Swilley was an All-Southwest Conference guard his senior year and the Vikings' second-round draft pick in 1977. In his third season, he became the starting center—only the second in the Vikings' history—replacing the retired Mick Tingelhoff. He lived in a house with Studwell and quarterback Tommy Kramer on Orchard Lake, 15 miles from the Vikings' offices.
"Dennis never really fit in," Kramer says. "He was a hermit, looking for a place to lay his mat." Says Studwell, "I saw Dennis as an artist playing football to pay the bills. I wondered where his head was."
In 1981 Swilley enrolled in the interior-design program at North Texas State, and he attended the school for a semester in each of the next three off-seasons. He was a star student (3.7 GPA), immersing himself in Shakespeare, sculpture and furniture design. One spring, he studied art history in Switzerland.
"My artist friends couldn't believe I was a football player, and neither could I," he says.
Each summer, it got harder and harder to go back to training camp. "It was difficult to turn one talent on and the other off—every six months," Swilley says. "I struggled with the contradictions within me. I could be aggressive but passive, macho but sensitive. I just couldn't understand how I could do one thing and be another."
In '82, he began dreaming about his escape from football. On a napkin at a hamburger joint in the east Texas town of Denton, a few miles from Aubrey, Swilley sketched an outline of a house. Eventually, the sketch became 12 gigantic blueprints—five bedrooms, four bathrooms, dozens of windows, decks and beams, all on a plot in the town's 51-acre Oak Bluff development, of which Swilley is part owner.
Construction began in February of '84. "I'd be up every day at 6:30, making lists," he says. "Some days it was crazy. There were a million headaches. But it was the most fulfilling thing I'd ever done. Every day, I'd come home, my clothes soaked in sweat, sawdust in my hair, and I felt like I had done something."
By that May, when minicamp, under new coach Les Steckel, rolled around, the house was still seven months from completion. Swilley was torn.
"I couldn't just close the house up," he says. "It was killing me to leave." But he went to minicamp anyway—for two days. "I knew what Les was like," Swilley says. "He wanted guys who'd do nothing else but play football. When he was an assistant, he'd corner me in the parking lot after practice and give me pointers. That wasn't his job. He was a chronic coach. I'd say, 'Les, practice is over. I'm going home.'
"So I got to minicamp, and Les handed me an itinerary with military terminology, and then he sent me out to go through some crazy drills. That's when I thought, 'This is more than I'm willing to give.' As far as I was concerned, I was gone for good." He used his severance pay as a down payment on his own house.