NEW ORLEANS — The word on Pat Swilling is that he’s hard to get to know, a tough friend to make. But Robert Porcher, the Lions’ young defensive lineman, had carved a nice friendship with Swilling in the last few months. On Friday night, Porcher called Swilling at home and said, “You want to go out?”

Swilling said no thanks, he was going to relax.

At Saturday morning’s practice, Swilling was missing. Porcher thought he had overslept. Strange, he thought. When Porcher got home, the phone was ringing. It was Swilling’s wife, Robin, and she sounded upset.

“Pat’s father died. Pat flew to Atlanta. Will you please tell Coach Fontes to call me. . . .”

Swilling, meanwhile, still in shock, was already on an airplane, traveling from present to past, from the NFL to his dusty roots in tiny Toccoa, Ga., where his father had driven a truck and taken odd jobs to make ends meet. Pat once talked about “eating tomato sandwiches” back in those days, the money was so scarce. Now the wealthy football player stayed in Toccoa all day, comforting his mother and his brothers and sister. Yearning for a piece of that past. Crying for the sudden break.

When night fell, he drove to the airport, took a flight back to his present. Sunday morning, he got a ride to the Louisiana Superdome.

And he went to work.

There are losses and there are losses. Long after the score of Sunday’s Lions loss is forgotten, Pat Swilling will remember Travis Swilling, his father, whose voice was whispering in his ear much of the game, “Do your job.
. . . Be a professional. . . . Honor your obligations.”

And something else.

“Don’t forget me.” A weeping executioner

Isn’t it strange, when life and sports cross swords? Pat Swilling is paid to attack the opposition, tackle it, slam it, hurt it. He did this Sunday with a greater pain inside him than that which he was inflicting. A weeping executioner. So strange.

And yet Swilling did it, because this is what he does. He remembered all the mornings his father rose to drive the truck, not wanting to go, but going anyhow. This was the lesson he had passed on.

“Was the sadness hitting you out there?” someone asked Swilling after the Lions lost, 14-3, to the Saints.

“It was hitting me all day,” Swilling answered. “But I had to be professional and do what my dad taught me to do.”

He forced a small grin.

“I had a little conversation with him last night. And I think he understood.”

Had he not died of a stroke, his second in two weeks, Travis Swilling might have in been in the stands for this game, quietly pulling for his son. This was a big game, Swilling’s return to New Orleans, where he had been a Pro Bowl linebacker before last spring’s trade. The newspapers had been writing about the homecoming. TV stations had done features. Someone had asked Saints coach Jim Mora what effect Pat would have on the game, and Mora had deliberately said, “Pat Who?”

Swilling wanted to win this game, and he wanted to play well, to show the Saints they’d made a mistake. It was very important — until Saturday morning. Now, he was out there, throwing his body at linemen, diving for running backs and storming the quarterback. And all the while, his mind kept flashing to his father. And the game did not seem important at all.

“Perspective?” he said, when asked about this. He shrugged. “Of course. It puts it all in perspective. It has to, doesn’t it?” He honors his father by going to work

It has to. Pat and Travis Swilling shared a common tale. Laboring father raises strong, hardworking son, who puts his muscle into sports, makes it big, and comes home to lift the family out of poverty. Give it a new life. Only Travis Swilling didn’t want a new life. He didn’t even want a new job. A new truck would do. So his son bought him a new truck.

“A red Chevy pickup,” Swilling said, softly. “He really wanted that red Chevy pickup.”

He bit his lower lip and squinted in the bright light of a TV camera. Pat Swilling is the type of guy whose aloof silence can lead to misunderstanding. I asked all over the New Orleans press box Sunday for reporters who knew him
— remember, he was here for seven years — and the response came, “None of us knew him.”

And yet, does anyone know what goes on inside the helmet? Swilling played the whole game Sunday, and though he made several timing mistakes — “You could tell he was hurting out there” Porcher said later, “I don’t think he’s slept in two days” — nonetheless he helped pressure the quarterback and made a couple of tackles. And afterward, on the day he called “the hardest of my career,” he talked softly and patiently, answering questions about his father.

There are losses and there are losses. Pat Swilling was out there Sunday because the best way to honor his father was to act like him. And go to work.

Less than a year ago, Swilling threw a birthday party at his New Orleans home. Saints players came. There were music, balloons, a football-shaped cake, lots of laughter and kidding around. In the corner of the room, Travis Swilling, whose hair had turned white over the years, sat watching his son, a look of contentment on his face. A TV reporter came to interview him and asked what he thought of his son’s career.

“I’m proud of him,” the father said. “I think he did a good job.”

Somewhere, Sunday, he was saying it again.

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