Then and Now: Eric Swann

During his more than 35 years of in the pro scouting arena, one of Tom Marino's most notable finds during his great career was defensive lineman Eric Swann, who became a Pro Bowler twice during his ten-year career. Find out Tom's thoughts on him then ... and now.

It was early April in the spring of 1990 and along with five other Saints scouts, I had just concluded the annual marathon that we had come to know as our draft meetings. After four weeks (including Easter) of reviewing hundreds of game and All-Star tapes, scrutinizing players from all over the country, answering the many questions posed to us from head coach Jim Mora, personnel director Bill Kuharich and the late and great GM Jim Finks, the ordeal had finally come to an end.

Before heading to the airport, I vividly recall stating to veteran Saints' scouts Hamp Cook and Bill Baker that I thought I finally knew how Papillon felt after receiving a life sentence to Devil's Island for a crime he didn't commit.

On the flight home, I carefully rechecked my "things to do" list for the draft which would take place in less then three weeks.

Check on a possible knee injury to Liberty TE Eric Green and call coach Bobby Casullo at Syracuse to see if there something else I should know about Rob Moore and Terry Wooden. I would need to take another quick peek at Ricky Proehl to assess whether I had overstated his playing potential. After a drive to Elizabeth City to interview Arizona tackle Anthony Smith -- and by the way, beating his butt in ping pong -- I returned to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit with the man that the Saints had targeted as our likely number one selection, defensive lineman Ray Agnew.

Since I lived less then ten miles from the campus, and because of the importance of this particular player, I scheduled this visit just before returning to New Orleans. I arrived at the complex and walked down to the field with strength and conditioning coach William Hicks who informed me that Ray had just finished lifting and was cooling down with a few laps around the track. It didn't take long to locate Baby Ray casually circling the track amid the students, professors, and would-be athletes. But what made it distinctly easier was the presence of a mountain of a man matching Agnew stride for stride as they moved down the backstretch.

I asked, "William, who the hell is that running with Ray?"

"That's Eric Swann, the guy you couldn't take your eyes off of at the high school all-star game last summer," he replied.  He explained to me that in spite of being a solid student (his dad was an accountant and his mom was a special education teacher), Eric suffered from acute "Test Anxiety" which unfortunately had prevented him from attaining the necessary combined SAT score to meet NCAA requirements.

My conversation with Ray lasted all of five minutes. He was then, as he is today, one of the classiest individuals I have ever had the pleasure to meet in 35 years in the game. As I was leaving the track, Eric sheepishly turned to me and asked for my phone number. I complied with his request thinking that I might receive a call from him some time in the future. As it turned out, the future was that very evening.

After explaining to me that he had recently taken his SATs for the seventh and last time (the ACC does not accept partial qualifiers), he then asked me that if he failed to qualify, could he sign as a free agent with the Saints? I cut him off quickly telling him to call me with the results and that I would not comment further until after I had the opportunity to speak with then head coach Dick Sheridan.

During the draft, the Saints had the 14th pick and failed in their attempt to draft Agnew as he was chosen by the Patriots with the 10th selection.  Two weeks later, I received my second call from Eric informing me that he had again failed to qualify. The following day I called the North Carolina State football office and after getting their approval, arranged to work out Eric the following week at their practice facility.

Eric Swann pressures Jeff Blake in 1994
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It didn't take long to see that this young giant was quite possibly the most impressive big man I have ever had the opportunity to view. His quickness, body control, feet, balance and explosiveness was a thing to behold. I told Eric after the workout that NFL rules strictly prohibited players one year removed from high school from playing, but I might have a viable playing option. I had recently spoken to a friend (and former player turned agent) Dick Bell, who had informed me that he had recently purchased the rights to a national minor league franchise that would begin play later that summer.

I called Dick later and after briefly describing Swann's jaw-dropping workout, he informed me he would be in North Carolina the following day. As it turned out, the gregarious Bell and this man-child Swann were a near perfect match. Bell met with his Eric's parents and grandfather the following evening, assuring them that he would treat Eric as he would with his own son. By week's end Eric was on a plane bound for Boston to begin his career with the Bay State Titans.

Devoting virtually every waking hour to Eric's development, in less then a year he had transformed Swann from a groundskeeper at the state fairgrounds into one of the most sought-after professional football prospects in the country.

Petitioning the NFL in January of 1991, Bell not only was able to circumvent the rigid rules pertaining to underclassmen, he also put together a plan that eventually led the Phoenix (Arizona) Cardinals to select Swann with the sixth overall pick in the 1991 draft.

Although he played ten seasons in the league and was selected in 1995 and 1996 to the Pro Bowl, a chronic knee injury which required microfracture surgery kept him from ever reaching his full playing potential.

I recently spoke to Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Ray Slater who characterized Swann -- along with the late Reggie White -- as the most explosive two-gap player he had competed against during his remarkable 20-year playing career with the Rams.

I described Swann as a rare playing talent, who would in time become an outstanding NFL defensive lineman. I also concluded that -- if given the opportunity -- Eric had the flexibility in his knees and ankles, the feet, punching power and recovery skills to even become one of the greatest offensive linemen in professional football history.

This feature is titled "Then and Now," but in this particular case, I -- along with many of his friends and teammates -- have heard little as to the whereabouts of Eric Swann today. In many ways, he appears to have fallen off the face of the earth. A wire service story this past summer stated that Eric, at 37 years of age, had come full circle and was in fact attempting a comeback with the Hudson Valley Saints. I recently went to the team's site and although he is mentioned in some early team releases, no player by the name of Eric Swann appears on the team roster or in their game notes.

But just prior to completing this article, through a reliable source, I was told that since his retirement from the game, life has not been entirely kind to Eric. As many former professionals discover, it's never quite the same when all the cheering stops.

Tom Marino has over 35 years of experience as a professional scout working for the NFL's Bears, Saints, Rams, Giants and Cowboys along with both the WFL and USFL. As's Lead NFL Analyst, he has primary responsibility for network reporting, the NFL Draft, Free Agency databases and rankings.


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