Georgia Tech Football: The Legend of Ken Swilling

1 of 7

The Legend of Ken Swilling

open
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

A Legend…

Sports history has had many of them, but only a few actually resonate with the heart and live up to the billing.

Defined as a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude…

Legend, for its active and passive participants, includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility," defined by a highly flexible set of parameters, which may include miracles that are perceived as actually having happened, within the specific tradition of indoctrination where the legend arises, and within which it may be transformed over time, in order to keep it fresh and vital, and realistic.

In other words…

A legend is a real-life, breathing super hero…

They are not mythical…

They do exist…

And this is this sports writer’s story about growing up with one…

Jerry Kenneth “Ken” Swilling grew up as one of the 15 or so young men in the small town of Martin, Georgia.

Martin was so small anyone from there just said they were from Toccoa, Georgia because that is where everyone ended up eventually at Stephens County High School.

But the Martin Boys were the country boys by every definition in a town where the cows outnumber the people about 3 to 1…

Everybody was a little more laid back and all with special gifts as if God physically put his hand on each one and blessed them personally.

This was especially true with Ken…

He had a smile that could win any argument, grace that could solve any problem and a heart that could heal anything that ailed you…

But that was only part of a young man that over the next 40 years would use his blessings to awe a community, resurrect aCollege Footballprogram and do everything in his legend to glorify God where and when it mattered.

This is the story of the real Captain American

A guy NFL Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis idolized growing up…

And a legend that must live on especially as ACC Football prepares to honor Ken as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ 2012 Legend during the ACC Championship this weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina.

2 of 7

A Legend is Born

2
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

As you can expect, there isn’t much to do in Martin or Toccoa when you are a kid growing up.

You find ways to go help out around the house or the farm…

You go to church whenever the doors are open…

And you play sports…

That is pretty much it.

Ken was always just one of the guys until 1984 when Little League called this writer up a year early.

And by the grace of God, Ken was my teammate…

He was literally a man among boys at that point…

Ken taught us all a lot, especially how to bunt during practice because if you didn’t put your pinky down there was a great chance it was going to get ripped off by one of his fast balls.

This sports writer’s ability to hit was because for the next 6 years no one tossed a pitch across home plate like what Ken threw.

Ken even at that age made us all better than what we were…

It was part of his gift…

His super power…

3 of 7

A High School Star

3
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

Sports and life came easy to Ken from everyone’s point of view.

He was just a natural and gifted at anything and everything he did.

And he had a lot to live up to with his cousins Pat Swilling, who played at Tech as well and went on to a Pro-Bowl NFL career, and Darryl Swilling, who also played at Tech and is a successful businessman now.

That was just the athletes in the family…

Not to mention all the other great men and women who were a part of the Indians in the 1980s and 1990s…

The funny thing is no one ever remembers actually seeing Ken workout…

But at 6-3, 236 pounds and with a 40-speed of 4.41 (that’s in 1987), he didn’t need to…

Let’s just say when he walked in the room you knew it…

Ken’s senior year was a fun one around the halls of Stephens County High.

A day didn’t go by that you didn’t see Danny Ford or Bobby Ross or especially Pat Dye roaming the halls.

Dye’s sister, Mrs. Jane Snell, taught English and he was always just swinging by on his way around Auburn, Alabama to see his sister way up in the mountains of Northeast Georgia.

Funny no one really saw Coach Dye that much after Ken left for Tech…

But that part of the story is coming later…

With the buzz getting around the college football world about this incredible, super human kid from small town Georgia, Ken was there to provide heroics every Friday night.

From kicking the kickoffs through the end zone to returning punts for touchdowns to interceptions to catching deep passes for six points, Ken did it all…

Everyone was pretty sure he lined the field and made the Gatorade too!

But the stardom he was building was about to reveal his true identity…

And a legendary tale no one would ever forget…

4 of 7

The Villa Rica Miracle

4
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

It was High School Football Playoff time in Georgia.

And the Stephens County Indians were traveling across the state to Villa Rica, Georgia to face the Wildcats in the AAA Quarterfinal in 1987.

Probably 90% of the students, band members and players had never heard of Villa Rica until that week…

But it would soon be a place no one would ever forget…

Ken was having an amazing senior season, but nothing was ever going to top what would he would accomplish on night of December 4…

Trailing 10-7, the Indians attempted a long field goal to tie with around a minute remaining in the game.

The kick looked good, but the home town Villa Rica refs in Georgia High School Football said that it went wide left…

Never defeated, Ken took the field with the Stephens County defense who immediately caused a fumble on the Wildcat kneel down giving the Indians one last shot.

And with seven seconds left and down to their last play it finally was time for the “Legend” to be fully revealed…

Stephens County QB Kelly Steele heaved the ball as far as he could 40-yards into a mass of Wildcat defenders and Ken Swilling at the 20-yard line…

Ken leaped in the air and looked like he was nine-feet tall, snatched the ball from the air and turned to the goal line…

But he was only at the 20…

He broke a pair of tackles…

Two other Wildcats quickly hit him at the 12 and bounced off of him like he was a rock…

Four more Villa Rica players hit Ken at the five and were trying to drag him down with everything they had…

But Ken was simply too much for those high school boys…

He physically drug those four players into the end zone sealing the 13-10 victory…

And 25 or so years later, it is impossible to believe it happened…

It is without a doubt the most amazing play this writer has ever witnessed…

And it caught the eye of then Tech Head Coach Bobby Ross who was sitting in the stands mouth wide open with the rest of the us…

Indeed…

A legend was born…

5 of 7

The Dream that was Georgia Tech

5
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

Ken was always very in touch with his faith and understanding where his place was in the world.

He has always been a quiet, reserved gentle giant unless it came to talking about his faith or firing up his teammates on the football field.

Ken’s super power came from both…

Prior to signing, Ken told Sports Illustrated he had a dream that he would be going to Georgia Tech. He said in the article that he woke up one morning just saying the name of the school over and over again. He even said he knew each and every building on campus the first time he arrived and that it was like he had been there before.

Ken has always been a prayerful man and has listened to God’s calling throughout his entire life.

He talked of plays playing out like deja-vu because he had already seen them in his dreams…

And who was going to argue with the guy that always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to make a play during his time with the Yellow Jackets.

Plus, with his physique, no one wanted to argue with him…

"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."

And that was the growing legend that was Ken at Tech…

But all that came to a mythical moment in the summer of 1990…

During that summer, Ken dreamed the Yellow Jackets would go 11-0…

And he was quick to tell every coach and every teammate what he envisioned.

"Everybody looked at me like, man, you're stretching it," Ken recalled. "But I could see it. "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."

And Ken’s dream did come true as Georgia Tech went 11-0-1 and was crowned Co-National Champions for the 1990 season.

But despite the title and the dream, it was a bittersweet season for the man now officially known as Captain America…

6 of 7

The End of the Heisman Run

6
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

During that magical run in 1990, Ken was a beast during the first five games of the season totaling four interceptions and amassing 34 tackles.

He was the force driving the top defense in the nation towards a title and was the front runner for the Heisman Trophy

But during the fifth game of the season against the 15th-Ranked Clemson Tigers Ken severely sprained his ankle on a kickoff return…

A sprain so bad that it would sit him down for the next game in which the North Carolina Tar Heels coached by Mack Brown tied the Jackets for their only blemish on their title run.

Ken was advised not to return due to the severity of the injury, but he knew he needed to be on the field as Tech, ranked 16th at that point, was traveling to face the No. 1 Ranked Virginia Cavaliers .

It was a battle that Tech did win on a field goal by Scott Sission as time expired, but it was a day Ken would rather forget.

Playing on one leg, Cavalier WR Herman Moore caught 9 passes for 234 yards.

In the span of a few hours, Captain American was just a mere mortal…

And it was something that shook Ken for the rest of the season and the championship run.

The fight and desire to comeback early to help his team in essence cost him his future in football…

7 of 7

The Legend Lives On

7
Courtesy of Ken Swilling

Despite the injury that dropped Ken to the seventh round of the NFL Draft and only a season with the Cleveland Browns, you couldn’t tell that one thing hadn’t gone as he thought it would in his life.

The smile is still there…

And the humble love for life might even be stronger today than it ever has been.

After his playing days were over, Ken returned to help at-risk youth in and around the Atlanta, Georgia area.

He is a successful businessman who loves to share old stories, talk sports and discuss his faith anytime and anywhere.

And what is it that makes a legend…

Yes, Ken accomplished more than any Tech player of his time…

He led his team to a National Championship…

But all along the way in the good times and the bad…

When he knew he was super human and when he realized he was mortal…

He never doubted his faith…

he never doubted his journey…

And he is a greater legend as the Ken Swilling he is today…

Yes…

Captain America is alive and well!

And Ken is deserving of every honor received including the induction into the 2012 Legends Class this weekend.

Thank you Ken…

The Martin Boys, all of Stephens County and Georgia Tech Nation couldn’t be more proud of their living legend.

------------------------------------------------

M Shannon Smallwood has over 10 years of experience in broadcasting and journalism in professional baseball and college athletics and is the ACC Football Guru, SEC Voice of Reason and College Football Comedian for Rant Sports. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the US Basketball Writers Association.

Follow him @woodysmalls.

Around the Web