If you are a fan of college football, you know Dabo Swinney, the coach of the Clemson Tigers. And if you stayed up late Monday night, you saw his emotional interview after his team won the national championship, with a dramatic late second victory over Alabama.
How did he get there? You can point to his quarterback, Deshaun Watson’s, excellent play, along with their talented receivers, led by Mike Williams. Or maybe the Clemson defense that held the Alabama offense in check for most of the game. Those are reasons why Clemson won Monday night. But Dabo Swinney’s journey to the pinnacle of college football began long before that night. And it’s a journey that’s worth being retold.
I have seen media reports in the past about Swinney, and his Christian faith. Some in the media have been critical of his openness to share his faith. Dabo is also a character, open to the media, enjoys having fun with his players, and doesn’t mind sharing his opinion on many subjects, not just his faith. I read a story from a couple of years ago, written by Dan Wetzel from Yahoo Sports, about Dabo’s past. After reading the article, I better understood Dabo Swinney. Here, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.
Swinney was basically raised by his mother. According to the Wetzel article, Dabo’s father “was an alcoholic whose business failed. His older brothers found themselves in occasional trouble, too, seemingly following the path of their father.” He and his mother “wound up essentially homeless his senior year at Pelham (Ala.) High School. Dad was out. Money was scarce. The house in the suburbs was gone. First, they hit up cheap motels. Then they set up in a townhouse only to be evicted within three months. Mostly, they slept on the floor of a family friend until the stretch of time Dabo lived in his grandmother’s government-subsidized apartment, smaller, he notes, than his current office at Clemson.”
But Dabo Swinney didn’t let his circumstances get the best of him. He studied hard and got into the University of Alabama. He did not get a football scholarship, but walked on and made the football team as a wide receiver. (Yes, it’s the same Alabama that his Clemson team played for the championship Monday night.) Eventually, he did earn a scholarship and started in Alabama’s 1992 title game.
Before all that, Wetzel described Dabo’s college life at Alabama. He wrote, “Prior to that, however, he first rented a little apartment with another ‘Bama student that cost him $130 a month for his share. Because that was all he and his mother could afford – even later when tuition was free – Carol became a roommate too. Mother and son even shared a bed each night. Then she was out the door at 6 a.m., six days a week, off to an $8-an-hour job back in Birmingham, only to return exhausted each evening. Yes, Dabo Swinney, Alabama wide receiver, took his mom with him to college.”
Dabo joked about those days, “I’d feel bad for the other guy, ‘I’ve got a roommate … and his mom.’ I often joke about it. I mean, talk about cramping your style. It’s a wonder I ever got married.” But he did. He married his childhood sweetheart, Kathleen, who is actively involved with his charitable activities, which are many.
Swinney did not, and does not, use that difficult period in his life as an excuse for failure. Wetzel quotes Dabo, “Listen, I come from the most screwed-up dysfunctional situation,” he said. “You’ve got violence. Police at your house. Your dad’s gone. Nowhere to live. I want people to know, if I can make it, anybody can make it. That’s why I don’t have much sympathy for people. I’m not a sympathetic guy when I see people throwing their lives away and using their life’s obstacles as excuses to fail. I just don’t buy into that.”
That sounds awfully harsh in today’s ‘everyone’s a victim’ world. There may be legitimate reasons that a person’s life is difficult. Swinney knows that, and he and his wife are involved in many charities and activities that helps those less fortunate. He’s been there. But he also knows those reasons, legitimate they may be, are no excuse to give up and throw your life away.
Now you know a little more of Dabo Swinney’s ‘rest of the story.’ He’s the coach of the college football team that won the national championship last Monday night. And now you know it’s because he chose not to use his life’s obstacles as an excuse to fail.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org