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D’Andre Swift Has the Making of a Modern NFL Running Back

From his childhood in Philadelphia, to his college years at the University of Georgia, Swift has been preparing to play on Sundays

Dalan Overstreet

Henry Holloway’s home was a natural gathering place for his family on Sundays, given its proximity to Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, where they met for weekly worship. After services, Henry would sit in his old-timey rocker in front of the television, the static buzzing as he changed the channels between football and bull riding. He often held his grandson, D’Andre, on his lap, holding his head against his chest in the rare moment when the youngster wasn’t bouncing around the living room. When D’Andre was 3 years old, he began to make precious yet clairvoyant proclamations.

“Pop-Pop,” D’Andre would say, using the name he gave his grandfather. “I’ma play on the box.”

D’Andre’s father, Darren, would ask him what he meant. The entire family was confused—until D’Andre pointed toward the football game on television.

“I’ma play on the box on Sundays!”

Pop-Pop’s home in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia was a sanctuary for D’Andre. The two would play-fight around the house and watch Eagles games while wearing their deep-green jerseys. “[D’Andre] was like the son he never had, cause I’m the only child,” says Ayanna Holloway-Swift, D’Andre’s mother. If D’Andre ever had an issue, he called Pop-Pop. In his house there was “love and care,” D’Andre tells me. “He put me first. He cared about me.”

D’Andre’s love for football was instilled in him when he was a baby crawling around his grandfather’s home. But Pop-Pop died when D’Andre was a boy, before he ever got to see his grandson play football. Before every high school game he played with Saint Joseph’s Prep, D’Andre wrote “RIP Pop-Pop” on his wrist tape and took a silent moment alone to pray.

“I believe that the relationship that he built with my dad, it gives him that much more of that fight of what he already has in him as just a person,” Ayanna says. “That’s what makes D’Andre who he is.”

Even when D’Andre could barely walk, he had the wiggle of a running back. It scared Darren to think his son might fall in love with football, just as he had. He didn’t want D’Andre to carry the burden of such an unforgiving game, to experience the bruising crush of helmet meeting bone. But as he watched D’Andre juke his way around Pop-Pop’s house into the end zone of his own imagination, Darren remembered the joy the game brought him as a child. And he knew it could be D’Andre’s way out of Philly.

D’Andre’s dream took him from Saint Joseph’s Prep to the University of Georgia, where he was a first-team All-SEC running back in 2019. He’ll come closer to making good on his declaration in Pop-Pop’s home all those years ago when he hears his name called in this week’s NFL draft. If it doesn’t happen in the first round on Thursday, it will certainly come on Friday in the second round—The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has D’Andre as the 21st-ranked prospect in the draft. Even when the 21-year-old learns of his new home, and sees his childhood fantasy come to life on Sundays, he’ll always remember his promise to Pop-Pop.

“We know for a fact that he still talks to his grandfather, you know what I mean?” Darren says. “Or you know, ‘Pop-Pop, I know you’re there watching me and I’m going to make you proud.’ Things of that nature.

“It’s surreal to sit back and see him put in the work and be able to see the fruits of his labor.”

When D’Andre was 6 years old, Ayanna signed him up to play for the church football team coached by his godfather, Radell. Initially, Darren was content to watch from the stands as his chubby son tried his hand at offensive line, but eventually, he grabbed a whistle and took part in D’Andre’s football education. Family fostered D’Andre’s love for football, and then guided him through the sport. D’Andre wanted to play running back, just like his dad. But Darren bristled at the idea. His son was capable, but Darren was afraid he would get hurt. “I was like, ‘Dude, no, no, you’re little,’” Darren says. It was a constant battle. “Any excuse I could have given him not to play [running back]. That’s what I did.”

When a running back on the peewee roster got hurt, D’Andre again asked his father to play the position. At first, Darren compromised: If D’Andre showed he could block, then he could have a chance at running the ball. That wasn’t enough to placate D’Andre, who sulked until his father finally relented. Darren had a message for his son. “I put you at running back and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, don’t ask me to play running back again,” Darren told D’Andre.

“What are you supposed to do?” Darren asked.

“Score a touchdown!” D’Andre shot back.

“We hand him the ball. It was over,” Darren says. “Touched the ball, went right around the side outside and he scored.”

D’Andre was brimming. “See, dad!” he said. “I told you I knew what I was supposed to do!”

The following week at practice, Darren put D’Andre back on the offensive line. He was trying to teach his son an early lesson: The Swifts don’t take the first sign of success as a bridge to glory. They work. They grind. They hustle. Until there’s no doubt left that they belong. Even though D’Andre was 6, two years younger than most players on his team, he had the speed and weight to compete. But nothing would be given to him.

It didn’t take long for D’Andre to stand out. In his first game, he was stuck playing offensive line, until Radell told Darren to put him in at running back. It was third-and-18. D’Andre was ready. To this day, he remembers the play call.

“It was like 28 toss or something like that,” D’Andre says. “I went through like 16 guys my first play as running back.”

That’s the modest retelling, though.

“We gave Dre the ball on that play and he hit that sideline and then cut across the field against the grain, against everybody,” Darren says. He looked at Ayanna across the field and they each started sprinting after their son.

“I’m like, ‘Go! Go!’” Darren says, nearly knocking Ayanna off the couch in their home as he recounts the story to me over FaceTime. “And I’m forgetting that I’m a coach, but I’m so happy because my son is, you know what I mean, running down [the field]. I got my whistles around my neck and I’m running down the sideline. She’s running down the sideline. Her friend is running down the sideline.”

D’Andre turned an inside trap play into a reverse for 75 yards. His first touch went for a touchdown. “It gave Dre excitement,” Ayanna says. “I mean, it gave us excitement to watch him. So you could just see again, a real knack, a natural instinct of him being able to do what he needed to do.”

D’Andre played for Enon until the eighth grade, when some members of the church cobbled together a highlight reel of his plays from the field behind the prayer house. Darren says he doesn’t know how the tape got started or who circulated it. But it wasn’t long until high school coaches began peppering the sidelines at practices.

All of D’Andre’s friends went to La Salle College High, an all-boys football powerhouse in the Philadelphia Catholic League. D’Andre loved La Salle. But Darren and Ayanna wanted his son to go to Saint Joseph’s Prep, another all-boys, Catholic football powerhouse. It would be a defining moment in his life.

“To be honest, I didn’t like anything about Prep,” D’Andre says. “It was my mom and dad’s decision. I didn’t want to go there at all.”

“I didn’t think I was going to like it at all. All I knew was La Salle. … I didn’t really know too much about Prep. I’d never seen it. Never talked to any coaches. Didn’t know anybody that played there. It was more of a parent decision because they thought it was best for me. Which was the best decision that was made in my life so far.”

Saint Joe’s Prep was a football factory when D’Andre enrolled. Eagles assistant coach Marty Mornhinweg’s son played quarterback there. So did Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s son. The sons of former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan also played there. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of Saint Joseph’s Prep, but did not know D’Andre and his family before reporting this story.) D’Andre started on the varsity team as a freshman, and his course work included college-level courses and a six-year mandatory language requirement.

“I think that was harder than a college,” D’Andre says. “Made me the young man I am today.” The football came easy: There were breakout games against Dallas Jesuit in 108-degree weather in Texas; five touchdowns against Archbishop Wood on ESPN; a 272-yard, seven-touchdown game against La Salle; 268 yards and three scores in one quarter in the state semifinals. He amassed more than 4,000 career rushing yards and won multiple state titles, with scholarship offers from all the major programs in the country.

D’Andre was one of the few black students at Saint Joseph’s Prep, a predominantly white, wealthy school, whose students were more likely to go to the Ivy League than the SEC. It was an extreme departure from what he was used to in Philly. He had trouble acclimating, not just to the academic and athletic workload, but to the impression from others that he was only there because of his football talent.

“That’s the ignorance that comes along with a high-profile athlete like him at a school like the Prep,” says Joe Coyle, an English teacher at the school who taught D’Andre and remains a close family friend. “When you see other students and you say, ‘Oh, well. He’s going to Penn,’ or, ‘He’s going to Penn State.’ He’s going here. Oh, yeah, but D’Andre is going to Georgia. ‘Oh, that’s because he played football.’”

There were days when D’Andre would walk to football practice and see the same drug dealers line the corners near his home. His coach, Tim Roken, sometimes picked him up to alleviate those moments of stress. “Growing up in some tough areas, and seeing some tough things, Darren kept him very grounded and secluded from stuff around that area,” Roken tells me. “Going to the Prep got him out of that.” The decision to attend Georgia—and get out of Philly—became an easy one when Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart offered D’Andre a scholarship.

“You know what it’s like, you from Philly,” D’Andre says to me. “It could be rough, definitely.” There was the crime. “I done been in situations with people tried to rob the house. I done seen my homie get robbed before, stuff like that. Like you get opportunities to get out and do something positive, and you on the first thing smokin’ outta Philly.”

All along, D’Andre trusted his parents’ plan to put him on the right path. “It’s not easy just to dip into the Philly streets and stuff like that. You know somebody that’s doing something bad, so it would be easy to do that. But I found and fell in love with football at a young age. And I kind of knew what I wanted to do with it. So, that always kind of always kept me on the right track. Like I knew what I could or couldn’t do. See what I’m saying?”

“Swift into the end zone! Touchdown! The freshman just ran it back to Philadelphia!”

That was the call on Georgia football’s radio broadcast when D’Andre burst through a seam against Auburn to introduce himself to college football. The University of Georgia felt like home to the Swift family. In Athens, D’Andre had the coaching, the academic support, and the exposure of the SEC to propel him forward. Darren himself became an internet sensation after the cameras panned to him in the stands during a television broadcast. You see, Darren runs a gym back home in Philadelphia, and he looks the part: He’s built like an ox. The silver cross he wears around his tree trunk of a neck sits so close to his massive salt-and-pepper beard that it resembles a choker chain.

It wasn’t a seamless transition, however. Ayanna cried over the phone because her boy was so far away from home. And as a freshman, D’Andre had to settle for third on the depth chart behind future pros Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. After his sophomore season, he became close with Drew Johnson, a trainer who had worked with Georgia players. Johnson helped prepare D’Andre to become the primary back for Georgia. They exchanged text threads after games of what Johnson would see: how D’Andre jumped into the gap between linemen too quickly, or if there wasn’t enough shake on his dead-leg jump cuts.

After turning in more than 1,400 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns in his junior season, D’Andre declared for the NFL draft. “Philly guys are different. And I love it because they’re raw,” Johnson tells me. He says D’Andre was one of the hardest workers he ever trained with. “He’s very private, but he’s real. You know what I mean? And he knows this is his out. Playing this ball, playing this game, being loyal to the game, playing by the rules of the game. This is his out. So he’s very determined. Very genuine. Very real.”

After the season, D’Andre headed to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to train with Mo Wells, a former track star and fitness expert who trained a pipeline of LSU athletes for the NFL combine. D’Andre lifted weights with LSU draft hopefuls Justin Jefferson and Grant Delpit, doing sand-pit agility drills under the sun. D’Andre would blast hits from Meek Mill over the sound systems at IMG so frequently that the other prospects would bully him into changing the songs.

D’Andre Swift plays against the Kentucky Wildcats in 2019. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The weeks D’Andre spent on the beach were in preparation for the biggest interview of his life at the NFL combine in February. He was specifically concerned about his 40-yard dash time. Scouts knew he was quick, twitchy—but D’Andre wanted them to know he was one of the fastest backs in the draft.

D’Andre wanted to be in 4.4 shape every day in practice. Wells would tell him that was impossible, but D’Andre didn’t care. “I need another rep,” D’Andre would shout. Wells would shake his head until D’Andre gave up or got what he wanted.

“The main focus was his mental clarity,” Wells says. “D’Andre is a perfectionist. He wants everything done at 120 percent, and I had to just guide him along the way in knowing that that’s not how this type of training always works.” Wells wanted D’Andre to focus more on quick-burst workouts as opposed to football drills. “Keeping his mind clear, making sure that he was in a good mental state was extremely important, so he could not only be clear for training but be able to adapt to the things that I was trying to teach him.”

The aim was to peak at the right moment. When it was D’Andre’s turn to run at the combine, Darren and Ayanna frantically texted and called everyone they could from their couch in Philly. The broadcast cut out during his workout, so it wasn’t until later that the news got out: D’Andre hit a 4.48. Wells leapt from his seat, yelled “WHOAAAA,” and chucked his phone toward a wall.

“I just wanted them to see the kind of back I am. And I know football,” D’Andre says. I ask him if he thinks that 40 time made him some money. You can practically hear the smile in his voice. “For sure,” he says. “I don’t think it lost me no money.”

When his drills were done, the nerves eased from his mind. “It was just like stress relief.” He headed back to a hotel suite with Wells, where they ordered more than 50 wings from Buffalo Wild Wings and watched his tape, surrounded by friends. He was smiling. Wells hugged him tightly. “You stamped yourself,” he said.

The nerves haven’t completely left D’Andre as he heads into the biggest week of his young life. After the combine, he went to Buford, Georgia, to work out with Johnson and conduct interviews with teams. He considers himself a hybrid back, arguably the best runner in the class, a first-round hopeful who likens himself to Christian McCaffrey. He believes he’s the future of the NFL.

“My game is very versatile,” he says. “I could do a lot of different things. I can catch outta the backfield. I can move to the slide, I can run different routes, on the inside, the outside. I can block. I can do whatever you need me to do. Like I said, God blessed me with a lot of abilities. And I worked very hard at that. So I think I have a lot of value to offense.”

He says he hasn’t found it difficult to work out during the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended NFL operations and led to strict social distancing measures across the United States. He’s driving back to Philly to be with his family for the draft, a small circle, just how he likes it. He doesn’t even plan to wear a suit. “Nah, I’m going to be in sweatpants,” he says.

D’Andre believes in his family proverb to “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” And he’s been ready for a long time. And with that speed? With that name? “God, he’s a marketing agent’s dream,” Coyle says. Little D’Andre’s grown big, but he’s still got the same wiggle in his step, the same speed and smile. Just turn on the screen and you’ll see what he told his grandfather when he was a boy. There he is, dashing, showing the world what the Swifts have seen from first grade to maybe the first round. Ayanna and Darren’s boy kept his promise. Look, Pop-Pop. D’Andre finally made it on the box.

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