Mike Boryla: From Eagles quarterback to lawyer, mortgage banker, real estate investor, and playwright

Eagles quarterback Mike Boryla (10) went to the Pro Bowl after the 1975 season. This weekend, he will be in the role of Daniel Ellsberg at the Plays & Players Theatre.
Eagles quarterback Mike Boryla (10) went to the Pro Bowl after the 1975 season. This weekend, he will be in the role of Daniel Ellsberg at the Plays & Players Theatre. (File Photo)
Posted: November 09, 2012

Though he was sacked an astounding 29 times in 10 games as the 1976 Eagles starting quarterback, there were other reasons Mike Boryla never felt entirely comfortable in pro football.

The sport's one-dimensional demands confined the curious Stanford graduate, whose restless mind and varied interests were, then as now, football anomalies.

"I never really considered myself a football player," Boryla said earlier this week from his Colorado home. "I considered myself a student, an intellectual. I don't think I was your traditional football player. Ever."

Traditional isn't a word anyone would use to describe Boryla, who, 35 years after Dick Vermeil traded him to Tampa, is returning to Philadelphia this weekend to make his acting debut in Saturday night's performance of the play Voices of a People's History of the United States, at Philadelphia's Plays & Players Theatre.

The Stanford-educated son of an NBA coach, Boryla, who replaced Roman Gabriel as Eagles quarterback in 1975 before yielding to Ron Jaworski and a series of concussions after the following season, has a post-football resume that's equal parts dazzling and dizzying.

Since his 1978 retirement, he has graduated from a Florida law school, earned an advanced degree in tax law, practiced law for 18 years in Denver, been the longtime operator of a Colorado shelter for unwed mothers, abandoned the law for a mortgage banking career, turned to real estate investing, and written six as-yet unpublished plays.

"So frequently you hear of professional athletes who are unable to see life beyond the field or court," said Daniel Student, the artistic director at Plays & Players who arranged for Boryla's performance. "Mike not only envisioned that life clearly but engaged it with fervor."

Boryla will play the role of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. No matter the result, he doesn't intend to add acting to his crowded resume. Instead, he hopes the experience will enhance his dramatic sense.

The subjects of his plays range from the far-out (an Egyptian mummy who may be a Biblical figure) to the familiar (the life of a pro quarterback in Philadelphia). Neither topic surprised Frank Lemaster, the Eagles linebacker who was a teammate.

"A lot of us were totally engrossed in football," Lemaster said. "Mike wasn't. He had other interests."

Asked to characterize himself, Boryla, 61, married and the father of four sons, paused before deciding on "playwright." That most recent professional turn was precipitated by a fascination that can generously be described as bizarre.

"I'd never written before, never dreamed that I'd be a writer," he said. "But I read the Bible a lot, and my research had revealed a number of years ago that Joseph from the book of Genesis had been made into a mummy. I decided that his mummy had been found in 1905 in the Valley of the Kings."

In 2010, Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities performed DNA tests on a number of mummies, including King Tut. Boryla believed that those results confirmed a theory of his, that the Boy Pharaoh was Joseph's great-grandson.

When he could find nothing written on that connection, he decided to write something himself, a screenplay that morphed into a play, Long Ago and Far Away.

"It came out in drops," he said. "I averaged three words a day."

No regrets

At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, the mustachioed Boryla had a strong arm that made him a fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1974. But Eagles coach Mike McCormack, who had been impressed by the Stanford quarterback at a college All-Star Game, engineered a trade that sent Cincinnati a first- and a sixth-round pick.

After Gabriel led the team to a 4-1 start in 1974, the Eagles dropped six in a row. Boryla was installed as the starter, and the team finished the season with a 3-0 spurt.

Boryla lost the '75 opener and went 2-3 in his five starts, but because of injuries and declined invitations, he managed a Pro Bowl berth. There he threw two touchdown passes and led the NFC to victory.

Vermeil became the coach in '76 and, with an offensive line that Lemaster described as "not very stable," Boryla was besieged, the toll of hits and head injuries eventually rendering him ineffective. The Eagles went 4-10 - 3-7 in his starts.

"I've been lucky," Boryla said. "I've had no effects from the concussions."

Vermeil wasn't thrilled with Boryla, and in 1977 he traded for Ron Jaworski. Boryla criticized the coach and soon was dealt to Tampa for a future draft choice. Still not healthy, he played just one game with the Bucs before retiring.

"Mike was a very good quarterback," Lemaster recalled. "He had a great arm, and while he didn't have real good foot speed, he was quick. But he couldn't get past all the concussions."

Boryla left football without much regret.

While many Stanford teammates shared his intellectual interests, he didn't find that same curiosity in the NFL.

"I gave it everything I had," Boryla said. "You can't become a pro football player unless you give everything you have. But I always had other interests. In the pros, it was a little difficult to adjust to the locker room."

Philly connections

Curiously, though Boryla was born on Long Island and raised in Colorado, one of his earliest memories involves Philadelphia. His father, Vince, played with and later coached the New York Knicks.

"When I was 8, he let me take a trip with the team on a train to Philadelphia," he said. "I remember sitting on the bench there in [Convention Hall]."

When Boryla found little interest in his plays in Colorado, he contacted a few Philadelphia theaters.

"I'd been working on QB for a while, and was at a point where I thought it was a decent play. Nobody here would read a script about an Eagles quarterback," he said. "So I sent it to Daniel Student. We met, and he asked me to convert it into a one-man play."

"His love of the people he spent his time with in professional sports is so clear," Student said. "That brotherhood is an uncommon bond, and I think it's what makes Mike a potential great fit for the theater world. While we don't get to enjoy the millions athletes now make, we do also get to 'play' for a living."

Boryla has kept in touch with Eagles teammates, especially Charle Young, Bill Bergey, and Kevin Reilly. On Sunday, for the first time since he left, he will attend an Eagles home game, as Lemaster's guest.

But, typically, a lunch earlier that day with a local playwright has him more excited.

"I've been following the Eagles closely for the last five or six years," he said. "The NFL now is so different. These guys are so big and so fast, and it really looks like they're trying to kill each other. Players look like they're trying to hurt the quarterback. I certainly would not play football today the way it's played. There's no way."

But you can bet he'd find something else to do.

Saturday's performance begins at 8 p.m. Plays & Players is at 1714 Delancey Place. General-admission tickets are $30 and can be ordered at 800-595-4849 or www.playsandplayers.org.

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

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