A Father's Tears of Happiness - How D’Andre Swift Found Family at UGA

September 15, 2019
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PHILADELPHIA—It brings a tear to his eyes when Darren Swift recalls the memory. It isn’t a tear of loss, or grief, or sadness. Rather a tear born from joy, happiness, pride. 

Not pride in himself; pride in his son, D’Andre Swift.

“It was surreal,” Darren said after a long pause. “The fans, they went crazy.” 

The fans he’s referencing aren’t the 90,000+ in Sanford Stadium on any given Saturday in the fall. They’re a smaller bunch—maybe a few hundred—of St. Joseph's Prep supporters, witnessing Swift’s first return to Philadelphia since leaving for UGA.

It was a game against La Salle College High School, St. Joseph's cross-town rival. It was a fortunately-timed bye week for UGA and the then-freshman tailback. 

It was maybe the biggest game of St. Joseph's regular season, yet Swift had quickly become the star of the show. 

“The whole student section was going nuts,” said Tim Roken, Swift’s high school offensive coordinator and the current head coach of St. Joseph's. “They were chanting his name in the middle of our game.” 

With all the intricacies of college recruiting, there was more to manage, and more to watch out for as well. Swift was doing nearly four hours of homework each night. That came on top of a football schedule which demanded before and after school workouts as well as a game schedule that took them all around the country.

“It was like The Beatles coming back,” Tom Sugden said, then the offensive line coach and current offensive coordinator. “The best part of him is that he gets surprised by this stuff. He’s almost unassuming at times.”

This love and appreciation from the community is a culmination of the respect Swift earned during his time in Philadelphia. Not just from picking up yards and scoring touchdowns, but for the way he carried himself while he did it—with humility. Towards teachers, kids, parents, opponents, Swift was always one of kindness towards others. 

Swift’s time at St. Joseph's prep molded him into this idolized character, and his time there is what guided his decision to play college football in Athens. 

The similarities the Swift family saw between Georgia and St. Joseph's was uncanny: the recruitment process, the coaches, the players on the team. To them, it was like Déjà vu. Everything about the two cases was similar. It made the decision to go play college ball for Georgia all too easy. 

And although they didn’t know it when they decided on UGA in 2016, the similarities wouldn’t stop there.


The Sales Pitch: 

Swift, as an eighth-grader, had made it on the radar of several high school football powerhouses in Philadelphia. His name was already generating a lot of buzz in the area. He had built a reputation for consistently torching his youth football peers. Coaches clamored for the opportunity to bring in that kind of talent.

The Swifts talked with coaches and got similar spiels each time—come here and be a star the second you step on campus. The bold claims were uplifting and flattering, no doubt. It’s what the coaches thought the Swifts would want to hear. 

It struck them differently, though. They saw these pitches as disingenuous, and were often rubbed the wrong way.

“They don’t even know,” Darren Swift said. “They know what he was able to do with little league, but they didn’t know what he was able to do at the high school level. There are bigger guys and faster guys.” 

Through it all, the Swifts had decided that La Salle High School would be the best fit for Swift both athletically and academically. It was where they saw the potential for him to flourish the most. 

The family had told all suitors that the chase was over—La Salle was the decision.

Except second thoughts began to creep in. Only four days before they were supposed to submit the paperwork for enrollment at La Salle, St. Joseph's got its foot in the door for one last meeting.  

In a last-ditch effort to sway the Swifts away from La Salle, then head coach of St. Joseph's Gabe Infante gave the family a blunt pitch—anything that Swift hoped to accomplish on the football field, he would have to earn it if he went to St. Joseph's. No guarantees were made to Swift, not even a spot on varsity was promised. In most people’s eyes, what Infante was trying to sell was not very attractive. But it was honest, and that’s exactly what the Swifts were looking for.

So like that, it was done. Swift was going to St. Joseph's. 

Caption

 

Years later, the Swifts reentered the recruiting world, this time for college football. The recruiting was different, but the priorities were the same. Swift and his parents were looking for the same honesty that Infante had given them several years before. 

With all the intricacies of college recruiting, there was more to manage, and more to watch out for as well. Swift was doing nearly four hours of homework each night. That came on top of a football schedule which demanded before and after school workouts as well as a game schedule that took them all around the country.

With so much already on Swift’s plate, Darren Swift and his wife, Ayanna, set up parameters to coaches. If you wanted to talk to their son, you had to notify them first. Any coach that went straight to Swift before going to his parents first got the ax. No excuses, no nothing. That team was off the list. 

It was an easy test of honesty for recruiters, or at least so they thought. But several coaches went directly to Swift, despite those wishes. And as they stated before, no ifs, ands or buts, those teams lost consideration as soon as that rule was broken. 

Kirby Smart and Dell McGee played by the Swifts’ rules. They would go through D’Andre’s parents if they wanted to talk to him. Sure, it was a simple rule to follow, but it became the foundation of trust between the Swifts and the Georgia coaching staff.

It was St. Joe’s Prep all over again.
- Darren Swift

From there, the relationship grew. The Swifts mostly communicated with McGee through the process. He wasn’t overbearing, and he wasn’t fake. He was exactly what Infante was years earlier—genuine.

“We didn’t feel like we had to hide anything,” Ayanna Swift said. “He allowed us to be upfront, and he was upfront, too.”

Neither McGee nor Smart sold him on immediate stardom, even if it did seem like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel might be NFL-bound at the time. His five-star status held no weight when he arrived in Athens. Swift was going to have to earn every carry he wanted.

That was comforting to hear, but it was base-level stuff this time around. With a decision of this magnitude, the Swifts were even more diligent. They wanted a bond with the recruiting coach that was comfortable and trusting. 

It took a while for Swift and McGee to get there. That turning point came when Swift told McGee that he was still taking visits to other schools. It’s kind of like telling your new girlfriend or boyfriend that you’re still going on dates with other people, at least that’s what the Swift’s were afraid it would come off as. McGee’s response was a surprise to the Swifts, but a welcome one. 

“He said he wanted us to visit other schools,” Ayanna Swift said. “It made the relationship more open and comfortable to maneuver through this field without us feeling bad about doing something we had the right and ability to do.”

McGee was confident that as Swift visited other schools, he wouldn’t be plucked away. Rather, he would feel even more confident that Georgia was right for him.

He was right. Through all the conversations, the visits, everything, the Swift family had found a feeling of familiarity with Georgia, one that they didn’t see anywhere else.

“It was St. Joe’s Prep all over again,” Darren Swift said.


The Opportunity to Learn:

It was a little more than two weeks before Georgia’s Liberty Bowl matchup against TCU. Everything looked on-track for D’Andre Swift, then a high school senior, to come in and be Georgia’s feature back in 2017 as a freshman.

But on December 15, that track altered greatly. 

“To bypass the year and go chase something that's hopefully going to always be there for me,” Nick Chubb said then. “Bypassing hanging out with my friends, and the brotherhood we have here, I couldn't pass up my senior year.”

Up with him at the podium was Sony Michel, there to announce the same thing. 

In the blink of an eye, Swift had gone from having the opportunity to come in and be Georgia’s go-to running back as a freshman, to being pushed back to third-string, at best. 

To the Swift family, it was a bit of a blindside. When he had committed in September of that year, Chubb and Michel weren’t a part of the equation. 

“When we chose Georgia, Nick and Sony were supposed to be going to the NFL,” Darren Swift said. “So, at first, we didn’t really think about them.”

The news had reverberated around all of college football. Two pro-caliber running backs had announced they were returning to a school that already had a five-star running back commit. 

Coaches of other teams salivated. It had looked like the D’Andre Swift sweepstakes was back on.

“My phone started ringing all over again from college coaches,” Darren Swift said. 

But when he would pick up, he gave a simple answer that not many folks expected: “No, we’re good.”

Huh? 

“We’re staying.” 

It caused confusion. Not only to coaches, but other family members, friends, who were questioning the decision of the Swifts. But there wasn’t any moment of hesitation for them during all of this—Swift was going to be a Bulldog.

They didn’t see it as a loss of an opportunity, rather an opportunity gained. With Michel and Chubb staying in Athens, Swift would have little weight on his shoulders. Come in and carve out a role for himself—that’s what he needed to do. 

“It allowed him to learn the game at his pace,” Darren Swift said. “It was fast enough to where he could still participate and produce, but slow enough to where he could come along slowly; much slower than if Nick and Sony weren’t there.” 

To a lot of players, the presence of those two might scare them off. Recruits want to play early, and with Chubb and Michel there, the chances of that were slimmed greatly for Swift.

But it was a case all too familiar to Swift, one that he saw entering his freshman year at St. Joseph's as well.

Even with all the hype that surrounded the then 14-year-old Swift, St. Joseph's already had established skill players on the offensive side of the ball: Olamide Zaccheaus, then St. Joseph's starting running back and now Virginia’s all-time leader in receptions and a current member of the Atlanta Falcons, and John Reid, a St. Joseph's receiver and a current corner at Penn State.

The feeling for Swift was different, then. He felt like the energy and prowess he brought to youth ball needed to carry over to high school football right off the bat. He didn’t want a transitional period—he wanted domination.

The spin moves, jukes, dead-legs, Swift would try and break out his entire arsenal of moves. Except it wasn’t always necessary. He wasn’t St. Joseph's only option, but he felt like he was, early on.

“He would be tough on himself as a freshman thinking he needed to be the guy,” Roken said. “He had to understand that he didn’t need to be the guy every single time.”

In those first few weeks, Sugden would remind him to believe in the plan they’d laid in place. 

“Just trust me to the line of scrimmage” Sugden would tell Swift. “After that, it’s all you baby.”

When Swift picked up on both those lessons, he grew exponentially. He was able to see what made guys like Zaccheaus and Reid successful on the field and pair that knowledge with his undeniable quickness. 

More importantly, Swift was able to learn where he could compliment Zaccheaus and Reid best and contribute as a freshman. While teams were focusing on the two established stars of the Philadelphia Catholic League, they would often overlook the 5-foot-8 freshman. 

In this role, Swift could be flexible. Roken could put him in the backfield by himself. Or he could pair him with Zaccheaus. He could line Swift up in the slot and bring him across on a jet sweep, or find him in the flats. Anywhere Swift could get a little bit of open field, that’s where they wanted him.

It allowed Swift not to be a bell-cow back right off the back. Instead, St. Joseph's gave him the opportunity to carve out his own role as an offensive-weapon for his first season. This, to Darren Swift, was crucial for his son’s development. Had they followed through with going to La Salle high school instead, things would have gone a lot differently.

“La Salle would have overused him,” Darren Swift said. “I’ve played against them. I think they would have used him too much instead of allowing Dre to mature and come into the role that he came into organically at the Prep.”

Four years down the road, Swift found himself in a nearly-identical situation. This time though, he knew what to expect. 

With Michel and Chubb still in Athens, Swift again had little weight on his shoulders. Come in, learn at your own pace, and carve out your own role—that’s what he needed to do. 

"I knew I could contribute then," Swift said in 2017. "[The coaches] trusted me and I knew I could make plays. It's staying humble and hardworking and being ready to do anything in practice. I knew I'd get my shot."

Dawg Post

Swift added that third threat to Georgia’s backfield—the home run hitter. While defense’s focused on slowing Chubb and Michel down, Swift could make big plays as the lesser-known weapon of the offense just as he had four years prior at St. Joesph’s. 

“I think too it helped bring out a dynamic of them feeding off one another,” Ayanna Swift said. “They were able to realize how they could complement each other well and become a three-headed monster.”

It was an incredible experience for Swift. He wasn’t apart of the early enrollees, so he had missed out on an entire spring camp of learning the playbook. But with a plethora of guys already in that running back room, it didn’t matter. Once again, the weight was off his shoulders.

“It was fast enough to where he could still participate and produce,” Darren Swift said. “But slow enough to where he could come along slowly. Much slower than if Nick and Sony weren’t there.”

To have that opportunity for a second time was incredible already. At Georgia, it ended up being invaluable. When Swift arrived in Athens, UGA’s medical staff discovered micro-tears on both sides of his groin. Determined to play his freshman year, Swift opted for injections that would allow him to put off surgery until after the season. Had Chubb and Michel opted for the pros a year early, Swift’s usage would have been undoubtedly higher. Likewise, the risk of serious injury would have risen with it. 

“We don’t know what the workload would have looked like had they not been there,” Darren Swift said. “We don’t know if D’Andre would have been able to play the entire season. He might have gotten injured even worse.”

To the Swifts, the situation at both schools couldn’t have played out any better. To not once, but twice, learn from two of the best of your division, is something invaluable to Swift.


The Brotherhood:

From the start, both Zaccheaus and Reid made sure to look out for the 14-year-old D’Andre Swift. They didn’t see the wunderkind as a threat to their playing time, carries or catches. Rather, they saw the young Swift as a little brother; someone they had to show the ropes to. 

With the increasing rigors that St. Joseph's demands on the field and in the classroom, the two seniors helped Swift find success early. And through the years, as Zaccheaus and Reid moved on and Swift took on their roles. With what is now St. Joseph's senior class, Swift was able to embrace the same role and lead that group. In suit, that group has now done the same.

“[Swift] was actually that guy for our current senior class,” Roken said. “And now they’re those guys for this team.” 

As Swift left the brotherhood he had helped create, he walked into one of college football’s biggest bromances—Chubb and Michel. The Swifts knew the two had a strong connection, they just didn’t realize how strong.

“I thought it may be fake,” Darren Swift said. “As guys at the same position, I thought: ‘Are they really best friends?’ No, they are. The love and caring they had for one another was genuine.”

And from the very first time they met Swift, who was still a highschooler at the time, Chubb and Michel brought him in on that bromance. 

“When we visited, we got there on a Friday,” Darren Swift said. “I didn’t see him again until Sunday because he was with them the entire time.” 

The situation Swift was walking into in Athens rang all too familiar: Two established and experienced players to show him the ropes of a completely new situation. It was almost shocking to the Swifts how similar it was. Moreso, it was welcoming.

“It was almost mirroring what he was able to have at St. Joseph's prep,” Ayanna Swift said. “Two great mentors that helped transition him into this dynamic trio… What they showed D’Andre at that time was the exact brotherhood Dre had just left behind at St. Joe’s.” 

And Swift shared that same sentiment.

“It’s pretty much the same exact story,” Swift said. “Coming in as a freshman, they were already there… They helped me as far as knowing the plays, going to them, getting extra film. I would actually go to their houses over the weekends to chill with them just to see how they lived.”

Swift’s quote is a little unclear as to which pair he’s talking about, but that’s how similar the two situations were. Anywhere where he says “they” or “them,” you could easily put “Chubb and Michel” or “Reid and Zaccheaus” and be correct.

For the Georgia trio, the relationship was friendly. Although it was business-like too. Chubb and Michel wanted the best of Swift. They expected his best too. Quickly, the two had a discussion with Swift, laying down their guidelines and expectations for success.

“They broke it down,” Darren Swift said. “This is what you do, this is what you don’t do. This is where you go, this is where you don’t go. This is what we expect from you, this is what we don’t expect from you.” 

In high school, it took a while for the lessons to accumulate for Swift. Up all the way through his junior year at St. Joseph's, Swift was running through, around and all over other schools. But it in that third year, the results of the previous two years weren’t replicated.

After two-straight State Championships, the precedent was set. Swift, Roken, Sugden—a third championship wasn’t their goal, it was their expectation. When St. Joseph's fell short of that, Swift and co. took it to heart. They hadn’t just let themselves down, they let everyone down.

“We fell short,” Roken said. “I think the group as a whole, they felt like they had let the seniors down that year.”

There was a vow to make sure that disappointment wasn’t repeated. 

“They went into January on a mission. They were ready to work,” Roken said. “There’s no doubt D’Andre was the leader of that group.”

Swift had taken on the role that Zaccheaus and Reid held before him. Although he did it in his own fashion. 

“He’s not much of a vocal leader,” Sugden said. “But when he started to understand what he meant to the team and the power his feelings and his non-verbals had. His maturation then, it was special.”

There was something different about Swift that offseason. A new level of determination had come about Swift, something that both of his parents had noticed. 

“His mindset was totally different,” Darren Swift said. 

“It created a fire in him,” Ayanna Swift said immediately after. 

Whatever it was about Swift, it clearly made a difference. Individually, he had 30 total touchdowns (25 rushing, five receiving) and 1,969 total yards (1,564 rushing, 405 receiving). As a team, St. Joseph’s prep was unstoppable. The Hawks won every game by a margin of 10 points or more en route to a 14-0 record and their third State Championship in four years. Whatever fire that was within Swift had spread to the field and to St. Joesph’s opponents. 

We’ll never see something like that again. That one is always going to haunt him.
- Darren Swift

More than two years down the road, that fire had been rekindled within Swift. This time, it was set in New Orleans. 

Eight carries, 12 yards and two fumbles. Against the Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl, Swift had put up a stat line that no one had ever seen from him in his time at Georgia. 

It immediately weighed on Swift. Following the 28-21 defeat to Texas on New Year's day, Swift sat out of post-game interviews. Reporters didn’t get to see the expression of Swift, but those close to him knew exactly how that game weighed on him. 

“I know D'Andre is just as disappointed as everybody,” Smart said following the Sugar Bowl.

His father saw that same disappointment.

“For him to fumble the ball twice, it left a very sour taste in his mouth,” Darren Swift said. “We’ll never see something like that again. That one is always going to haunt him.” 

The disappointment embarked Swift on a new mission that offseason. After two years of narrow defeats and missed opportunities of national titles, Swift was ready to take measures into his own hands. 

“He’s trying to be the best running back in college football,” said Mark Webb, Swift’s roommate and cousin. “It’s just crazy the work you see him put in.” 

Now, with several young backs behind him, Swift has taken on the role that Chubb and Michel, and Zaccheaus and Reid served as for him in years prior.

“He relishes that role,” Smart said on Swift. “I think he understands that he is one of the inspirational players on the team… He tries to set a good example for the younger players.” 

That moment stood out the most to Smart in a game against Murray State. After freshman George Pickens picked up what Smart called “a bone-headed penalty,” he acknowledged that Swift was the player to take action. 

“Swift is one of the first guys to come over and visit with [Pickens] and talk to him about it,” Smart said. “He knows that George is going to be a good player, but here’s an opportunity for [Swift] to impart some of his wisdom and knowledge, and I think Swift does that really well.”

Darren Swift hasn’t been able to see it first-hand, but with updates from his son, he’s able to see exactly what Swift is bringing to the table as a role model of the team. 

“He’ll tell me that he was training at 2:30 in the morning and he’ll send a video: Him, Zeus (Zamir White), [James] Cook and Mark Webb,” Darren Swift said. “His mindset is totally different. He trained so hard after his junior season at The Prep, and that’s what I see in him right now.” 

Each game that Georgia completes, the fire within Swift grows larger. The intention is to bring that blaze through Jacksonville, Auburn and Atlanta. And it won’t be extinguished until redemption can be achieved in the place where the fire was born—New Orleans.

“He believes that they should be National Champions two years running,” Darren Swift said. “He thinks that they shouldn’t have lost to Alabama two years ago. He thinks they shouldn’t have lost last year, either… Now, he’s ready for that shot again.” 



The Personal Touch: 

When Swift returned to Philadelphia in 2017 for the St. Joseph's-La Salle game, the fans were exuberant. They were there to cheer for the game, but when Swift arrived, he quickly became the center of attention for a moment.

It showed just how much love and respect Swift earned in his time in high school from St. Joseph's community.

But among that herd sat a kid who was smaller than most, but more excited than the rest.

His name is Griffin, the son of Swift’s high school English teacher Joseph Coyle. The bond between Griffin and Swift is more than just fandom, however. As Coyle describes it, the two are friends at this point.

It started when Coyle was serving as a football moderator for St. Joseph's. He would come and watch over practice after school. Often times, that meant Griffin would oftentimes join him in watching. 

“Dre became his favorite player at the prep,” Darren Swift said. “He would always come out and be enamored by his play. When he would come out, he would ask me, ‘Where’s D’Andre at?’”

It’s hard for Coyle to pinpoint exactly when the connection between the two took off, but it was easy to notice how quickly the relationship was built. Swift, as he did with younger players, took Griffin under his wing. 

“He treated him like a little brother,” Coyle said. “If I brought Griffin to school with me and into the cafeteria, and Dre was sitting there with seven, eight other guys, he would tell the other guys to slide over and let Griffin sit here.”

When Swift left for Georgia, it seemed like that connection may whither. 731 miles isn’t kind to friendships. It didn’t diminish, though, it just changed. Griffin became a fan of the Bulldogs from afar.

“Last Christmas, I got him a Georgia jersey, the D’Andre Swift one,” Coyle said. “I could have given him a brand new Xbox and he wouldn't have been as happy.”

They watched each game they could on TV. Coyle reminisced on a few of the bigger games they caught: the 2017 SEC Championship, the National Championship and the 2018 game against Auburn.


But for the 2018 Georgia-Georgia Tech game, Coyle and his son decided they wanted to bypass the screen and see Swift play live once again.

“I woke Griffin up at 4 o'clock in the morning and said ‘Do you want to go see D’Andre play in person?’” Coyle said.

Most kids would be peeved with their parents waking them up so early unannounced. This time, Griffin couldn’t care less. The two were Athens-bound to again see Swift play live.  

Coyle and Griffin sat through the Dawg Walk and the game waiting for an opportunity to see Swift. When they finally got to say hi, Coyle could see how drained Swift was. The tailback had just carried the ball 14 times for 105 yards and a touchdown. It isn’t what he or his son was hoping for, but he knew he had to give Swift his space.

“I told Dre ‘Hey, I love you, but we’re going to step back and let you be with family,’” Coyle said. 

But Swift had none of it. 

“He whipped his head around and looks at me and told us: ‘You are family. And you’re coming with us to dinner.’” 

Dinner wasn’t anything special for the Coyles and Swifts—just a routine meal at some steakhouse in Athens—but it gave Coyle a different perspective on Swift. When they arrived at the restaurant, Coyle equated it to “the Philadelphia version of me walking in somewhere with Carson Wentz.” 

“Person after person, it was autograph, autograph, autograph,” Coyle said about the dinner. “Never once was there a remark or a sigh. All he said was ‘Thank you very much.’ He was thanking them and signed everything. And he had put his head on the table he was so tired, but he kept signing and kept thanking.”

Coyle was aware of how his own son idolized Swift, but he realized then that it went way beyond that singular connection. The whole Georgia fanbase, the St. Joseph’s community, and specifically Philadelphia—he is a symbol to all those who follow him.

“He’s an ambassador for the city,” Coyle said. “He can do so much for all those little kids at his club football. Not just people like Griffin, the influence goes beyond that, I think it’s the city, and they’ve embraced him.” 

In his commitment video back in 2016, it featured Swift running through the streets of Philly, showing off the icons and people of the city. And that was before his collegiate success. He still reps Philadelphia to this day. His Instagram bio reads “Upt PHILLY” at the top. Occasionally on posts, he’ll throw in a “#PHILLY” as a simple reminder. People back home notice it. More importantly, they appreciate it.

“He hasn’t forgotten where he’s from, through social media and interviews and stuff like that,” Sugden said. “That goes a long way with people around here… he is a Philadelphian to a tee.”

When Darren Swift talks to others from the city, he hears how his son hasn’t only brought the city into a good light, but how he serves as a role-model, as an inspiration.

“They talk about the fact that their own children look up to D’Andre and try to emulate what he’s done,” the elder Swift said. “The fact that they know for an inner-city child of Dre’s caliber, for the now-athletes that are in the inner-city, to look at Dre and see that they too have an opportunity because D’Andre had one too.”

 
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