Clemson head coach faces Father's Day of memories
But Clemson's head football coach still has a few voicemail messages from the man he calls "Big Erv," who passed away last August. Maybe he'll listen to them again, as he does from time to time.
Last summer, in the months before he died, Ervil Swinney had been receiving treatments in Greenville for a recurrence of lung cancer. Still, he seemed to be doing pretty well. By August, he was back at his appliance shop at the M&M Hardware in Alabaster, Ala., where he enjoyed "holding court" with his buddies. He felt tired and sat down to take a nap. He never woke up.
"I think about him every day," Swinney said, pointing to a framed photograph among the scores of pictures covering the walls, shelves and desktop of his office. The photo shows his dad watching a game at Clemson's Death Valley, both arms raised in the air, celebrating a big play by the team coached by his youngest son.
"I look at that picture all the time," Swinney said. "It makes me smile."
Swinney admits to a "strangeness" he feels because his dad is not here anymore. "Anybody who's lost a parent understands," he said. "I just want to call him."
And if he could call Big Erv, Swinney might talk about the "little bit of nostalgic sadness" he's experiencing these days over how quickly his own sons are growing up. Will, 17, is an upcoming high school senior. Drew is 16, and Clay is 12.
"My oldest will be leaving the nest soon," Swinney said. "It's hard for me to get my mind around that. To me, they're all three still my little baby boys."
He turns again toward the photos on his desk. They show his sons growing up, transitioning from toddlers to teenagers -- smiling, vibrant, the passing moments of their lives "frozen in time," he says.
He's proud of how his boys have turned out. "It's special to see them now and the young men they've grown into," Swinney said, "and to see where they are and how they handle themselves in all areas of their lives -- spiritually, academically, socially and athletically, because they all love sports."
Swinney is also grateful for his wife Kathleen, "who just loves those kids and does everything in the world to help them."
"I can't imagine a better mom than Kath," he said. "She and the boys have such a great relationship, and it's been awesome to see. They love their momma. They go to Mom before they come to Dad, that's for sure."
Things are always busy at the Swinney house. "There may be a friend -- or multiple friends -- over, one of the boys is at ball practice, Kath's cooking," he said. "There's a basketball hoop on the door and Clay is just slam-dunking on it."
The boys play several sports, and each one is on a different team. Swinney has been coaching 12-year-old Clay's baseball team. And even though it's the off-season for football, the year-round demands of a head coach of a major college program mean he has something to tend to or somewhere to go "just about every day."
So when it works out that everyone happens to be home at the same time, "it's special," Swinney said. On those increasingly rare occasions, mom, dad and the boys, like most families, usually end up hanging out in the kitchen.
It's a busy time of life familiar to any parent whose kids are passing through adolescence and into young adulthood. But it's a good kind of busy. Swinney said he recognizes "another stage of their lives" is coming soon, but he's enjoying this moment with his boys. And he wishes he could still share it all with his dad.
Things weren't always good between Dabo and his father. During his high school and college years, his father's appliance repair business sank deep into debt and Ervil began drinking heavily and became abusive at home.
When his dad came home smelling of alcohol, Dabo sometimes hid in the backyard or climbed out his bedroom window onto the roof. Sometimes he slept in the car.
Ervil's business eventually went bankrupt, and when the bank repossessed the family's suburban home in Pelham, Ala., Ervil moved into a mobile home behind his business. Dabo and his mom Carol (his two older brothers were out of the house by then), rented an apartment for a few months before being evicted because her $8-an-hour job at a department store wasn't enough to cover the rent. She and her youngest son moved in with friends.
Dabo was a senior at Pelham High School when his parents divorced. It was one of the lowest moments in his life. He retreated to the fieldhouse and cried.
But he didn't give up. He stayed focused with a natural inner drive and a "fundamentals of life" philosophy that had taken root a couple years earlier.
Dabo had grown up "in a home that believed in God," and the family occasionally went to church, "but I didn't have a relationship with Christ or anything like that," he said.
During his sophomore year of high school, just as things were falling apart at home, Dabo and a friend organized a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group at their school. At meetings, he began "learning about Jesus and what a relationship with Him meant." He was comforted by the fellowship, prayer and music at the FCA meetings, and "the Bible started coming alive" for him.
He went to an FCA event to hear one of his childhood heroes, Joey Jones, a former University of Alabama wide receiver who went on to play in the NFL.
"There I was, thinking he was going to talk about playing in the pros and all the touchdowns he scored, and all he did was talk about the peace that he had in his life from knowing Jesus," Dabo said. "Next thing I know, I'm back there accepting Christ as my Savior with Joey Jones."
"It was an amazing experience for me. The clouds didn't part, there wasn't an earthquake, but I knew there was a change."
From that point, Dabo began "searching and trying to grow" in his faith. When his dad abandoned their family, and he and his mother were forced to rely on the kindness of friends for a bed in which to sleep, he clung to the peace that Joey Jones described, and it became real in his life.
"God gave me a peace that you can only have by knowing Christ as your Savior," he said. "No matter what situation I dealt with or the circumstances I had in my life, I just had a hope -- and maybe sometimes it didn't make sense to have hope -- that God has a plan, it's going to get better, and I've just got to stay the course here. I can't grow weary, as it says in the Bible."
Thus, at 16, Swinney solidified the foundation for his life. As an athlete, he knew from experience the importance of mastering the fundamentals of a sport, and so he applied the same self-discipline by strictly adhering to his "fundamentals of life": "Put your eyes on the Lord in all that you do, believe in yourself, and don't quit."
"I've hung onto that and tried to live my life that way," he said. "To me, if people will do that, they will know what true peace and success and happiness is all about.
"It's not about being the head coach at Clemson. It's about knowing that your salvation is in order and having a spiritual foundation that can sustain you through the adversity of life and the success of life. You need it in both situations."
When he graduated from high school, Dabo enrolled at the University of Alabama and made the football team as a walk-on before his sophomore year. Things were still hard -- he and his mother had to share a small apartment with one of his teammates, and Dabo pooled his earnings from cleaning gutters with his mom's department store paycheck to meet their expenses.
His broken relationship with his father was a "real struggle" during his college years. "I wanted to fix things, control things," he said, "but eventually I just realized: That's my dad, and I've just got to love him no matter what.
"I just quit worrying about it and quit judging him. I just let it go and moved on, but I prayed that God would use me somehow, some way, to help him see where he needed to change."
Later, when his dad indeed began to change and cut back on his drinking (he later gave it up completely), Dabo forgave him without hesitation. "When you have Christ in your heart, you have to forgive," he said. "It's as simple as that."
Father and son were reconciled by the time Dabo was a senior at Alabama. That year, Swinney started at wide receiver against Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide defeated the Hurricanes to cap a perfect 13-0 season and win a national championship. A few months later, a proud Ervil was on hand to see his son graduate from Alabama.
In the years that followed, as Dabo's coaching career -- first as a graduate assistant and later as an Alabama assistant coach -- began to take off, he and his father rebuilt their relationship around their shared love for all things Crimson Tide.
Dabo and Kathleen's young family was growing, and his parents, both remarried to other people, became friends again.
"My dad and I had so many great conversations during that time about his life and the things he would have done differently," Swinney said. "He owned his mistakes, but he was all about the future."
"A lot of water has passed under the bridge" in the years since. Swinney joined the Clemson coaching staff in 2003 and was named head coach at the end of the 2008 season. This past season, he led the Tigers to the national championship game, where they came up just short -- 45-40 -- to his alma mater, Alabama.
Swinney has made a practice of including his boys in his work as Clemson's head coach. "They've been on the sideline forever, been at practices -- I've just made them a part of everything we've done," he said. Swinney encourages every member of his coaching staff to do the same.
Also in the years since the Swinneys moved to Clemson, Kathleen discovered she had the same abnormal gene that caused her sister's 2011 death from breast cancer, which meant she also had a greater than 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer. She elected to have a double mastectomy to greatly reduce her risk. Later, she also had a hysterectomy to lower her chances of developing ovarian cancer.
That experience led Dabo and Kathleen to establish Dabo's All-In Team Foundation to help raise funds for breast cancer research and to support other causes.
Ervil was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, and surgeons removed one-third of one of his lungs. He also underwent six heart bypass surgeries through the years. When his cancer returned last year, Dabo convinced him to come to Clemson to stay at his house and take his cancer treatments in Greenville.
It turned out to be a wonderful time of reconnecting for father and son.
"Cancer was a blessing," Swinney said. "It brought my dad to Clemson for about three months. We were not expecting him to die like that because he was doing so well. God just gave us that time. He and I were like roommates, sitting around the table and talking late at night. Seeing him interact with the boys, listening to him tell stories, it was just priceless.
"I think about all the great memories, especially over the last several years. My dad had such a great perspective and such a unique way. It might be something he didn't know anything about, but no matter what it was, he just had a way of making some sense out of it and giving me a perspective that only he could."
Swinney says he's glad his sons got to experience his dad's "great sense of humor" during those three months he lived with them, and he's grateful for two things he observed in his dad that have helped him raise his own sons: unconditional love and selfless generosity.
"My dad had some demons that he fought along the way, but he loved his sons no matter what. The other thing was how he gave to other people. He'd give you the shirt off his back even when he didn't have another one to put on. I've tried to instill that in my children."
Swinney said Father's Day is going to be different this year. "I know he's in heaven. I know he's peaceful, and I know he's healthy.
"You always want more time, but I'm thankful for my dad and the life he led. I'm thankful for the struggles too. That's what God teaches us: We're supposed to be thankful in all the times, to rejoice. I'm thankful for the hard times, the pain, because all of those things shaped my family, shaped me to where I'm at today.
"If everything was just good all the time and you never had any adversity, you really wouldn't appreciate those good times. I appreciate good health, and I appreciate a good day because I know what a bad day looks like.
"And I appreciate peace in life."
It's the peace Dabo Swinney first heard about at a high school FCA meeting, a peace that carried him through the dark years of his family's breakdown, and a peace that makes itself known in the laughter of his children. It's the peace of fathers and sons, the peace of the Father and the Son.