Travis Swanson says this season will surprise fans and critics alike.
At first blush, giving in does not appear to be Hog center Travis Swanson’s thing.
The fifth-year senior’s image has been up front in the University of Arkansas athletic department’s summer marketing campaign of the 2013 Razorbacks football team. You’ll find Swanson’s face on the cover of the football media guide and on a variety of other promotions. On the athletic department’s website, he pops up in a photo with teammates Kiero Small and Chris Smith, all wearing cardinal red T-shirts that read “never yield.” By Swanson’s head, for extra emphasis, is the Twitter hashtag #NeverYield.
The Never Yield campaign is all part of an overarching message that’s percolated through the minds of many Arkansas fans and brewed up something along the lines of this: New head coach Bret Bielema’s in town, and he’s brought a tougher game along with him. No more of that sissy, spread-passing stuff. Hog fans are going to see far more smashmouth football and far fewer mistakes. And when it comes to smashing mouth and moving the pigskin, nobody does it better in these parts than the Hogs’ very own preseason first-team All-SEC center, Travis Swanson.
Bielema, a former lineman himself, loves the guy. Absolutely gushes about him. Bielema says he’d be “very, very surprised” if in this upcoming season, Swanson doesn’t lead the SEC in pancake blocks (in which opponents are pushed onto their backs), possibly the sport’s most spectacular form of Never Yield-ism.
Swanson is 6-5, 315 pounds and strong enough, according to him, to squat 520 pounds and bench press 225 pounds 27 times. He’s got nimble feet and excellent technique. Sam Pittman, Arkansas’ offensive line coach, sees him using both as he gets out in front of tailbacks this fall. “We want to get the ball outside, do a lot of one-back set — he becomes a fullback, basically, in our scheme,” Pittman says.
Bielema readily compares him to Peter Konz and Travis Frederick, the last two elite centers he coached when he was head coach at Wisconsin. Atlanta selected Konz in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Dallas picked Frederick in this year’s first round. Bielema believes Swanson, at this stage, is “better than both those guys.”
Not yielding — in the weight room, in the classroom, on the field — has clearly taken Swanson far. He’s the nation’s No. 1 center, according to nfldraftscout.com, and he was the top vote-getter when it came to a Razorbacks leadership poll taken before spring practice, Pittman says.
But over the course of his 22 years, Swanson also has shown he knows the appropriate times to yield, too. And knowing that difference between resisting and yielding is an ability that will take him even further.
Swanson grew up the eldest of two brothers in the northeast Houston community of Kingwood, Texas.
One of his first great loves was guitar. Inspired by the music of John Mayer, he bought an acoustic for $50 in sixth grade and spent hours every night teaching himself to play it. He also fell in love with lacrosse, which he played through the 10th grade. He played defender, a perfect position for someone so much bigger and more physical than everybody else. “I was essentially a safety,” he says.
With such a protective mentality to go along with his hulking frame, Swanson naturally gravitated toward the guard position on Kingwood High School’s football team. Playing there, and a little at tackle, Swanson flourished and became rated among the top 75 high school football recruits nationally. He loved his trip to a Razorbacks football camp the summer before his senior season, and chose Arkansas over scholarship offers from Kansas, Texas Tech, Arizona and Georgia Tech.
Bobby Petrino, then the Hogs’ head coach, said there was a chance Swanson’s gifts — long arms, excellent vision, high intelligence — could be better used at center. Swanson relented to that possibility, even if it meant wiping away all the years he’d spent specializing at guard. He started getting up at 4:30 a.m. in the spring of his senior year of high school to practice center skills, like long snapping, with a family friend. The friend, Chris Bush, had been a center for the Oklahoma Sooners and offered the help for free, says Swanson’s father, Todd.
All the work soon paid off. Early in the Razorbacks’ 2009 fall camp, Petrino and his coaches moved Swanson to center where he’s stayed since. Swanson says he’s come to love the position because it allows him essentially to be the offensive line’s head coach.
“He’ll make every call at the line of scrimmage,” says Bielema, noting Swanson dictates how the line will block pressure from the defense. “He’s gonna identify the [defensive] front and alert everybody of possible issues.” Swanson “works with the quarterback to make sure the protections are right,” says Bielema.
The 2009 Razorback season wasn’t eventful for Swanson on the field. He redshirted. But plenty happened off the field. He started working toward a criminal justice degree and one day, at the Northwest Quad campus dorm, met Emily Holder through a mutual friend. The sort-of-quiet guy from Texas and the kind-of-quiet girl from Cabot clicked. They became friends, then best friends, then, sometime last spring, an official couple. She isn’t into music like he is, but that didn’t stop him from trying to play “Sweet Home Alabama” for her on his guitar that freshman year. He butchered it, they laughed, and he hasn’t attempted that song in front of her since then, Holder says.
In 2010, Swanson won the starting job from Seth Oxner, who’d started all 13 games the previous season. Swanson started every game that record-setting season, and helped break a spate of other new records in the next one. Heading into the 2012 season, the Razorbacks looked like a Top 5 team ready to vie for a national title.
Then, a motorcycle accident. Bobby Petrino in a neck brace. A University of Arkansas employee named Jessica Dorrell. Shattered expectations for fans and players alike.
“It was frustrating,” says Swanson, recalling the events surrounding Petrino’s firing in April 2012. “I think, obviously, a lot of guys felt angered, but then I tried to tell as many guys as I could, ‘There’s no reason to be mad, because you can’t control it. You being mad is not going to change everything that happened, it’s not going to bring him back, it’s not going to fix this.’”
In other words, yield to fate. Take life’s lemons along with its plums.
At times, the entire 2012 season seemed like a lemon. “It just wasn’t our year and everything just fell apart, in a sense,” Swanson says.
The low point came three games in, at the end of a 52-0 home loss to No. 1 Alabama. Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who was sidelined due to injury, vented his frustration at the postgame press conference.
“Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there? Absolutely,” Wilson said. “As a leader, it sucks to see people not do their jobs and to see things go wrong. There have been a lot of things go that way. As a leader, at this point you have to look forward.”
Swanson, then the team’s only captain who wasn’t a senior, says he felt the exact same way that Tyler felt. “It was just frustrating,” he says. “At that point, we had never had back-to-back losses since I’d been there. I hadn’t had that since I was in high school, so it was hard to deal with. It motivated the heck out of me.”
Whatever extra motivation and extra effort certain Hogs put out post-Alabama was for the most part washed out by the disappointing 4-8 final record. But for Swanson — who was chosen second-team All-SEC — and many of his teammates, last season wasn’t a total loss.
For starters, it allowed Bielema to be hired. Swanson says he’s loved picking Bielema’s brain for football and leadership advice. “I met with him a ton, more than I have ever with any other coach,” he says.
The coaching change has also allowed a whole new staff of assistants and trainers to come in and reinvigorate the players. The most impressive improvement has been the added muscle and definition each offensive lineman has gained during the offseason. Strength coach Ben Herbert has stressed the meal-planning component of nutritious eating more than the last strength coach, Swanson says. He adds that he and a few other players have visited Herbert to craft customized, weekly meal plans.
Swanson’s parents, Gina and Todd, have noticed “a drastic improvement” in their son’s diet from last season. “We go to Trav’s place, we’re having chicken and salad,” Todd Swanson says. “We’re like, ‘We gotta go to Sonic,’ and Trav’s like, ‘Nope.’ We’re like, ‘Where are the chips?’ and Trav’s like, ‘Nope.’”
The diet, the workouts, the coach talks — it’s all part of something bigger in Swanson’s mind. He refuses to pay heed to conventional wisdom that Arkansas is rebuilding this year and wins five, maybe six, at best seven games.
“We have a lot of talent all across the board,” Swanson says. “We all know that we’re going to shock a lot of people this year.”
Swanson caps offseason with a proposal
No matter how shocking a win the Razorbacks may notch this season in the thick of their daunting SEC schedule, Swanson’s most cherished memory of 2013 has likely already happened. The moment had nothing to do with football.
Swanson and his girlfriend, Emily Holder, spent Aug. 2 touring Eureka Springs. There, Holder says, they strolled through Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and took photos of its abandoned and abused tigers, lions, cougars and leopards. They ordered prints of the photos, which Swanson picked up on their way back to Holder’s Fayetteville home.
Back home, Swanson handed Holder a Walgreens pack of about eight photos. He told her to choose one she wanted to frame.
Holder expected to see pictures from the trip. Instead, she got a surprise.
The first photo was an image of a personal note. “Dear Emily,” Swanson wrote. He thanked her “for being a part of his life and always being there for him,” Holder says.
Each of the following images also began “Dear Emily” and touched on a particular memory or place from early in their relationship — the storyline of how the couple met. She smiled as she flipped past a photo of the cafeteria where they’d rendezvous every night.
The last image was of the door of the dorm room where they first met. “Dear Emily, thank you so much for walking into this room freshman year,” Holder recalls reading. The image also included Swanson’s hand, holding a box, a round-cut diamond ring in it.
“I looked up and saw him on one knee,” Holder says.
A million moments, from those first few seconds in the dorm to the “yes” that came tumbling from her mouth, had yielded a promise of lifelong love.
For more from Demeril's interviews with Swanson, Bielema and Pittman, check out thesportsseer.com