SWINTON’S ROAD: NFL OR BUST

Many athletes talk about going fishing, but it’s usually after their career is over.

Reggie Swinton wasn’t so lucky. For a while, in between one of his eight cuts from professional football teams, in between the XFL and the CFL and the NFL and the arena league, in between Edmonton, Las Vegas, Dallas and Detroit, in between Green Bay and Jacksonville and Winnipeg and Arkansas, he had no choice but to go fishing — for his supper.

“I ate what I caught,” Swinton says. “I was broke. I slept in my truck for a while. I was staying down in Little Rock, a friend took me in, helped me out. And I fished to eat.”

What did you fish for?

“Catfish. Bluegill. Crappie. Didn’t matter. If it got my hook, it was coming in my boat.”

The NFL is full of rags-to-riches stories. Reggie Swinton, 29, isn’t one of them. Oh, he knows the rags part. He’s still waiting on the riches. By NFL standards, he is at the bottom, fourth-year minimum salary (admittedly more than most people make, but when the guy throwing you the ball is Joey Harrington, it’s easy to feel checkbook envy). Reggie still plays one payday at a time. No guarantees beyond this week. Heck, the Lions — for whom he caught a huge touchdown pass against the Giants — already cut him once this season. This is his second tour of duty.

“Back in September, they called me while I was at the shopping mall,” he recounts. “I had to rush over to the offices to get cut.”

Couldn’t they cut you over the phone?

“Nah. You gotta sign papers.”

Couldn’t you say, “I’m busy”?

He laughs. “You don’t want to burn bridges in this league. You never know when they might call you again.”

Tossed from roster to roster

For anyone considering a career in the NFL — or any other longshot venture — Swinton’s story is both inspiring and frightening. Inspiring, because he never stopped believing this was his destiny, that he was going to be a pro football player and he would keep rapping on the door “until I was 40 years old.”

And frightening? Well, it’s frightening because if a guy with enough talent to do what he did last Sunday (three catches, 37 yards, against a 4-1 New York team) or what he did two years ago in a single game against the Philadelphia Eagles (213 yards on kickoff returns) could be tossed from roster to roster like a beanbag, how many other guys are out there who might be stars if they just got the breaks?

The NFL has many exceptions to the foresight of NFL front offices. Kurt Warner, who quarterbacked the Giants last week, had to bag groceries before rising to win a Super Bowl MVP award. Terrell Davis was a sixth-round draft pick given little chance of making the cut before he won two Super Bowl rings and three Pro Bowl selections in Denver.

Swinton thinks that once you carry a longshot label, it rarely leaves you. “If you’re not a first-round pick, it’s hard to get past that. And if you come from a small school like I did (Murray State), they think there’s no talent there. So you have to do extra things just to get noticed.”

And then there are the naysayers. When people back in Arkansas saw him fishing for his dinner, they said, “Reggie, forget this football stuff and get a real job.”

“And some of them,” he says, laughing, “were my family.”

We meet again

At 6-feet, 182 pounds, Swinton was one of those multisport athletes who set plenty of records, but always at the smaller levels — the arena league, a small college. Undrafted, he signed as a free agent with Jacksonville but didn’t make the cut. He tried Seattle, didn’t make the cut there. Heck, it’s easier to tell you the places he did make the cut. He made it in Dallas — before being cut. He made it in Detroit — before being cut.

This weekend, Dallas hosts Detroit.

Guess what Reggie’s thinking?

“I am so geeked for this game right here,” he says. “It’s been marked on my calendar since before the Lions cut me. And when they brought me back it was like, OK, I’m still gonna have my chance.”

Your chance to do what?

“To show them what they missed out on.”

You think about a guy like Swinton, out there fishing for his dinner, the water dead calm, the sun beating down, the bugs swirling, and all he’s really hoping to catch is an invitation to play NFL football.

How far is that from where he was last Sunday, in the shadow of New York City, on network TV, catching the clinching touchdown pass? How far? Very far.

“Hey, I’m on the bubble every week,” he says. “I have to make plays to stay in this league.”

His dream scenario for Sunday’s game at Dallas?

“I catch a pass for a touchdown. I return a punt for a touchdown. Maybe I even throw a touchdown.”

And if he did all that, would he celebrate by giving the Dallas sidelines an earful?

“No, no, you don’t burn bridges,” he says.

Maybe just a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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