It's an autumn afternoon in Eden Prairie, Minn., but it feels more like late December. A northeasterly wind whips through the orange leaves of the maples that line the Vikings' practice field, making the temperature—with the wind chill—19°. Standing in line, over by the blocking sled, is Dennis Swilley, the Vikings' starting center and the NFL's answer to Frank Lloyd Wright. He's an accomplished architect, interior designer, sculptor and painter. A chair that he designed, made of six slotted triangular pieces of wood, will soon be on the market in Minneapolis. The chair is definitely his idea of a self-portrait—"slightly oversized and somewhat complicated."
On this day, however, Swilley resembles a giant marshmallow—the only guy on the field wearing layers and layers of sweatshirts underneath his white jersey. His linemates are growling as they ram the blocking sled. Swilley looks left. Then he looks right. Suddenly he's off. He sprints across the field, bounds up a hill and disappears into the woods.
"Hey, guys," yells Scott Studwell, a Vikings linebacker. "Swilley's gone over the wall—again. Oh, those temperamental artists." It will be 10 minutes before Swilley sees fit to join his teammates back in the huddle.
Swilley went over the hill—all the way over—once before. That time he didn't come back for a year. His version of the Great Escape occurred in 1984 after five years as the Vikings' starting center. That's when Swilley retired and went back to Aubrey, Texas, to build a home he designed. "There's not a whole lot of self-expression in football," the 30-year-old Swilley says. "There are so many rules and guidelines. You're not creating anything new. You're just using your athletic ability. What about the soul within you? Sometimes I hear a voice inside me calling, 'Hey, I want to get out.' "
Swilley expresses himself in unusual ways. He has been known to stand on his head during practice "to keep from falling asleep." He also juggles toy penguins in the locker room "to stay sane." If he's feeling funky, he'll dress in brightly colored high-top sneakers, tacky Hawaiian shirts and faded big overalls with his harmonica in the chest pouch. The sophisticated Swilley, however, wears a leather jacket, designer corduroys, argyle socks and tassel loafers. He also dabbles with the piano.
Swilley says that when he was growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., he was "a nerdy kid with a dopey haircut." A few years later, while his friends were out practicing their sports, Swilley sat in his bedroom and began to doodle with Magic-Markers and colored pencils. This was fun. Soon Swilley was designing kites and tree houses and creating models of the town's buildings, using paper-towel tubes and cardboard boxes.
Football had not become a problem yet: He was much bigger than the other kids. And his size helped when they would rough it up on a concrete parking lot next to the hospital. But organized football?
"In ninth grade," Swilley recalls, "all the coach did was take us up to the high school for somebody to beat on us. We got dogged around. We felt intimidated. I thought, 'I don't need this.' " So he quit.
It wasn't until his senior year in high school that he rejoined the team. "There was a new coach who appreciated athletes," says Swilley, who was 6'3", 220 pounds. He played tight end and defensive line and wound up with a scholarship to Texas A & M, where he enrolled as an architecture major.
"I lived in the football dorm," Swilley says. "What a zoo! It was impossible to apply myself. I had about a 1.28 grade point average. It was too hard to be good at both football and architecture, so I chose football. When football got too confining, I'd throw my helmet into the stands and scream, 'I'm not going to do this!' I'd keep telling myself that, someday, if I could make money playing pro football, I'd be able to devote myself to my art."
Swilley was an All-Southwest Conference guard his senior year and the Vikings' second-round draft pick in 1977. In his third season, he became the starting center—only the second in the Vikings' history—replacing the retired Mick Tingelhoff. He lived in a house with Studwell and quarterback Tommy Kramer on Orchard Lake, 15 miles from the Vikings' offices.
"Dennis never really fit in," Kramer says. "He was a hermit, looking for a place to lay his mat." Says Studwell, "I saw Dennis as an artist playing football to pay the bills. I wondered where his head was."
In 1981 Swilley enrolled in the interior-design program at North Texas State, and he attended the school for a semester in each of the next three off-seasons. He was a star student (3.7 GPA), immersing himself in Shakespeare, sculpture and furniture design. One spring, he studied art history in Switzerland.
"My artist friends couldn't believe I was a football player, and neither could I," he says.
Each summer, it got harder and harder to go back to training camp. "It was difficult to turn one talent on and the other off—every six months," Swilley says. "I struggled with the contradictions within me. I could be aggressive but passive, macho but sensitive. I just couldn't understand how I could do one thing and be another."
In '82, he began dreaming about his escape from football. On a napkin at a hamburger joint in the east Texas town of Denton, a few miles from Aubrey, Swilley sketched an outline of a house. Eventually, the sketch became 12 gigantic blueprints—five bedrooms, four bathrooms, dozens of windows, decks and beams, all on a plot in the town's 51-acre Oak Bluff development, of which Swilley is part owner.
Construction began in February of '84. "I'd be up every day at 6:30, making lists," he says. "Some days it was crazy. There were a million headaches. But it was the most fulfilling thing I'd ever done. Every day, I'd come home, my clothes soaked in sweat, sawdust in my hair, and I felt like I had done something."
By that May, when minicamp, under new coach Les Steckel, rolled around, the house was still seven months from completion. Swilley was torn.
"I couldn't just close the house up," he says. "It was killing me to leave." But he went to minicamp anyway—for two days. "I knew what Les was like," Swilley says. "He wanted guys who'd do nothing else but play football. When he was an assistant, he'd corner me in the parking lot after practice and give me pointers. That wasn't his job. He was a chronic coach. I'd say, 'Les, practice is over. I'm going home.'
"So I got to minicamp, and Les handed me an itinerary with military terminology, and then he sent me out to go through some crazy drills. That's when I thought, 'This is more than I'm willing to give.' As far as I was concerned, I was gone for good." He used his severance pay as a down payment on his own house.
Head east out of Denton, on U.S. Highway 380, across three concrete-sided bridges and the scrubby, dried-out bottom of Lake Dallas. Up on the ridge, nestled in the mesquite and oak trees, looms the house that Swilley built—a contemporary cedar structure that covers 4,200 square feet and cost $325,000.
A passive-solar, earth-shelter design, the house is embedded in the ridge, assuring warmth in winter and coolness in summer. The east side looks somewhat like a barn, the west side like a futuristic ship, with all sorts of geometric shapes, round windows and skylights.
Inside, it has the feeling of a cabin retreat—ash, pine and cedar paneling, fireplaces and an earth-tone color scheme.
Many of the furnishings are unique. There's a library ladder, firemen's pole, buffalo rug, coffee tables made from wooden spools ("early phone company," he says), a barber's chair, a collection of clocks, a 1940s lamppost and a doorbell that plays the theme from Green Acres.
On the walls are Swilley's watercolors, delicate landscapes. His sculptures are in every room. Most are made from wood. His two favorites are a life-size, blue-and-red spiny steer and a hanging lamp made of commode parts with toilet-paper for shades. He thinks that the lamp looks Oriental.
The house consumed Swilley. Last season, he lost more than 30 pounds, dropping to 218; he occasionally watched football on TV. Steckel and Kramer—and even the Atlanta Falcons—called several times, asking him to come back. "I'm still mad that he deserted us," Kramer says. "I needed a center who could get me the snap."
Late last February, Swilley phoned Vikings coach Bud Grant, who had returned after Steckel was fired. "I asked him if he could use another center," Swilley says. "I knew I still had the ability. It made sense financially. And, you know, I really missed it." Grant told him to start working out. He made no promises but, Grant says, "When he got to training camp, I saw that Dennis hadn't changed a bit."
When Jim Hough went out with an arm injury after the second game of the season, Swilley stepped back into the starting spot. "Dennis is playing the best football of his career," Grant says.
Swilley knows the reason for that: He's not fighting himself anymore. "When I was away, I realized I had an obligation to myself," Swilley says. "As long as I had the ability to excel, I had a responsibility to develop both talents. It's part of finding yourself.
"For now, I'll be both. Football is my release. But if football ever gets to be too much, I'll say, 'Fine. Y'all can do it that way, and I'll just go back to my watercolors.' "