She said she hears it all the time.
“People say, ‘Your life is like a movie.’ They compare it to The Blind Side,” said Courtney Boyd.
The reference is to the 2009 movie about Michael Oher, the massive offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans who was born to troubled parents, finally was adopted and then blossomed into a great college football player and first-round NFL draft pick.
A 6-foot-1 senior guard for the Wright State women’s basketball team, Courtney might play a different sport and give away three inches and nearly 200 pounds to Oher, but her story is not eclipsed by his in any way.
“People say you ought to turn it into a book,” she said with a quiet, self-conscious laugh. “And, aaaah, you never know. My (adoptive) brother, Jake, is an English major. He’s a National Merit Scholar finalist. He’s just off-the-charts smart, so he could be my co-conspirator. He could handle the writing.”
Whether she has a Blind Side tale or not, she does seem to have a blind spot.
She needs no help with her story.
She’s been writing it herself since she was a young girl growing up in State Park Place, a battered area near East St. Louis, Ill., that is known for its urban decay, violence and despair, much of it fueled by the kind of alcohol and drug abuse that marred her own family and took the life of one of her closest childhood friends.
Back then, Courtney Boyd was known as Courtney Weeden.
Now she has a different last name, a different place to call home, and some promising new opportunities — all built around the same grit, drive and determination that kept her from becoming a statistic in State Park Place.
After becoming a hoops sensation at Brookville High School, she’s headed toward her fifth — and final — basketball season with the Raiders. She got her undergrad degree in education last month and now is working toward her master’s degree, which she hopes to complete in just a year.
Her goal is to be a school teacher — actually an intervention specialist working with at-risk or special needs students — and also to coach high school basketball.
In the process she has done what she can to help her younger (biological) brother, Tony. Jr., escape the risks of life back in State Park Place. He now lives here with her adoptive parents, Brad and Amy Boyd, who are Brookville school teachers and have three children of their own.
And nine months ago Courtney had to go back home to bury her 51-year-old father, Tony Weeden, who had died of a heart attack Not only did she handle the arrangements, but she took on the $12,000 in funeral costs, including getting her dad a burial plot at St. John Cemetery in Collinsville, next to his two brothers, one of whom had been killed in a motorcycle accident and the other who, Courtney said, had died of AIDS.
While Tony Weeden Sr. had a troubled life, there was no doubt he loved Courtney.
“Her being gone hurts me every day, but she likes Ohio and you couldn’t pry her out of there with a stick,” he told me when we spoke by phone a few years ago. “And after seeing what she’s doing there, it doesn’t bother me a lick any more.
“I’m real proud of her. She’s kind of extraordinary, isn’t she?”
Troubles or not, father knew best:
Courtney Boyd is extraordinary.
‘Lot of crazy stuff’
In State Park Place, which is next to Collinsville, the cycle of poverty and self-destruction seems non-ending. At Courtney’s former grade school, Kreitner Elementary, over 90 percent of the students live below the poverty line. The high school graduation rate is 30 percent.
Courtney said her parents were caught up in substance abuse problems and that led to arguing, fights and “a lot of crazy stuff” at home. Police records detail numerous visits to their place on Arlington Street.
And that often meant Courtney, a child herself, was left caring for her three younger siblings.
Her salvation came at school and with the teachers she had, especially Lori Billy, who taught her in second grade, was the elementary school basketball coach — she’s now head coach at Collinsville High — and most of all was Courtney’s mentor and friend.
“You connect with every one of your students, but you do it at different levels,” said Billy, who has taught 24 years in the community. “With Courtney, she and I loved basketball, but it was more than that, too.
“When she was little already you could see the potential, the drive to be successful, and I wanted to help her because I knew her situation. There was something about her that just tugged at you. She’s one of those kids who just crawls into your heart and lives there.”
The image many Kreitner teachers remember of Courtney is that of the dark-haired girl riding her Mongoose bike to school, one hand on the handlebars and one hugging a basketball to her hip.
When Courtney was young, her dad got her a portable basketball goal and set it up on the edge of the street. “I played there all day long — in the snow, the rain, the heat — just to get out of the house,” she once explained. “It was an escape for me. Out there I had more control of my situation. “
When Courtney showed her hoops prowess against the boys on the school playground, that prompted Billy to recruit her as a fourth-grader to play for the fifth-grade team and then advance her on to a higher team each year after.
Off the court, though, Courtney couldn’t escape some of life’s grim realities. Her friend, Jennifer Herling — with whom she rode bikes — dropped out of school in the seventh grade and got in with the wrong crowd. In 2012, Herling died of a heroin overdose.
As troubles escalated at home, 14-year-old Courtney finally had enough and contacted an aunt who lived in Englewood, begged her to come get her and ended up going to Northmont as an eighth-grader.
When that living arrangement didn’t work out, a cousin in Brookville offered her a basement to live in. That got Courtney into Brookville High as a freshman and, more specifically, into Amy Boyd’s French class. It was a bumpy adjustment at first, but within a year she was connecting with Amy in much the way she had Lori Billy.
She served as Amy’s student aide the next year and started looking at her as a mother figure. She would come over to the Boyds’ for dinner, began staying with the family on weekends and eventually Brad and Amy decided to seek custody.
They went to Illinois and met Courtney’s parents who signed over custodial rights in front of a notary public who worked at a hardware store and charged $13.
Soon after, Courtney asked Amy and Brad — who she refers to as mom and dad — to adopt her. Although the Weedens initially balked, they did not show up at the court proceedings and on Oct. 2,2009, the adoption was official.
Courtney changed her name and continued to blossom, especially her senior year on the basketball court, where she averaged 30.1 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shot 55 percent from the floor and finished with 1,576 career points, a school record. She was the Southwestern Buckeye League Player of the Year, won second-team All-State honors and fielded numerous college offers.
She chose Wright State because it would allow her to play Division I basketball and still live at home in a familial situation she had sought for so long.
Ideal career path
Freshman year, playing for then-Raiders coach Bridgett Williams — who had grown up in tough circumstances in East St. Louis herself — Courtney started 25 of 33 games and averaged 8 points and 3.6 rebounds.
The following year, with Mike Bradbury taking over the program, she started 24 of 34 games, once had back-to-back 24 and 27-point games, had six games where she made five or more 3-pointers and averaged nearly 10 points.
But in an exhibition at the start of her junior season, she landed wrong after a layup and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. That cost her the entire season
Last September, after months of rigorous rehab, she was cleared to play only to be called a day later and told her father had died.
For all their struggles, Courtney said she had been a “a daddy’s girl” growing up:
“He used to tell me, ‘You’re the best. You can do it. Don’t ever quit.’ He was my biggest supporter at first and he used to come outside and play with me before things got bad and the drugs and alcohol just tore him down.”
Upon word of the death, she knew she had to handle the arrangements: “My dad was loved by a lot of people there and I wanted him to have a good send-off. I didn’t know how I was going to take care of the expenses, but I knew I was going to do it.”
She said she called Billy for guidance: “I knew she’d know because at the elementary school they’re dealing with deaths all the time and doing fund-raisers to help the families.”
And in the end, the teachers at Kreitner, people from Brookville and fans from Wright State all chipped in and she said she was able to pay off all but the last $2,000 of the bill. The rest was finally taken care of recently by her grandfather’s church.
Returning to Wright State after the funeral, she struggled with her dad’s loss — “I was a wreck at first” — and with her basketball. She hadn’t had time to get in the kind of shape she needed, she was still tentative with the knee and suddenly her shots wouldn’t drop.
She lost her starting job to fellow senior K.C Elkins and found herself at the back of the rotation. She would average only 7.3 minutes and 1.7 points last season and shot 16.9 percent from 3-point range.
“When she couldn’t hit her shots, her confidence went through the basement floor,” said Brad Boyd.
Bradbury thought she hadn’t gotten over the injury mentally: “She had a lot going on last season with her dad and all. We all knew it, but we kept it in our little family and didn’t let it out.
“But through it all she showed me what I knew already. She’s a good person. She’s been through a lot and taken on lots of responsibility. She’s much older and more mature than most people her age.
“Last year she showed what a great teammate she was. She played a role a lot of people wouldn’t be able to adapt to, especially after having started for two years. She handled it beautifully.”
Brad Boyd agreed: “She turned her attention to the team. She wanted it to have success and when it did (the Raiders went 26-9 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time), that was enough for her.”
That care for others showed off the court, as well.
She’s done everything she can to make sure her younger brother has a good life here.
“It was rough at the start for him, same as it was for me, but he’s adjusted well and has a lot of friends,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted. I just wanted him to be a normal kid who didn’t have to wake up worrying where he’d eat.”
She had hoped to have her two sisters stay here, too, and the younger one did live in Brookville for a year before deciding to move back home. Now both 18-year-old Whitney and 14-year-old Tiffany live with their biological mom and Courtney doesn’t have much contact with them.
But the whole situation has only fueled her desire to become a teacher dealing with kids who need a little extra help.
“The career path she has chosen will be ideal for her,” Brad said. “Because of the things she’s seen and the circumstances she’s been through, she’ll be able to relate with kids in need and empathize them. She has a real heart for that type kid.
“We’re just excited to see how she’s going to impact lives. And she’ll do it with the right approach. She’ll let kids know you don’t have to be defined by your circumstances. You can be like her. You can fight through your situation.”
And that’s just how she’s approaching her final year of basketball.
Since last season ended she’s been doing everything she can to regain her starting spot. And that’s a scenario Bradbury would fully embrace: “I don’t want or expect her to be in the same role as she was last year. She gives us experience and she needs to make shots for us. And she can do it. I’ve seen her be a great player here for two years.”
Brad Boyd thinks that can happen again:
“She’s been working hard and she’s in tip-top shape. Besides what she does (at WSU), we’re at the high school gym all the time. She doesn’t want her career to end with the individual performance she had last year. She wants to go out and finish her story the way it needs to be finished. She wants to write it the way it should be written.”
Just like she’s always done.