John Swain, Steelers Cornerback, 1985-1986
First, can you tell readers about how you got started playing football?
I was born and raised in Miami and was a blue chip athlete in high school. I was recruited by a number of universities but went to the University of Miami. I turned down offers from UCLA, Pitt, Nebraska…
In high school, I was a was a quarterback my freshman year and by the time I was a senior the coach decided they needed help on defense and moved me to free safety. I had twelve interceptions which is still a school record.
How was the transition to college?
I was a nickel back as a freshman but started my first game when the starter – John Turner – hurt his ankle. John was later drafted in round two by Minnesota and I started for three years in Miami after John was drafted.
On my draft day, I expected to go in the first few rounds. Back then ESPN cut off at 5:00. By mid round three it was cut off and I wasn’t drafted yet. I had the media and my family there and was thinking, is this going to be a bust?
Then at 6:15 I got a call from Bud Grant. He said they drafted me round four. I started bawling. I was relieved, but also a bit disappointed.
So you follow John Turner again?
I was behind John Turner again! We grew up in the same neighborhood in Miami, both played in Miami and even had the same agent.
So you go to Minnesota?
I was thinking, where is Minnesota? I got a contract for $35,000-$45,000 over three years, with a $25,000 bonus and a $3,000 reporting bonus.
After signing the contract I flew back to Miami. My mom and aunt raised me and I went back to take care of the leaky rook, put bars in the windows (Miami was a rough area) and got furniture and a new rug for the house.
I bought a 1981 Buick Riviera – a brother needs wheels right? Then me and my cousin drove out to Minnesota.
How was your time in Minnesota?
I started in my second year – was a nickel back as a rookie. In my third year I was tied for the league lead in interceptions with John Turner!
Here’s a Bud Grant story for you. My rookie year I was running gasses. He told us to put our hands on the line each time you ran the width of the field. We ran three – I led everyone after my first and was winded but still beat everyone by the third. Afterwards, Coach Grant told everyone to go, except me. He told me that it was the little things, and that even though I won I didn’t hit the line with my hands. He made me run them all over again.
So, what happened that you found yourself in Miami year five?
Pete Carroll was my defensive back coach year five. I was the starter all through preseason through the last game against Denver. That game I let up on a play when I had a bad angle. I told a friend I laid off the play – that I was prepared for the season.
Later on Coach Grant called me into his office and told me I was released. Pete Carroll heard me talking evidently and they let me go because they thought I took plays off.
So, you went to Miami…
Less than twenty-four hours later I was brought in and became their nickel back right away. I was there for eight games but was released and Pittsburgh picked me up again less than twenty-four hours later.
I became the nickel back and started the last few games – including against San Diego where I had two interceptions.
How did your time in Pittsburgh go?
My sixth year I hurt my knee in a preseason game versus the Redskins. I had surgery and was out for six games but started the last eight games. But it was a two-year deal. My contract was up and Pittsburgh only offered me $150,000.
My agent and I thought I should get $300,000 – especially with Woodruff out with an injury, so we refused the offer. They countered with an offer for $180,000 but we refused that too. They went to $190,000, but then the draft came and they drafted Woodson and Delton Hall and let me go. I was picked up by Green Bay right after.
Who helped show you the ropes in Pittsburgh?
Harvey Clayton was my third cousin and I roomed with him. He pulled me in and showed me the city – where to live and where not to go…
As a fifth-year player I knew the ropes really. Walter Abercrombie, Calvin Sweeney and Louis Lipps – we all played cards but we didn’t hang out much. I helped Eric Williams – gave him the 411. I was older than many of the players – many were trying to get starting positions and were still learning.
Mike Merriweather was inspirational to me. David Little too – I played high school ball versus David. We hung out…it’s unfortunate he’s not here any more…
How did you feel about those two years in Pittsburgh?
I had some of my better years in ’85 and ’86. I was 188 pounds in college. In Pittsburgh, I was 201, 202 pounds. At that weight, I thought I could be a beast in run support. I was known as a pass defender, but at 201 I felt like a safety in a cornerbacks body.
So, what are you doing today with your time?
I’m the counselor and head of security for Patrick Henry High School. I also coach the football team.
What interested you about coaching and what lessons have you taken from the coaches you played under?
I started coaching in ’89 after I retired from football. My first job was as a defensive coordinator in high school. I knew I wanted to work with youth and coach defensive backs. It was my passion – my vision. I have sent four kids to D1 scholarships and one to the NFL.
I have taken a bit from all the coaches I played under. Tony Dungy was so cool – so easygoing. He was my defensive back coach in Pittsburgh. All was always ok with Tony. He wasn’t emotional – he never screamed.
Bud Grant was laid back – but when he looked at you with those big grey eyes, you got it.
Coach Noll was more aggressive verbally. You just listened to what he said and dealt with it.
Coach Shula was more aggressive. You just took it and didn’t answer back.
I had three Hall of Fame coaches. Not many players can say that.
What else are you doing with your time?
I also run the Next Level Foundation where we focus on young people and helping them get committed to education. We work on their self-esteem and offer free camps, scholarships and sports programs.
I have a wife and four kids. My oldest son works for the airlines and has a five-year old child. My oldest daughter was an anchorwoman in Texas and just got married. My youngest daughter is an English teacher in Spain and my youngest son is in his third year of football at Northern Iowa. He’s a starter on a full scholarship.
What are your thoughts about the game today?
I think the money is day and night – but you can’t miss what you never had.
I think the 80′s guys are much more approachable though. The game is so big – the money changes people. Some think they are bigger than the game now.
The CBA did some good things for veterans. Some of the guys that played before me – they got peanuts. I’m glad we’re supporting and honoring those guys that made the game what it is today. I was in the middle of all of that. I didn’t make peanuts but didn’t make the millions either.
How do you feel about how you left the game?
I left the game on my own terms. Many left and didn’t have a degree. They stayed in the game though even when they were getting beaten up. They stayed for that last call – that last money because they didn’t have anything else and paid the price physically.
I had a degree and made decent investments. Life goes on and I’m proud of how I left. Life is good. I have a nice job, no major injuries. My neck is jacked up a bit and I had surgeries on my knees, but I’m walking well.
I’m not leaving the game bitter like a lot of guys. Some guys felt the NFL got them. To each his own. But I left with my degree. That’s what I tell my kids – they are student athletes.
Soon, I’ll retire, spend time with my grandkids and foundation. It’s been a nice ride.