We all have the ability to dream. A life without dreams would be like a painting without color. Sure the picture could still tell a story, but when you add the color… well that’s when it can come to life. Some dreams are so grand that they seem like almost a fantasy. For a blessed few, God allows those fantasies to become realities. This is the story of how a child hood fantasy became his reality.
Eric Swann grew up in a Christian household in the small community of Sanford North Carolina. Eric grew up like many kids, full of energy. But Eric had more than most and he was diagnosed with severe ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Trying to figure out what to do, Eric’s Grandfather suggested to his mother, “Get this kid into football to burn off some of this energy!”. So they did. Early on Eric was an over-sized kid and a bit chubby. He wasn’t particularly good at football either. But Eric developed a strong passion for the game. His desire pushed him to work hard; to learn the game and to become a better athlete. Eric soon became bigger, faster, and stronger to compliment his desires. Eventually, at over six foot and over 220 pounds he became the star athlete for his high school.
Eric’s spiritual growth matched his physical growth. God was always present in his life. His Mom would always pray with him, an they’d also go to church every Sunday. Eric didn’t just want his parents faith however. “I always wanted a personal relationship with God beyond the word and didn’t want to just have a faith through the eyes or ears of another man. I needed it to be my own.”.
Eric experienced many miracles as a kid and he had constant prayer and conversations with God. One example was when playing against a sister school, Harnett Central, a player from the other team threw a cheap shot into his knee. It was sprained and it stiffened up badly. A big game was coming up the following week and Eric didn’t know how he was going to play because he couldn’t even bend the knee much less run. Eric went to church that Sunday. “I remember the minister asking if anyone wanted to experience something from God. I stood up in the congregation and made my way up to the alter. I did my best to kneel and I prayed out, ‘Lord I need you to heal this knee so I can play in the upcoming game.’. Instantly… I didn’t feel anything, and I got up and went to my seat.” Eric said. “After church we went home to our Sunday afternoon meal and I took the garbage out afterwards. When I threw it out I noticed on the way back in my knee was suddenly much more flexible and I could bend it and run on it. There was NO pain! I remember running in the house yelling, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom… God healed my knee!’ and I was able to play in that game. You know many people would just take that for granted, but God can do anything if you just trust and believe in Him.”.
Eric became “the athlete” in the school and was sought after by many different colleges for potential scholarships. “I was at a point that I could play at any college that I wanted to play at. And up to that point, I was the only high school student athlete that was ever offered a full ride college scholarship in the history of our school. And that is still true today.” Says Eric. “I wanted to play for the Clemson Tigers with Danny Ford, but my mother had a strong influence on me and she said, ‘Well, I’d like you to be closer to me.’. So I signed my letter of intent with the North Carolina State Wolf Pack in Raleigh North Carolina, which is about an hour and a half away.”. Eric was on his way to making history for his school, but there was just one detail. “My grades were ok… Not great, but ok. All I needed to do to receive the scholarship was to pass the SATs. I was pretty confident. I started actually taking the test my sophomore year. I didn’t pass it then, but I didn’t think it was a big deal because I had time. As long as I passed it my senior year I’d be fine.”. Junior year came and went and then finally senior year was upon Eric. “It was sort of a big ordeal. Everyone from the community and church knew about this opportunity… ‘The first full ride athletic scholarship for a major university!’. I was receiving letters from Duke, USC, NC State, Clemson, and other colleges and universities I never even heard of. It was a big deal. So all was resting on me passing this test. Right before graduation I took the SATs and I didn’t pass. I was pretty devastated.”.
Despite Eric’s setback, The Wolfpack still wanted him. “The Wolfpack said that there were still options. Why don’t you come in and we will still give you the scholarship. You will just be “red shirted” your freshman year. Well, I didn’t want to be labeled as a proposition 48. I felt that if you’re labeled as a proposition 48 you are being labeled as not smart or academically ineligible. I didn’t want that label.” Eric wanted to show that he was not only a good athlete, but a deserving student as well. “I asked if there was another option. I wanted to know if there was a way to still take the test and earn my four years of academic eligibility. They said, ‘Yes, we’ll still let you come up here and you can take the test the following spring.’. So, I went up there, they got me a job and I studied. I even took a course at a local college to make sure I was going to pass.”. During this time Eric still had the overall goal of playing football. Conditioning of the mind was important, but staying physically conditioned was just as important. God was shaping Eric for His story. “While I was preparing for the SAT and working out God is amazing and the way He unfolds things right before your eyes without you even knowing it is incredible. I was determined to stay in shape no matter what. So I trained in the heart of winter and when spring came around I was on the track at the university and I was working out. I noticed that when I was doing my warm up laps and sprints there was a gentleman standing next to the defensive coordinator just talking. Well I was able to hear from a distance, ‘Who is this kid?’ asked the gentleman to my defensive coordinator. He was there scouting Ray Agnew (who ended up being the tenth overall pick in the 1990 draft for the New England Patriots). Ray was the star defensive lineman and I was supposed to take his place after he left. My coordinator said, ‘That’s Swanny’ the scout then asked, ‘Well is he a freshman, sophomore or what?’. My coordinator said, ‘He’s not even eligible yet!’.” Eric was around 6’3” 295 pounds all muscle. After watching Eric workout the scout was obviously impressed. “This guy is a freak of nature!” The scout said to the coordinator. Eric was approached after the practice. “Hey, I was talking to your defensive coordinator and I wanted to let you know that if for any reason things don’t work out, here’s my card.”. The card said ‘Tom Marino – NFL scout for the New Orleans Saints’. This didn’t make sense to Eric. “No-one goes from high school to the NFL.” thought Eric. He didn’t think much more of it and put the card in his pocket.
That following weekend the test scores for the SAT were due to come in and Eric was confident that he had passed. He drove from Raleigh North Carolina to Sanford where he grew up. “I remember walking across the road to the mailbox to see if the results were there. I saw the envelope and was so excited I opened the letter right on the spot. And as I looked down in the envelope I could see that it read that I was 20 points shy… I remember thinking, ‘It’s all over!’. I had no more chances and the scholarship is gone! My parents couldn’t afford to send me so walking on was out. All hopes of going to college were done.”. Eric slowly walked across the road into the house and to his bedroom, where he gazed out the window engulfed with his thoughts. Thoughts of his dreams shattered, disappointment, and shame all bounced around his head like a loose football on the turf. He had fumbled his chance. “As a high school kid the pressure was intense. All I could keep thinking is that it’s over. My dreams of making it to the next level are done and all I am is a disappointment.”. Eric already had started to make plans to join the Marine’s when his mother walked into the room. “What’s wrong son?”. Eric replied, “It’s over mom. I didn’t pass the test and the scholarships are gone. I lost it all!”. Eric thought she was going to ‘be hysterical’ at the news. But the response was anything but hysterical. God spoke through his mother when she said, “Son… don’t ever give up on your dreams.” And she walked back to her room. Now Eric wasn’t inspired so much as comforted by his mother’s statement. To do something, Eric got up to do his laundry. He and his siblings were trained well. “My mom hated tissues or other papers left in our pockets and then thrown in the laundry, so we ALWAYS checked our pockets before we did our laundry.”. So, during his ‘pre-wash’ ritual of checking his pockets, Eric came across the business card handed to him almost two weeks prior. ‘Tom Marino – NFL scout for the New Orleans Saints’ the words stared out at Eric. And unlike the words in the letter from the SAT scores, these words offered hope. Having nothing to lose, Eric made the call. When Tom Marino picked up he asked how Eric was doing. Eric responded, “Not good. I failed the test so the scholarship is gone.”. Tom said, “Don’t worry. When can you be up to Raleigh again?”. Eric replied, “I can be up there this coming weekend!”. Eric got into his car and went back to Raleigh. In Raleigh the two met at a hotel with another person, Coach Jim Mora of the Saints. They said, “Son, we’d like to discuss your options.”. Options! Eric didn’t think he had any options. They said, “Kid you’ve got three options. Option one is that we could bring you into the NFL training camp and let you work out with the Saints. But, it’s competitive, high speed and in a short period of time you’ll get killed! You have no experience and it’d be too difficult and too big of a step.”. Eric said, “Well I can understand that, but what are the other two options?”. “The second option is that you can go to the Canadian Football league, let yourself develop, see what happens and get some film on yourself.”. Eric responded, “That is out of the question! My mom didn’t even want me going past NC State for college there’s NO way she’ll let me go to Canada! What’s my third option?”. Coach Mora and Tom said, “Well kid, it’s the least likely option for you to succeed and reach the NFL but it’s an option. There’s a new semi-pro football team starting up called the Bay City Titans and a friend of ours is the general manager in Massachusetts. It is a league that consists of College athletes trying to get into the NFL and last cut athletes from the NFL trying to get back on a team. It’s a summer league and you will play about thirteen games. This will give you a chance to get some film and then you can go around the league and market yourself.”. This was the option that sounded the best to Eric. “I’ll take that option! It intrigues me the most, but there is one stipulation. I need one of you guys to come back home and convince my mom. She doesn’t care about football and would rather I go to the community college in Sanford where there is no football or even athletics! Would you do that for me?”.
Richard Bell, the general manager of the Bay City Titans flew in and drove with Eric to have a meeting with his parents. At the meeting Eric was on pins and needles. The goal of going to college was eclipsed by the awesome vision of having a shot of going to the NFL. And it all hinged on this one, all important conversation. A conversation between a GM from Boston and the parents of a teenage athletic spectacle from a small town in North Carolina. Eric recalls, “This guy was fast talking, hair slicked back from Boston and I was just looking down thinking… WOW… This is not going well! I was losing hope and he kept talking a mile a minute. My mom, very quietly just sat and listened. I kept wondering what she was going to say. Then finally came her response. ‘No.’… I just sunk inside!”. Then came a response from a very unlikely person. “You have to understand the relationship between my father and me. We didn’t see eye to eye and didn’t get along. But, he spoke up and said, ‘Gloria, just let the boy go. If things don’t work out he can always come back.’. Now this is from a man who instilled in us that when we turned 18 that was it! We were to leave home make something of ourselves and not come back. There was no stay at home and live off mom and dad. Now, he was not only speaking on my behalf, but leaving the door open if things didn’t work out.”. Eric was shocked, stunned and waiting. This had all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The fast talking pitchman verses the unassuming mother with a cameo from an unlikely hero! Eric would have probably enjoyed the show a lot more if the next scene didn’t impact his future so greatly. The next scene would either mean a step towards chances to fulfill dreams or towards disappointment. “My mom calmly said, ‘Alright Mr. Bell. If you can put your hand on the word of God, promise to me that no harm will come to him and that you’ll treat him like your own son then I will let him go.”. Eric looked at Mr. Bell and said, “Richard, really think about what you are doing.”. Richard Bell got up and put his hand on the Bible. “Mrs. Swann, before God and everyone else here, I swear on God’s holy word that I will take care of Eric and treat him as my own.”. That was all that Mrs. Swann needed to hear and Eric was another step closer to his dream.
Going from North Carolina to the East Coast was a culture shock. “I still had a southern drawl and they all spoke so fast. Everything was fast.”. The league was new and the players were all looking for their chance. Even though the conditions weren’t ideal they made the most of what they had. “The equipment was not like what they have today. I had a mark on my forehead from the helmet. And the jerseys were so thin, I could just rip them easily with my bear hands. For practice we would use anything we could find; in a park, a parking lot or even at fields donated by a local high school. But the catch for the high school was that there were Canadian Geese everywhere ad they would crap on the field so before we could practice we had to scrape the field to get it ready to play on.”. Despite the less than stellar conditions Eric made the most of his opportunity. The thirteen games went by quickly and he became a sensation. He was the kid who just graduated high school competing against former college and NFL players, but he rapidly became the one to watch. Eric remembers, “The league (NFL) started to get a hold of what was going on and noticed. At the time there was a magazine called ‘The Sporting News’ and they did a huge cover story on me. It was like high school all over again but in Massachusetts. 1,000 to 3,000 people would show up to watch ‘The Phenom’ play. I was not only doing great things, but I was doing it as a 19 year old verses former college and NFL players.”. During this time it’d be easy to bask in the glory of oneself and think you’re all that. But Eric had a different focus. “This is when it’s all about God and trusting God to take you to places that you can’t even imagine or fathom because it’s so much better than you can imagine. I knew to pray, but I would pray for what I knew. I didn’t know to pray for the semi-pro route. I didn’t know about anything but college then the NFL. God had a different plan. It wasn’t always easy or a cake walk and I even contemplated quitting, but I knew to pray and I knew to stay true and to trust God. God’s plan isn’t always easy but it is good. Trusting in God is like walking in the dark sometimes. Pretty soon He’ll let you see the light. It’s beyond our mind how God will put this all together and that is ok because it’s His plan.”. That was the first and last season for the semi-pro team and the league that Eric had a chance to play in. God used it for His plan.
The season ended for the team and Eric had tape, stats, and marketability. “We started to send the tapes to all the teams in the NFL and wouldn’t you know it, this was the year that everyone was looking for defensive linemen! It was like winning the lottery and we had interest. And it wasn’t like, ‘We’ll call you in for a workout after the 1991 draft’. We were talking about high lottery pick IN the NFL draft.”. Eric was approached by teams like Dallas, Denver and Detroit who all had interest and need for someone of Eric’s talent and position. It was a chance to go from failure to phenom if he could only get the invitation to show his talent at the ultimate level. It was an overwhelming experience. There were many people with all the talent and credentials. Eric now had a shot to be on the same stage and these teams were actually interested. “What did they see that I didn’t? It was like the story of King David when they went through all the sons and then asked if there were any more and then there was one scrawny dude named David who became the anointed. I believe in that moment that was me.”.
The night before the draft Eric’s agent, Mrs. Swann, Eric and others were gathered trying to figure out where Eric was going to go. Eric and his agent talked back and forth with much speculation when Mrs. Swann chimed in, “My son is going all the way!”. She felt that Eric was going number one when others were wondering if he would even go the first round. That night something happened that threw the whole draft into a frenzy. The number one prospect in the draft, Rocket Ishmael, declared that he would go to the Canadian football league and skip the NFL draft. This was something no one could have accounted for. God had a plan.
The night of the draft comes. Eric recalls, “Let me tell you how God works. We are talking about the creator of the universe who aligns the stars, moon and the sun. Who places every grain of sand on this Earth. The night of the draft a storm came in and I was in Union area in Salem Massachusetts while the draft was being held in Radio City Music hall in New York. There was a media bubble with us because I was the human interest story. ‘Who was going to take a chance on this kid?’. So they would go in and out during the coverage. I had all the physical attributes: 6’2” had beefed up to 311 and ran a 4:75 in the 40. This was too good to be true! And of course I was drug tested and there was no drugs! So people were excited! I had everything except the traditional college experience.”. What Eric had was coachable raw talent, but would that translate well in a world where you need to produce or you’re out. The first five players in the draft were all defensive players which had never been seen before. They were the likes of Russell Maryland, Eric Turner, Bruce Pickens, Mike Croel, and Todd Lyght but no Eric Swann. They were all deserving solid choices. They had stats, physical attributes and came from football power houses like Miami, Nebraska, and Notre Dame. It was starting to look like the dream was going to be just that. Eric says, “The sixth pick is up for the Phoenix Cardinals and the commissioner Paul Tagliabue got to the podium with a smirk on his face he pauses and he says, ‘With the sixth pick of the NFL draft the Phoenix Cardinals pick… Eric Swann of the minor league football system, defensive tackle.’.”. The moment was surreal for Eric. “I can’t even describe the feeling! Everything was like in slow motion. People cheering and jumping up and down. Have you ever seen the Matrix? That is what it was like! It was history being made and we broke the barrier on something that had never been done before.”. Eric skipped tradition and was drafted to the NFL with no college experience. God is a God of the extraordinary. Eric Swann, “Your fame, money or glory are not what is going through life. Your faith is what is going to anchor you through the highs and lows that we all will go through.”.
Eric went on to play for the Cardinals from 1991 – 2000 and finished his career with the Carolina Panthers where he was matched up with his idol Reggie White. He had to overcome adversity in the beginning of his career but eventually became a two time pro-bowler and two time all-pro selection. Eric had amassed 463 tackles and 46.5 sacks throughout his career. He had made the highest pinnacle and excelled. He also received the accolades of his peers. Eric needed to work hard to get there and even harder while in the NFL. He achieved a dream, but the dream Eric was chasing was small compared to the magnificent story God had written long before Eric ever stepped onto the field. Sometimes a dream isn’t exactly the way you envisioned it, but when God is your coach and you follow Him the dream can be far more glorious then you can fathom.