Head east out of Denton, on U.S. Highway 380, across three concrete-sided bridges and the scrubby, dried-out bottom of Lake Dallas. Up on the ridge, nestled in the mesquite and oak trees, looms the house that Swilley built—a contemporary cedar structure that covers 4,200 square feet and cost $325,000.
A passive-solar, earth-shelter design, the house is embedded in the ridge, assuring warmth in winter and coolness in summer. The east side looks somewhat like a barn, the west side like a futuristic ship, with all sorts of geometric shapes, round windows and skylights.
Inside, it has the feeling of a cabin retreat—ash, pine and cedar paneling, fireplaces and an earth-tone color scheme.
Many of the furnishings are unique. There's a library ladder, firemen's pole, buffalo rug, coffee tables made from wooden spools ("early phone company," he says), a barber's chair, a collection of clocks, a 1940s lamppost and a doorbell that plays the theme from Green Acres.
On the walls are Swilley's watercolors, delicate landscapes. His sculptures are in every room. Most are made from wood. His two favorites are a life-size, blue-and-red spiny steer and a hanging lamp made of commode parts with toilet-paper for shades. He thinks that the lamp looks Oriental.
The house consumed Swilley. Last season, he lost more than 30 pounds, dropping to 218; he occasionally watched football on TV. Steckel and Kramer—and even the Atlanta Falcons—called several times, asking him to come back. "I'm still mad that he deserted us," Kramer says. "I needed a center who could get me the snap."
Late last February, Swilley phoned Vikings coach Bud Grant, who had returned after Steckel was fired. "I asked him if he could use another center," Swilley says. "I knew I still had the ability. It made sense financially. And, you know, I really missed it." Grant told him to start working out. He made no promises but, Grant says, "When he got to training camp, I saw that Dennis hadn't changed a bit."
When Jim Hough went out with an arm injury after the second game of the season, Swilley stepped back into the starting spot. "Dennis is playing the best football of his career," Grant says.
Swilley knows the reason for that: He's not fighting himself anymore. "When I was away, I realized I had an obligation to myself," Swilley says. "As long as I had the ability to excel, I had a responsibility to develop both talents. It's part of finding yourself.
"For now, I'll be both. Football is my release. But if football ever gets to be too much, I'll say, 'Fine. Y'all can do it that way, and I'll just go back to my watercolors.' "