A guy who wears a black visor over his eyes, has the number 1 emblazoned on his jersey and has K. SOLO painted on his shoes probably ought to add a cape to his ensemble. Who could have known that Georgia Tech was harboring a comic-book superhero in safety Ken Swilling, otherwise known as Captain America?
At 6'3", 236 pounds, and with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.41 seconds, Swilling is the model football player, a consensus All-America who looks the role, with a granite physique that appears all the more harmful in this getup. "If you were to draw a picture of a football player in a uniform, you'd draw Ken Swilling," Tech coach Bobby Ross says. "He's the guy you want to get off the bus first when you go visiting."
Swilling is also a quiet, small-town fellow from Toccoa, Ga., with a streak of passivity, a hint of spirituality that makes him believe his own dreams, and a silken athleticism that makes everything appear too easy for his own good.
Sometimes Swilling is all of the things he is supposed to be, and sometimes he is not. Although he returns to the national co-champion Yellow Jackets (11-0-1) and to a defense that did not allow a touchdown for the first 19 quarters of 1990, there is the slightest suspicion that he is overrated. Also, he will be playing an unfamiliar position; hoping to take better advantage of Swilling's linebacker size, Ross is moving him from free safety to strong safety.
Swilling could have entered the NFL draft but decided against it, mainly because scouts were uncertain about him after his injury-nagged junior season. Despite the five games in which he amassed tackles in double digits, Swilling's 1990 season included mediocre performances in a couple of Georgia Tech's biggest games. Swilling has on occasion been too slow to anger and too burdened by the weight of his publicity. "With a mean Ken Swilling we could be something," defensive back Willie Clay says wistfully.
Dreamy might be Swilling's preferred state. Captain America has a hard time getting up in the morning. He oversleeps morning meetings, mandatory breakfasts and, sometimes, classes, though he is an adept student: He is majoring in management and has been an occasional visitor to the dean's list. But dreaming might be one of his most peculiar powers. When Swilling dreams something, it often comes true, or so he claims. While in high school, he dreamed he would wind up at Georgia Tech instead of at Alabama or Clemson, and woke up one morning repeating the engineering school's name. When he arrived at Tech for the first time, he claims he recognized the buildings. Swilling suggests his dreams come from the power of prayer, and that belief made it all the more confusing and irritating for him in his freshman season, in which he started from the Yellow Jackets' opening game. There seemed to be no higher meaning in the Rambling Wreck's losing season other than the fact that they were lousy. "God," he asked, "why would you send me here to a team that's 3-8?"
The 1989 season didn't start much better, as Tech lost its first three games. But the Yellow Jackets won seven of their last eight, with Swilling intercepting five passes during that stretch. After he returned two interceptions for touchdowns of 95 and 72 yards against N.C. State and Boston College, respectively, his coaches finally stopped calling him Pat, after his cousin Pat Swilling, a member of Georgia Tech's famed 1985 Black Watch defense and now a New Orleans Saints All-Pro.
During the summer before the 1990 season, Swilling dreamed that Georgia Tech would go 11-0, and he had the audacity to say it out loud. "Everybody looked at me like, man, you're stretching it," he says. "But I could see it."
He dreamed of big games and big plays; his dreams woke him in the night. When the season began, sometimes he would be running across a part of Tech's Grant Field about to make a hit or an interception, and he would remember a frame from a dream. "When it happens, it's like dèjà vu," he says. "If I dream about somebody, I might see them. If I dream about something, it might happen. Sometimes it's so intense I wake up sweating."
Swilling's most significant recent dream occurred when he was trying to decide whether to return to Georgia Tech for his senior year or enter the NFL draft. His sleep was invaded one night by a childhood friend who had died in a drug-related incident. Just as Swilling used to plead with the friend to get away from drugs, in Swilling's dream the friend was beseeching him to finish his college career. There was also a pragmatic reason for returning to Tech: NFL scouts' appraisals of him were mixed.
For the first five games of 1990, Swilling was a whirling, swooping presence who made four interceptions and 34 tackles. But he severely sprained his right ankle on the opening kickoff of the fifth game, against Clemson, and while he went on to make 11 tackles that day, he sat out the next two games. Tech team physician Jay Shoop told him the ankle would require six to eight weeks to heal, but Swilling suited up early, for the team's pivotal game against Virginia. While Georgia Tech won, 41-38, Swilling was embarrassed before a national television audience by Virginia receiver Herman Moore, who made nine catches—five of them while covered by Swilling—for 234 yards. "We made Herman a first-round pick," says Tech defensive backfield coach Chuck Priefer. "We want Herman to send his first $100,000 to us."
Swilling was not the same player for the remainder of the season. "I played horribly against Virginia," Swilling says. "It changed the whole season, and my whole attitude about leaving school. I felt I had things to prove. People judged me. That bothered me a lot."
Swilling's confidence eroded noticeably as he dealt with public criticism for the first time in his career. He uncharacteristically began making mistakes in practices and allowing catches in games that previously he might have intercepted or broken up. His opportunity for redemption, when Georgia Tech beat Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl, was unsatisfactory. Swilling was hardly a factor.
"It's hard, when you've been praised all the time, to think you're doing something wrong," Clay says. "People started looking at him like maybe this guy isn't all that good. I saw him change. He started breaking down in practice. He didn't know who Ken Swilling was."
If Swilling's confidence was fragile, it may have been because he is younger and less experienced than most people realize. Although he is a senior, he will not be 21 until next month, and he has really played only five full seasons of football. He gave the sport up altogether for two years in high school after he broke his sternum while playing running back in ninth grade. But he returned to football when his fear wore off and when he saw his cousin Pat use football as an avenue to get a scholarship to a major college.
Swilling's athleticism is the stuff of legend around Toccoa. He rarely came off the field at Stephens County High School, where he also started on the basketball and baseball teams and ran track. But for a while he was the least renowned of the three Swillings, behind Pat and Pat's younger brother, Darrell, 21. Darrell, now a senior inside linebacker at Georgia Tech, has few NFL aspirations; instead, he is intent on a "bright future in the corporate world."
Ken grew up about a mile from his cousins, and was the smallest and the slowest of them. He lost all the footraces. "All I thought about was that one day I was going to beat them," he says. "I thought if I could beat them, I could beat anybody."
Even then, however, Swilling had a certain fluidity of movement. Says Darrell, "He does things without effort that other people have to work at."
Ross saw Swilling perform a breathtaking feat one night in his senior year of high school, when Stephens County played a regional championship game against Villa Rica High. With seven seconds left and Stephens County trailing, Swilling caught a 40-yard prayer of a pass, outjumping and wresting the ball away from four defenders, then streaked 20 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Ross is still taken aback by the things Swilling can do, particularly the speed with which he moves. Swilling's habit of coming out of nowhere earned him the nickname Captain America. "I never coached a guy like Ken who could step in and play any position," Ross says.
But the ease with which Swilling moves can be confused with lack of effort, and his finesse sometimes looks more like hesitancy, strange qualities for a man of his size and speed. When he was a freshman, critics questioned his toughness.
"He doesn't really have that rough nature," says safety Eric Bellamy. "I guess because he's bigger than everyone, he figures they'll run into him and fall down."
Swilling may have acquired his nature, which happens to be an appealing one off the field, from the sultry, southern-hamlet atmosphere of Toccoa. He is a self-described "sheltered country boy, an ordinary old Joe," who spent most of his time hunting or fishing. "I can see why he has the dreams he does, coming from that atmosphere," Clay says. Ken's father, Jerry, works in a General Motors factory; his mother, Judy, in a textile plant.
Swilling may never acquire a rougher nature. He is the gentle giant who doesn't know his own strength. His teammates are afraid to wrestle playfully with him because he bruises them unwittingly. Every now and then, something will excite or anger him on the field to such an extent that his voice sinks to an indecipherable bass, and he will jump up and down and try to yell around his mouthpiece. The effect of this is not what he intends. Usually his teammates collapse in helpless giggling at the sight of him trying to holler.
"But you know, you listen, because he's Ken Swilling," Clay says. "And you respect that."