When building a structure that will stand the test of time, it’s common knowledge that you start with a strong foundation. After nearly two decades of trial and error by the New Orleans Saints, a new regime, in owner Tom Benson, G.M. Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora, would act as the architects of a long-awaited winning program. These three gentlemen started out on a search to find their cornerstones. The 1986 NFL draft would produce important piece in outside linebacker, Pat Swilling.
Life of a Saint: Pat Swilling
For Pat Swilling, football was not his initial sport of choice as a boy. “My mother wasn’t crazy about us playing football at an early age”, Swilling mentioned. At the time, Swilling was a local baseball and basketball star. As fate would have it, Swilling would have a change of heart; a change that happened in front of a television set. Swilling recalled, “I think I was about 12 years old. I’ll never forget this. I was sitting with some family and we were watching the Dallas Cowboys play. (Ed) ‘Too Tall’ Jones came around the corner and he made a sack. They were talking about all the sacks he had and what a great pass rusher he was and I thought, ‘All he does is come around the corner and hits quarterbacks.’ I said to myself, ‘Man, I could do that.’”
Along with this new desire came a well-timed growth spurt. Entering high school, Swilling remembered, “I was a big boy. As a freshman, I was about 6’3” or 6’4” and about 195-200 pounds. That’s when I started playing.” The final piece of the puzzle was confidence, which came in the form of a seven-word phrase uttered by a local legend. Swilling stated, “Billy Shaw lived in my hometown of Toccoa, Georgia. Billy Shaw is a Hall of Famer in the NFL. He played for Buffalo. He told me, as a 16-year old, ‘One of these days, you will play NFL football’. I looked at Billy Shaw like he was crazy.” Swilling mentioned that the statement by Shaw helped him transition into the player he would become.
Swilling Becomes a Yellow Jacket
Swilling would go on to have a remarkable high school career, catching the eye of many Division 1 colleges in the process. With national attention, Pat Swilling earned himself several great college options. “I went on some visits to Auburn, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Georgia. Initially, I committed to go to Auburn University. I committed to Pat Dye and I did that through my high school coach, Jerry Snell”, Swilling said. But the allure of Georgia Tech and the opportunity to play with Bill Curry was too much to ignore, keeping Swilling close to home.
Coach Curry saw the pass-rushing abilities of Pat Swilling and incorporated that into Georgia tech’s defensive game planning. While Swilling had an undeniable gift at getting to the quarterback, the constant use as a pass-rusher almost became a hindrance. Swilling recalled, “At Georgia Tech, I was put in a situation where I rushed the passer almost every down. In the NFL, they wanted to know if I could drop back into coverage and cover. I had to prove to the NFL that I could cover. That’s why I dropped from a late first-rounder or early second-rounder to a third-round pick”.
Pat Swilling Joins the Saints
Swilling had interest from several teams leading up to the 1986 NFL draft. The Tampa Bay Bucs and L.A. Rams kicked the tires on Swilling. Swilling also came pretty close to joining another famous #56 in Lawrence Taylor with the New York Giants. “Bill Parcells had come to see me about four different times. The last time he came to see me, he said, ‘Son, I need an inside linebacker. But I like you”.
Swilling would fall to the Saints in the third round. As Swilling settled into his new team, two players really helped the transition into the NFL: Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson and the late Dave Waymer. “Rickey Jackson is like a brother to me. I love him. He took me under his wing. He taught me the toughness and the mental capacity it takes to play the game”, said Swilling. He continued, “The only other guy was Dave Waymer. From a philosophical side of the game, he was my guy.” Swilling mentioned how much both players impacted him personally, professionally and intellectually.
A Change of Fortune in New Orleans
The immediate change in fortune of the New Orleans Saints in the late 80’s was, in large part, due to the arrival of Pat Swilling, but he would never tell you that. “We were fortunate to have Jim Mora. Jim Mora brought a discipline that was needed in New Orleans”, Swilling emphasized. As a disciple of Bill Curry’s tutelage, the discipline Mora dished out was nothing new for Swilling. But many players did not handle the transition from a more laxed, loyal Bum Phillips to the results-driven Mora. Swilling said, “I can’t speak to what went on before then, but I can tell you, that first year I think he cut twenty-something players.”
While Jim Mora was an immediate needed ‘shot in the arm’, Swilling also stressed the new faces on the field were just as important. “Second part of it was midway during camp, about the third week, the USFL folded. We look up and two guys get off the bus, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson. No one could have ever understood how much they would end up meaning to our team’s success”, remembered Swilling.
There was one more young man that Swilling had to include in his reasons for the newfound success in the Big Easy, Linebackers Coach, Vic Fangio. Swilling spoke about how he didn’t know what to think about Fangio since he was so young. It didn’t take long for the Saints linebacking corp. and Fangio to have mutual respect. Swilling then got into how much work Fangio would put in to get the linebackers ready for a game. “We didn’t just line up, me and Rickey, and just come off the corner. We lined up with some intelligent information on what the offenses were doing week in and week out”, Swilling recalled. Swilling also gives a great deal of credit to Fangio for his personal success on the field.
The Dome Patrol
The Dome Patrol is easily the most storied linebacking group in Saints history and, quite possibly, NFL history. When asked what it was like to be a part of that group, Swilling voiced, “In today’s NFL, you would never put four guys of that stature on the same team together. You couldn’t afford us today. Rickey Jackson was already Rickey Jackson when I got there. We just added to what Rickey had already built. I mean, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson, just to play with those guys was incredible. When you look back on history of what we did, it’ll never happen again.” Swilling also spoke about the close personal relationship they all had.
When speaking about arguably the best linebacking corp. of all time, naturally, the NFL Hall of Fame will come up. With Rickey Jackson currently being the only Hall of Famer of the bunch, Swilling emphatically asked, “How aren’t we in the Hall of Fame, based on our numbers? My numbers, Sam Mills’ numbers, Vaughan Johnson’s contribution and numbers are all there. I’ll never understand it. There are six or seven guys in the Hall of Fame right now at outside linebacker that don’t have my numbers. I’ve never even been nominated. How is that possible? It’s a damn travesty. It makes no sense. I’ve never been in jail. I’ve been a state official down here in Louisiana. I’ve carried myself the way an NFL player should carry themselves. And yet, I’ve never been nominated.” Swilling continued, “Charles Haley doesn’t have my numbers. Andre Tippett and four or five other guys that don’t have my numbers and yet they’re in the Hall of Fame. Me and my family are sickened to it because it makes no sense. Sam Mills is one of the best inside linebackers to ever play the game. Now he’s been nominated, but he’s not in the Hall. There’s no reason for that. When you have a group that rates the Dome Patrol as the best linebacking corp. of all time and only one of our guys is in the Hall of Fame, and it’s been 20 years, none of it makes sense. There’s not a better group of four guys that have ever played this game. Lawrence Taylor had Carl Banks and Harry Carson, but nobody ever had four guys like us.”
Swilling also mentioned the story of how Bill Parcells used to motivate Lawrence Taylor by commenting how good Swilling was. Swilling added, “When Bill Parcells told Lawrence to take his jersey down to New Orleans and bring Pat Swilling back up… if Parcells says that about me, I ought to be in the Hall of Fame. If Bill Parcells doesn’t know what a great football player looks like, nobody does.”
Parting with New Orleans
To say leaving that New Orleans Saints was tough for Pat Swilling would certainly be an understatement. Swilling mentioned how tough it was to move on from the city, team and teammates that he loved. “While it’s no knock on Detroit, it took me two years to wrap my head around the fact that I don’t play with Vaughan, Rickey and Sam anymore. I got hurt as well, so I was never the player they wanted me to be in Detroit”, Swilling uttered.
Things would get better for Swilling eventually in Oakland as a Raider. The combination of better play on the field and the influence of Al Davis helped Swilling feel better about things. Swilling mentioned, “I got lucky to end up out in Oakland with Mr. Al Davis who I love to death. He treated me like family.” Despite the improvement from his days with the Detroit Lions, Swilling mentioned football was never like what it was in New Orleans. He said, “I never again felt the love of the game like I did with those guys. Football was fun. It wasn’t about the money. It was different.”
Life After the NFL
The biggest change to Swilling’s life since his days in the NFL has been his family. In 2010, Robin and Pat Swilling officially added a fourth child to their family by adopting Bruce Jordan Swilling. Bruce joined his siblings Pat Jr.(son), Starr (daughter) and Tre (son). Pat Swilling spoke about the decision to grow their family. “After talking to Robin, my wife, it was more my youngest son Tre’s decision because it was his time. My oldest son had gone off to play college basketball. My daughter was getting ready to go off to college. It was Tre’s time. When we made the decision that we may want to adopt Bruce, we asked him what he thought. He was happy with it. They had all played AAU basketball together since they were little kids and Bruce had always been around. We really wanted Tre to make that decision. My hat’s always been off to Tre. He’s always been such an unselfish kid”, Swilling recalled. Swilling spoke about how supportive all his children were and how perfect a fit Bruce ended up being.
Swilling added, “Bruce is an equal part of our family. What a wonderful child. When we got Bruce at 12-years old, a lot of kids at 12 are ruined by the system. We are so fortunate because he has been such a wonderful child. Not one day has he given us grief, not one sleepless night. If anyone could have fit into our family, he did.” Sons Tre and Bruce are currently playing football together at Georgia Tech.
Outside of family, there are still the ties to the NFL. While there is still the perennial sting of being slighted by the NFL Hall of Fame, the Saints have provided some well-deserved respect to Swilling and his former teammates. Swilling mentioned, “My hats off to Gayle Benson and the Saints. Now, we as older guys, as alumni are included. She and the Saints organization are doing a great job in including us in everything they do. That didn’t happen 20 years ago. It was just different. Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Gayle Benson have done a wonderful job in making all of us here in New Orleans, and around the country, that played for the Saints, a part of it.”
Finally, there is Swilling’s career. Pat Swilling is currently working in real estate and development in the New Orleans area. Swilling jested about what his current goals are in stating, “Waking up in the morning and building another building. That’s my goal. That’s what I love to do. I’m building condos here in New Orleans. I’m building buildings every year. I’m state licensed here. I’m in the real estate business. I’m as passionate about building buildings and renewing our community in New Orleans as I was about football.”
Swilling continues to display how much the city of New Orleans means to him. The label of ‘Saint’ seems very fitting for Pat Swilling not only as a player, but as a father, as a leader and as a developer. And while all those different structures erected by Swilling may have different facades and features, one thing is guaranteed. They’re all built on strong foundations.