The lights dimmed, the VCR hummed and David Boston waited. It was the first day of training camp in July, and the Arizona Cardinals had gathered in a conference room to be informed by NFL game officials of recent rules changes and to watch a videotape of plays from the previous season that included things that would henceforth constitute infractions. The officials said they would cover topics like pass interference, illegal blocking and taunting. As soon as Boston heard mat last subject, he knew what was coming.
Sure enough, the second play on the tape featured Boston, scoring on a 70-yard pass play against the Philadelphia Eagles. As he raced into the end zone with the Cardinals trailing by 17 points, Boston could be seen on the tape pointing and shouting at a couple of Eagles defensive backs he'd beaten on the play. Some teammates in the conference room chuckled and a few applauded as Boston thought, Damn, that was a pretty athletic play. But following the meeting Boston had what for him was an unusual feeling: regret. "I was embarrassed by the taunting," he says. "I didn't want to be known as the kind of guy who did that."
In an abrupt about-face, the 23-year-old Boston isn't embarrassing himself anymore. After racking up $20,000 in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct—all of it taunting—in the previous two seasons, he has refrained from trying to humiliate opponents. After he scores, he tosses the ball to an official, and while he's still not above some competitive jawing, he mostly lets his play do his talking.
Keyshawn Johnson, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Rod Smith may generate the biggest headlines, but no receiver has been hotter than Boston. He leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,387) and 100-yard games (eight) while displaying his prowess as a downfield blocker and convincingly running decoy routes, the latter two skills not having been among his strong suits before this year. "I came into this season knowing I had to start making plays that would change games," Boston said recently while sitting at a long oak table in the living room of his house in suburban Phoenix. "My first two years in the league I made a lot of plays on my athletic ability, but I realized I could do more. All I had to do was concentrate."
It's hard to find a receiver better equipped physically than Boston. At 6'2" and a ripped 238 pounds, he looks more like an outside linebacker, and his sub-4.4 speed demoralizes defenders. Late in a 34-31 overtime win over the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 2, he turned a short catch into a 50-yard touchdown by pulling away from defensive backs Eric Allen, Anthony Dorsett and Charles Woodson. "You won't find a more explosive guy than David Boston," says Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who watched Boston catch six passes for 106 yards that day. "He makes [the 6'3", 230-pound] Owens look small, and he's out of his mind right now in terms of making plays."
Not only is Boston more civil to opponents on the field these days, but he's also more knowledgeable about the game. Capitalizing on an increase in deep passes thrown his way, he has used his understanding of positioning against defenders to draw his share of pass-interference calls. What's more, he's shown more patience when facing double coverage and rarely sulks if his number isn't called for stretches. "In the past David did whatever David wanted to do," says fellow Arizona wide receiver Rob Moore, a 12-year veteran. "He was the kind of guy who could run a 4.3 on any given day, but he'd run a 4.5 sometimes because that's what he felt like. Now he's making better choices. He knows this is his time."
Boston seemed well grounded when, at 20, he was selected eighth in the 1999 draft. He had grown up in Humble, Texas, one of two sons of Byron, a tax consultant and an NFL line judge, and Caroline, a retired teacher. David's older sister, Alicia, is a corporate attorney and one of his agents. After setting Ohio State career records in receptions (191), yards (2,855) and touchdown catches (34), he wrote a letter to Buckeyes fans explaining why he had decided to leave school following his junior year, saying he thought it was the perfect time to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. "David was quiet and humble [off the field in college], but he had a different attitude on the field," says Kansas City Chiefs reserve quarterback Joe Germaine, a former Ohio State teammate. "You need confidence to play this game, and he had that."
Still, Boston's transition to the pros was not smooth. During his rookie year he was frustrated as the Cardinals' third receiver, behind Moore and Frank Sanders. Teammates occasionally had to phone him at home to make sure he got to meetings on time. After Moore suffered a season-ending knee injury in August 2000, Boston stepped in and became Arizona's leader in receiving yards (1,156) and touchdowns (seven).
However, when Sanders advised him to cut out the taunting, Boston said the fines he was drawing didn't bother him. Boston was preoccupied with acting like a star instead of playing like one. Moore pulled up to practice in his 1968 Firebird, only to receive a reproving look from Boston. "He said, 'You've been in the league all this time and that's what you're driving?' " Moore says. "I told him the only thing you're judged on at this level is how you perform."
Boston probably would have taken longer to grasp that truth had he not been involved in a serious car accident in March 2000. He and Green Bay Packers linebacker Na'il Diggs, another former Buckeye, were driving north on Interstate 71 in Columbus at around 2:15 a.m. when a Ford Escort that was being chased at high speed by police crashed into the left side of Boston's Hummer. Both vehicles were totaled. Danielle Carfagna, the 21-year-old driver of the Escort, died in the collision. Boston and Diggs walked away apparently unscathed but spooked. Boston dreamed about police sirens and flashing lights for days.