I guess you could call Dabo Swinney a visionary. Forward thinkers can see people for what they are before we even see it ourselves. That's what happened with Dabo and me. In a sense, I owe my NFL career to him. And having known the man since he was just an anonymous position coach, since before Clemson became a national powerhouse and then national champions, I can't say that I'm surprised by any of it.
Before the Russell Wilson, 6-foot African American quarterback became a phenomenon, but well after Mike Vick dazzled us with his jaw-dropping plays, I was cemented in the thought that I could be a star quarterback in the NFL—a black, 5'11", 185-pound star quarterback. I grew up playing high school football in Warner Robbins, Georgia, and watching Woody Dantzler play at Clemson. When it came time for recruiting, Clemson's coach at the time, Tommy Bowden, sold me on the vision that I could be the next Woody Dantzler.
At the time, Dabo wasn't even on the Clemson staff. He had been fired from his previous job at the University of Alabama and was working at a real estate firm. That's where he was while I was a freshman, redshirting while I watched Charlie Whitehurst and Willie Simmons take the snaps at quarterback.
My first encounter with Dabo was at the beginning of the next year, 2003. He was replacing somewhat of a "legend," or so we thought, as the coach of the wide receivers. Rick Stockstill was a great recruiter, especially for the state of Florida, and was responsible for many of the great players at Clemson up to that point. Clemson was known for wide receivers back then—still is. In our minds as players, for the first practice, all eyes were on the new coach.
This guy is gonna be roadkill, we thought. I know that's what I thought as a backup QB. There were some highly touted wide receivers already on the roster. No way a new coach was going to be able to come in and establish himself. And yet that's exactly what Dabo did. He got after guys from the opening practice. He yelled, he screamed, and he challenged guys. The thing with Dabo was that you knew he loved you, and you knew that's why he was coaching you so hard. He had that charisma. I found myself gravitating toward him and I couldn't understand why. I watched him take ordinary guys and make them really good and really good guys great. He had a knack for the details and being better prepared than anyone I had ever met.
The quote these days is "best is standard." That's the motto on the t-shirts at Clemson. The one written on the walls in the locker room. But that was the case for Dabo even before he wrote it down. From the outside, everyone saw the receiver group as a bunch of primadonnas. But internally, they became the locomotive that drove the team. They held themselves to a higher standard. Slowly, everyone else started to do that too.
When I was being recruited out of high school I was dead set on staying at the quarterback position. First of all, it was the only thing I'd ever known. Second of all, I wanted to avoid the stereotype. There was a player from nearby named Jaquez Green, who I grew up watching on Friday nights in Fort Valley, GA. He played quarterback in high school, and ended up being recruited by Steve Spurrier to play for the University of Florida where he had a great career...as a wide receiver. Spurrier, at the time, loved to turn athletic black QBs into wide receivers. They usually turned out pretty good. (Even if he did try to recruit Cam Newton as a tight end.)
Yes, I was 5'11". Yes, I could throw. But I could also run, which at the time was an automatic qualification for a position switch. Back then, there had only been a few black quarterbacks who could throw well enough that it could overcome both their own running ability, and the ingrained stereotypes of NCAA and NFL coaches about what a quarterback should look like. Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham come to mind. So when Dabo asked me about switching positions, I was reluctant. Was it personal? Of course not! I knew that in Charlie Whitehurst, there was a really, really good QB ahead of me by one year who just had great season.
But in that moment, I had a couple choices I could make. I could sit behind him for three years. I could transfer to another school and sit out a year. Or I could make the switch and begin playing ball. I trusted Dabo. I had seen his body of work. Looking back, after a five-year NFL career, it was an obvious decision. At the time, as an immature and stubborn 19-year-old, it was a lot tougher.
I was exceptional in the open field running with the football, I had good ball skills, and decent anticipation in tracking the football in the air after it was thrown. Naturally, I thought the transition to wide receiver would be seamless. I also felt that I had an ace in my hand in Dabo himself. He was the wide receiver coach, and he recruited me to switch positions. I saw myself as an instant All-American. Not so fast. Imagine your dad is coaching the team, and you're the best player. You're thinking, Wow, this is going to be so great, but then you show up to practice, and suddenly your dad is a totally different person and you have it harder than anybody else. Or maybe you love dogs and always wanted a South African Mastiff. At first, he's a cute and clumsy ball of fun as a puppy, but then a few months later he's 180 pounds and reality sets in. That's what it was like for me and Dabo.
My initial thought was Do I know this dude?! Yeah, you know him, his name is Dabo Swinney and he's your new position coach. And wide receiver is a grueling, grueling position. There are so many intricate details that go into the preparation. This was stuff that, when I was playing quarterback, I took for granted. Understanding your body, how to start and stop, body lean, showing your hands at the last possible moment to catch the deep pass so the defender doesn't knock it away, depths of routes, timing, catching the ball in traffic etc etc etc. Wow this is going to be so great quickly became What did I get myself into?
Wasn't this the guy that vouched for me? Had he been lying to me? Was Dabo bipolar? Whatever it was, it worked. I worked harder than I ever even knew I was capable of working.
To understand this you have to understand Dabo. He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He survived as a walk-on on a national championship team at Alabama. He went from sleeping in his car to coaching the best college football team in the country. Dabo always leads with love and compassion. That's why Clemson keeps winning now, and that's why players keep playing for him.
When he got on me, which he did often, I never once thought it was personal. As I got to know him more he began to remind me of my father (except a lot louder). He was teaching me to be a better man. Success in football, whether as a wide receiver or a quarterback, is a byproduct of being a responsible, intelligent, and trustworthy person. Understanding those things off the field helped me on the field. I think that's how I began to see him as a father figure away from home and I believe that's what today's recruits see in him. The authenticity is there. The kids he's recruiting now are coming from a place where everybody wants something from them—to make a buck, lift their program, whatever it is. I believe Dabo stands apart because he's willing to put his players' success as people over wins for the program.
If you asked Dabo about the process of my switch from quarterback to wide receiver now, he would probably have a million stories about how hard it was turning a little scrawny quarterback into a two-time All-ACC, polished NFL-caliber wide receiver. I'm sure he would have one of his patented one-liners ready. Dabo and I talk and text often to this day. Writing this article means a lot to me because through all the years and all the players, he still has a picture of me up in his office (Coach, if you took it down put it back up). I know that if any of his former players, or players remotely associated with Clemson need something, he'll do everything in his power to make it happen. In my case, he already helped give me an NFL career.