BATON ROUGE, La. — Kayshon Boutte pulled out his phone and called Brian Kelly. He couldn’t wait to tell him the news. His GPA in the spring semester had risen to 3.5, the highest of his career. But what Boutte was really doing was making his coach aware of something.
Boutte was focused again.
This phone call was seven months in the making, one more step in the junior receiver’s transition from budding star prospect to a growing adult trying to to take his life and career to the next level, and doing it well enough to eventually earn LSU’s prestigious No. 7 jersey. Because there’s a reason Boutte had to make this call in the first place.
Two months earlier, in March, Kelly called Boutte out. Publicly. The new LSU head coach was asked about his relationship with his highest-profile player, and he could only joke that he knew Boutte’s last name (pronounced Boo-tee). At that point, Kelly hardly had a relationship with Boutte — who was recovering from a broken ankle — and planned to get his attention through the media. “What happens is you tend to get distracted because you’re not involved in everything,” Kelly said. “He’s learning that you have to be involved in everything, whether you’re injured or not.”
And suddenly, the talk of Kelly’s first spring centered on what was going on with arguably the top receiver in the country.
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 22, 2022
Kayshon’s father, Embrick Boutte, said he loved it. His mother, Toni Boutte, said she did not. But this is what Kelly does, he pushes buttons and plays mental games to get the most out of players. And Boutte needed it. He acknowledges it now. The broken ankle, the first injury of his career, took Boutte to a dark place. Meanwhile, Boutte found himself experiencing the chaotic world of name, image and likeness deals, playing for a new coaching staff and considering transferring. Distracted, he didn’t commit properly to his rehab.
“I could have done better on my part,” Boutte told reporters this month.
In turn, his ankle didn’t heal properly, and it took another surgery to fix it. That made him pull away even more. So Kelly called him out. And then they talked.
“You’re disconnected,” Kelly told Boutte, as Embrick recalled. “You just want to be to yourself. You’re mad. You’re injured. But this is what I expect. If you’re this and you’re that, you’re going to go out and show me. If you want it, you’re going to have to show me. It’s not going to be handed to you.”
From a distance it appeared they were reviewing the catch, just one more impressive moment in Boutte’s breakout season. Boutte twirled around the sideline in Lexington with a Kentucky defender tightly covering him, found the ball and somehow brought it in while dragging his feet inbounds. When play stopped, all that Embrick could think from the stands was, “Man, that was a hell of a catch.”
Then he received a phone call. Embrick rushed down to field level to find Kayshon. The doctors knew the truth immediately. Kayshon did not.
“He was like, ‘I’m gonna be back in a week or two,’” Embrick recalled. “Nah, man, this is gonna take a while.”
Boutte’s ankle suffered a clean break, the pressure of his acrobatic catch snapping it and ending his season. It was a pivot point in everything pre-written in Boutte’s plan. He came to LSU to play for the defending national champions under Ed Orgeron. Instead, the Tigers were 8-8 since that title after Kentucky blew them out that night on Oct. 9, 2021. Boutte was in the process of declaring himself maybe the top receiver in the country. He caught nine touchdowns in the first five games of the season, combining highlight reel catches with explosive runs after the catch. Many considered him the front-runner for the Biletnikoff Award by the time he caught that pass on the sideline.
Instead, he faced surgery and months of rehab. One week later, Orgeron would be fired. Nearly his entire staff, too.
There’s a picture in the Boutte home in New Iberia, La., of Boutte and his parents with Orgeron, former cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond and former receivers coach Mickey Joseph. Here stood Boutte with the three Louisiana men who recruited him. By December, all three of those coaches were gone as Kelly came in and hired a new staff.
“Coming out of high school, I felt like the people who recruited me was the people who had the most trust and belief in me,” Boutte said. “I felt like being under a new staff, it was all kind of weird playing for people I never really met. I didn’t really know any of them personally. I felt like I didn’t fit.”
Rumors raged about Boutte potentially leaving for SEC rivals. No one in the Boutte family will confirm pursuit from other schools, though multiple sources at the time believed he considered Alabama.
“I thought about (leaving),” Boutte confirmed this month. “I really did. There was a lot going on.”
The chatter reached Gordon McKernan, a prominent local injury lawyer, while on a duck hunting trip. He heard LSU’s best player may be leaving, and he jumped into action. He set up a meeting with Embrick and Kayshon.
Embrick came in prepared. He knew what opportunities existed, and he understood the leverage Boutte possessed at this rare time in college football history.
“Coach Kelly had just come in, and I think they knew that was symbolically important for Kayshon to be a part of the team,” McKernan told The Athletic. “I’ve gotta tip my hat to his dad. He negotiated well. I certainly didn’t want to take the chance to lose Kayshon.”
McKernan struck an NIL deal with Boutte, and Boutte soon tweeted out, “ignore the rumors … i’m locked in.” McKernan declined to give specifics of the deal. “I treated him very fairly,” McKernan joked. Soon Boutte was starring in local commercials with McKernan and making consistent appearances along with the other dozen or so LSU players McKernan has signed to NIL deals.
ignore the rumors … i’m locked in 🐯
— Kayshon Boutte (@KayshonBoutte1) December 29, 2021
While Boutte was going through this decision process, he talked often with his parents. Boutte is the quiet type, much like his mother. He’s one to revert inward and wait to develop trust before opening up. He’s often described as chill, not one for attention. On designated dress-up days in high school, he would do the bare minimum. When he graduated from high school, he didn’t want photos or a ring or anything in the package except a cap and gown. The moment graduation was over, he went to the car, took off the nice clothes and put on a T-shirt. Toni once gave him money to go shopping, and he returned to say, “I want a jacket, but that jacket was $50. That was way too much. Mom, don’t waste your money.”
It’s what made this chapter in Boutte’s life such a change. All the focus centered on him. Making these public appearances, the pressure mounted as he recovered from the injury.
But he also gained a new figure in his life. Before they even signed a deal, McKernan helped Boutte, Embrick said. “It’s not just a transactional relationship,” McKernan said. “I want it to be a mentor, friend-based relationship if they decide that’s what they want. Kayshon has taken us up on that, to some degree.”
Boutte and McKernan have bonded over their love for fast cars, to the point Boutte recently sent him clips of his “souped-up” Jeep, so fast that McKernan had to respond, “Kayshon, please.” But McKernan has made sure to counsel Boutte on this obsession, talking him through speeding tickets and higher insurance rates and how pro contracts may not allow him to do certain things. “Just thinking beyond a 21-, 22-year-old thinking more of your future and what it would look like if certain things occur from driving your car fast,” McKernan said.
Boutte has slowly started to come out of his shell while working with McKernan, getting more comfortable with being a public figure. McKernan also saw a different side of him when he brought all of his LSU player partners in to shoot a commercial that will soon air, and he saw how people revolved around Boutte. “Watching them all there together, he’s definitely the alpha,” he said. “Just the way he controls it.”
But while all of these life-changing things unfolded, Boutte was falling behind in other ways.
Boutte found himself in a boot, riding a scooter and unable to do all the things that come so naturally to him. “It was a feeling I’ve never felt before,” he said. His father remembered a small nick when his was young that required crutches, but Boutte had stopped using them the next day.
“He kind of isolated himself a little bit,” Toni said. “He was a lot more private. He was just in very unfamiliar territory.”
The injury, Orgeron’s firing, Kelly’s hiring, the debate over whether to stay and the NIL deals that followed all happened at once.
And Boutte didn’t do everything he was supposed to with his rehab. Trainers had tasks and an entire regimen planned, and he often didn’t meet those expectations. Boutte acknowledges it now, and as he told McKernan, “I got a little lax with what I was doing. I didn’t take my injury as seriously as I needed to.”
In January, it was determined that one part of his ankle didn’t heal correctly, and he’d have to have another surgery and go through the entire process again. That sent him even farther inward, this foreign, difficult feeling being duplicated. It came at a bad time. Kelly implemented new standards for how the program, with a tougher accountability structure and more focus on punctuality and attendance. Those changes led to players like wide receiver Trey Palmer and cornerback Dwight McGlothern leaving the program. And Kelly’s No. 1 player wasn’t handling his rehab or showing up often to team events because he couldn’t participate.
So Kelly called him out.
“I think that callout served him well,” McKernan said, “and there was a 180 in all aspects. In his rehab. In his appearances out there. And since that time, in talking with coaches and trainers, he’s done everything they want, and they’re very pleased with him.”
It might not have been instantaneous, but over the following weeks he attended every LSU practice and workout even when he couldn’t participate. He lost the weight he gained while injured and showed up this summer looking as fit as ever. And his grades excelled, so much so that he was proud to call Kelly.
“You look at that and the bounceback,” Embrick said. “He came back, and he had to show up early. He had to show him. He had to prove it.”
At SEC media days in July, Kelly was asked again about Boutte. There were no more callouts. Boutte, Kelly mentioned, had been awarded the No. 7 jersey, which usually goes to the team’s star player. Four months earlier, Kelly downplayed giving out the No. 7 at all. This time, it represented proof of Boutte’s progress.
“That has to happen when trust has been formed,” Kelly said.
Boutte wore No. 7 when he was small, slowly growing into it and learning the history of Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Leonard Fournette and so many more. The goal was to one day join that list at LSU. Or to surpass them.
“That’s the unspoken truth of it,” Embrick said. “He’s gonna go out there and try for his No. 7 to be him. He’s treating it as if nobody wore it before him, and whoever wears it after him will have big shoes to fill.”
During the stay-or-go saga, Boutte tuned most of the world out, but Embrick carried the bulletin board material. He noticed the hype around Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba and USC’s Jordan Addison and how they’re often considered the two best receivers in the country. He noticed the ways Boutte still needed to prove what he can do. During their conversations, he gave his son a reminder.
“If you look at it, you ain’t really done much,” he said. “You’re going off a lot of what-ifs and potential. Now go out and be that leader.”
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— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 23, 2022
At another point, he brought up LSU quarterback Max Johnson entering the transfer portal after last season and transferring to rival Texas A&M. “But Max isn’t from Louisiana,” he’d say. And one of his favorite lines helps paint the picture of the decision Boutte ultimately made: “You either can be the villain, or you can be the superhero.”
Boutte chose to be the superhero. He’s the face of a team in transition trying to prove it can achieve big things in Year 1 with Kelly. All the buzz around the LSU football operations building has been how Boutte has turned the corner and seems destined to have his best season yet.
But there is that last threshold to cross. He still hasn’t played his first game since breaking his ankle. He still has to overcome those back-of-mind doubts about each cut, each jump, to get back to the player he can be.
“I still go to practice every now and then kind of scared to plant a certain way or stuff like that,” Boutte said early this month. “I would second guess my steps.”
What will it take to get over it?
“You just gotta go through it, honestly,” he said.
Two weeks later, after an LSU scrimmage, Embrick saw a clip of Boutte leaping and bringing down a contested ball. He could see the confidence return. He could see the natural moments of athleticism.
Yeah, he thought, Kayshon Boutte is back. Well, a new version.
(Top photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)