felt compelled to retire and rid his life of anything to do with the game.
“I disappeared on purpose,” Boryla said. “I felt the Lord told me to leave and not look back.”
Boryla did as promised. He did not look back.
* * *
Boryla did not attend a football game at any level. He dropped communication with teammates and coaches. He never even talked about the game.
Boryla earned a master’s in tax law at Denver University and worked as an attorney for 20 years, and then as a mortgage banker. However, his most satisfying role – outside of his family – was on the board of directors for Shannon’s Hope, a home for unwed mothers.
The shelter was a haven for mothers living on the streets, in cars, or jails. Boryla described one woman who was discovered in an alley while six months pregnant. She refused an invitation, already planning her own suicide. But someone from the house wrote the phone number on the alley wall and left.
Something made the woman reconsider her options and, during a strong summer thunderstorm, she found a quarter on the ground and called the number. The call was answered and the woman was picked up and taken to Shannon's Hope. Boryla last heard from her about eight months ago. She was married with two boys, and her husband had a job.
Boryla felt so strongly about the program that, when the house was headed toward foreclosure, he sold nearly all of his football memorabilia -- including his Pro Bowl helmet, an Eagles jersey, and a silver cup for being named Stanford’s most valuable player -- to raise enough money to keep the house open.
The sense of living for a greater purpose inspired Boryla to leave mortgage banking in 2011. Since then, he steps into a coffee shop every morning to live his passion of writing. He has worked on six plays, but "The Disappearing Quarterback” is the first to be staged.
The idea was hatched when one of Boryla’s sons saw a football photo of Mike accompanied with the word “disappeared.”
“You didn’t disappear,” the boy said. “You’ve been here the whole time.”
In considering an explanation, Boryla came to a conclusion. He wanted his four boys to learn about the long-buried side of his life. The exile, in Mike’s mind, was over.
“I had a real deep down desire to tell people my story,” Boryla said. “I hid it for 30 years.”
With the help of Roger Rodd, a classmate at Stanford and now an actor and stand-up comic, Boryla developed a manuscript that he e-mailed, unsolicited, to Daniel Student, the stage director at Plays & Players. Student was piqued by the unique idea of a former pro football player returning to his home city to tell his story. Student created the idea of a one-man performance and Boryla has delivered.
There is another project ahead. Boryla plans on writing a book about his teammates and their recollections of the game, entitled: Eagles Belong Where They Can Fly; Memories of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Boryla remains the “long-haired hippie,” at heart. But he also understands that there is room in his life for football too. It’s too much a part of him to be ignored any longer.
The game tried to envelope him, but Boryla resisted. It tried to steal his sense of self and failed. Now, Boryla has accepted football on his terms. His exile is over.
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“The Disappearing Quarterback,” is being performed nightly through Feb. 2 at the Plays & Players Theater, at 1714 Delancey Place, in Philadelphia. Go to the third floor Skinner Studio. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door for general admission. Discounted group rates for 10 or more are $15, and student rates of $20 are available. Tickets may be purchased online at www.playsandplayers.org or by phone at (866) 811-4111.