David Lauderdale

Clemson coach lives by the clock, but aims for eternity

One image stands out from Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney's talk Monday night on Hilton Head Island.

It's the vision of an apartment complex in Tuscaloosa, Ala., flattened by a tornado in April. As a place to live in college, he knew it as No. 81 Fountainbleu. As a symbol of his life, it's more wreckage to be made whole again.

The boyish-looking 41-year-old is one the youngest head coaches in major college football. But that's not the charmed life he described to a full house at the 33rd annual Week of Champions banquet.

Swinney said he grew up in a dysfunctional home. As a child, he thought it was normal for cops to be called to the house several times a month. His father was an alcoholic -- a mean alcoholic who for years was a menace in his son's life, and for years not even part of it.

As a high school senior in Pelham, Ala., Swinney slept on the floor at a friend's house. He had nothing but a dream to play football for the University of Alabama, and to be the first in his family to get a college degree.

Swinney said his mother had to move in with him in that "little bitty" Tuscaloosa apartment, commuting to work at a K-mart in Birmingham. For three years, not only did they share an apartment, they had to share a bed.

After Swinney married his childhood sweetheart in 1994, she had two miscarriages, one at 11 weeks and one at 14 weeks.

They would bounce back with three energetic sons. But in 2005 Kathleen Swinney underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Her sister contracted breast cancer, and Kathleen tested positive for carrying the BRCA gene mutation. She was only 34, and her lifetime risk of breast cancer without the operation was 89 percent.

At about the same time, one of Swinney's brothers followed his father's model and ended up living out of a trash bag on the streets of Atlanta.

But Swinney's story didn't center on despair and destruction. It centered on a hope based in faith.

He did make the Alabama football team. He did graduate from college. His father and brother are now sober. His mother has a wonderful second husband. And they all gather in peace at "Hotel Swinney" -- Dabo and Kathleen's dream home -- on football Saturdays.

Swinney said life is a roller coaster, but God is there in both the peaks and valleys if you look for him. The fundamentals of life, he said, are to "keep your eyes on the Lord in everything you do, believe in yourself and never, ever quit."

Swinney said we are called to be givers and difference-makers in a world of doubt.

"Ultimately," he said, "I'm going to be judged by a much bigger scoreboard than the one that hangs in Death Valley."

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