Already a local legend, Tyrone Swoopes looks to keep excelling
In the 2.1 square country miles of Whitewright, Texas, there's one gas station, one movie theater and one major attraction: a 6-foot-4 inch quarterback with a big-time arm and primetime feet who has put a town without a stoplight into the spotlight.
Say hello to Tyrone Swoopes, the biggest story to hit Whitewright (pop. 1714) since stolen medieval art treasures surfaced from Germany 22 years ago.
Whitewright was a quiet, obscure speck of open land 60 miles north of Dallas until Swoopes touched the ball for the first time. He went 60 yards to the 1-yard line as a freshman. The town erupted. Swoopes switched from receiver to quarterback the next year, amassed 2644 yards rushing and passing and accounted for 40 touchdowns. He delivered an encore last fall -- rushing for 2267 yards and 29 touchdowns, passing for 1394 and 15 -- and heads turned across Texas and beyond.
Whitewright High football Coach Jack Wylie considered giving Swoopes a personal mailbox. "Most of the mail in my box was for Tyrone," Wylie says.
Elizabeth Swoopes, Tyrone's mother, collected more than 1500 letters from college coaches. Messages from recruiters landed on Tyrone's Facebook page. Text messages buzzed on his cell phone.
TCU coaches visited the high school days after the Horned Frogs won the 2011 Rose Bowl. More coaches followed. All of a sudden, recruiters began punching into their navigation systems a little-traveled stretch of road that slices through Whitewright, U.S. Highway 69.
Those who didn't drive in called in. "I was on the phone with Nick Saban," Wylie says of the Alabama football coach. "I was on the phone with (Ohio State coach) Urban Meyer. They both offered Tyrone scholarships. The coach from LSU called before that. It was pretty crazy."
It's been more shocking than crazy this fall for Swoopes, who committed to the University of Texas in February. The best player in Texas leads a team in search of its first win. After making the playoffs and finishing 7-4 last season, the Whitewright Tigers are 0-8. A combination of injuries, poor blocking and a weaker-than-expected defense caused the collapse.
Swoopes has battled an injured hamstring -- which cost him one game and slowed him in others -- but keeps the Tigers competitive. He averages 262 total yards per game, almost 10 yards per carry and has accounted for 22 touchdowns -- 14 rushing, eight passing. He's completed only 43 percent of his passes -- with two interceptions -- which Wylie attributes to dropped balls, weak protection and the hamstring. "In the games he's been healthy," Wylie says, "he's been outstanding."
There is much to like about Tyrone. He can throw the ball 68 yards. He ran the 40 in 4.51 for TCU coaches the summer after his freshman year. He overwhelms defenses with remarkable athleticism and rare playmaking abilities. As a junior, Tyrone averaged 13 yards per carry. In one game against Tom Bean (Texas), he rushed for 540 yards (the most in the nation last fall) and seven touchdowns. In another against Bells High, he completed all 10 of his pass attempts, three for touchdowns.
His skills transcend football. He averaged 19 points for the basketball team. He long jumps and triple jumps for the track team and runs on the sprint relays. He makes almost all As. He mentors elementary school children twice a week. He attends services at First Baptist Church on Sundays and Wednesdays.
"He's just as humble a person as you could ask for," Wylie says. "He's every bit a great person as he is an athlete. Almost too good to be true. The kind of kid you'd want to date your daughter."
Sitting in his small living room, watching ESPN with his mother and two younger siblings, Tyrone looks like a home body. He has a muscled physique, a soft voice, a gentle smile. He is "yes sir, no sir" polite and more down to earth than a pair of white socks. But somewhere in that big, athletic body is an ego, a rich depository of confidence edging toward brashness that demands he take over games. "When I put on the pads," he admits in a voice not much louder than a whisper, "I turn into a different person."
Elizabeth nods and smiles. She once transformed herself back in the day at Whitewright High, from valedictorian in the classroom to star player on the basketball court. A 5-foot-11 forward, Elizabeth did not go gently to the rim, and neither does Tyrone. He averaged nearly 10 rebounds a game.
The athletic gene pool runs deep in the Swoopes family. Elizabeth (Class of 1990) also ran track and played tennis in high school. She played basketball for two years at Grayson College and one year at the University of Texas at Arlington. Today, she coordinates the Whitewright middle school girl's athletic program and helps Wylie coach the high school girls track team.
Her ex-husband, Tyrone Swoopes Sr., played quarterback for Carter High in Dallas. A distant cousin, Sheryl Swoopes, starred in the WNBA. Then there's Zada Swoopes, Tyrone Jr.'s little sister. She is an 8th grade phenom, an undefeated sprinter, discus champion and basketball star. "You'll be writing about her one day," Wylie promises.
They're writing plenty about Zada's brother, not all of it good. His video highlights have generated more than 100,000 views on YouTube with predictable commentary. Some call him the next Vince Young. Others claim he's a flawed passer beating up on small (Class 2A) competition. "Most overrated player in the Class of 2013," one critic wrote.
It doesn't matter to Texas fans that Tyrone plays for a school with 220 students. They view him as Rivals.com does -- as an elite recruit. "Tyrone's getting on the Longhorn's 'Back to the Championship' bus," one fan wrote. "You rival teams better not get in the way haha!"
In the wild west of online video clips and cyber postings, Tyrone Jr. is an inviting target -- a big body shredding tackles of kids who, in some cases, look like middle schoolers. In one breakaway sprint to the end zone, the two corners chasing Tyrone (6-4, 225) look no bigger than 5-8, 150.
247Sports.com's analyst Brian Perroni understands the conflicting views. "Swoopes is obviously a heck of an athlete and it's really not fair with his size and speed playing against such small-school competition," Perroni says. "However, he is not nearly the polished product that most quarterbacks are coming out of high school these days. He doesn't have the private coach or come from a high-powered system so he is going to have to develop a lot when he gets to Texas.
"I personally love his upside. He has a higher ceiling than any other quarterback in the class."
Mayor Bill Goodson believes in Whitewright's favorite son. Goodson says Tyrone Jr. is a lot like the collection of medieval manuscripts and relics that mysteriously appeared at First National Bank in 1990 -- the Quedlinburg treasures. The discovery included gold and ivory artifacts -- possibly even a lock of the Virgin Mary's hair, one newspaper reported -- stolen from a cave in Quedlinburg, Germany during World War II, mailed to Whitewright, placed in a bank vault and valued at $200 million.
"But now we have another treasure," Goodson says. "Tyrone."
The good people in God-fearing Whitewright would say "amen" to that. Goodson is a respected 82-year-old African-American in a town that's 87 percent Anglo, a popular mayor who says what he believes and doesn't worry about re-election. He's held his current office for 17 years and served on the city council for 15 years before that.
Goodson loves Tyrone, says the kid reminds him of an old high school teammate in Dallas. Ernie Banks. Goodson claims he not only played with the Chicago Cubs' Hall of Famer, he also pitched in the Negro Leagues. And you know what? The mayor seems to recognize a bit of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the Whitewright legend.
"Tyrone could be one of the greatest athletes I've seen," Goodson says. No one in town would disagree with that, but some of his recollections ring more like Tall Texas Tales than truth. For starters, Goodson graduated from Lincoln High School in 1947, Banks from Booker T. Washington in 1950. Secondly,
Goodson says he played for a team -- the Atlanta Black Crackers -- that folded in 1938, according to Negro League records. The mayor would have been about 9-years-old at the time.
Goodson admits age may have caused him to jumble facts. But he insists he played ball with Banks, at least in his old neighborhood. As for the Negro Leagues, Goodson says he played briefly for a team in Georgia that assumed the old "Atlanta Black Crackers" name.
Whatever the truth, Whitewright loves its mayor and exploding star. Tyrone dazzles on Friday nights and stays out of trouble. "There's not much to do around here," he says.
Whitewright is so small you could pass through on Highway 69 and not know you missed it. Downtown is a two-block strip that sits off the highway. There's an auto parts store. A bank. A library. A few shops and places to eat. The hot spots are The Odeum movie theater, the Dairy Queen and the Exxon gas station.
"That Exxon has some of the best food in the area," Wylie says. "Burgers, fried chicken and catfish."
When he wants to taste big city life, Tyrone ventures 20 miles north to Sherman (pop. 38,521) for a movie. During spring break, he spent an afternoon with friends at nearby Lake Texoma. "We sat around, talked and ate pizza," he says.
Tyrone is quietly imperfect. Elizabeth says her son was a straight-A student until he stumbled in math. When Tyrone came home with an F, Elizabeth confiscated his cell phone. He asked for it back when he raised his average to a C but Elizabeth refused. "A 74 is not good enough," she says. "He needs to get that grade up to at least an 80."
There are some who wonder if Tyrone can survive a sprawling campus like Texas, where the population of Whitewright could fit in a single building. Vince Young did not get lost in Austin. He played high school ball in the nation's fourth-largest city, Houston. Tyrone does not worry about getting swallowed.
"I think I'll get used to it," he says.
Formidable competition looms. Heralded freshmen Connor Brewer (Scottsdale, Az.) and Jalen Overstreet (Tatum, Tex.) are waiting their turn behind Longhorn sophomore David Ash (the nation's 26th most efficient quarterback) and junior backup Case McCoy. "I think I am up for the challenge," Tyrone says.
There's no pressure in Whitewright. There will be plenty in Austin. He has another year to refine his game and enjoy small-town Texas. He can't go anywhere in Whitewright without stirring excitement. Children want his attention. Adults ask for autographs. Just about everyone wants to talk to him about football. The mayor is talking NFL.
Not long ago, the town was talking Quedlinburg treasures again. A film crew had arrived to do a documentary on artifacts that were stolen, discovered, sold and returned to Germany. Elizabeth remembers the story. It broke during her senior year of high school.
Now another story breaks and it's sitting under her roof. A homegrown treasure.