It's an autumn afternoon in Eden Prairie, Minn., but it feels more like late December. A northeasterly wind whips through the orange leaves of the maples that line the Vikings' practice field, making the temperature—with the wind chill—19�. Standing in line, over by the blocking sled, is Dennis Swilley, the Vikings' starting center and the NFL's answer to Frank Lloyd Wright. He's an accomplished architect, interior designer, sculptor and painter. A chair that he designed, made of six slotted triangular pieces of wood, will soon be on the market in Minneapolis. The chair is definitely his idea of a self-portrait—"slightly oversized and somewhat complicated."
On this day, however, Swilley resembles a giant marshmallow—the only guy on the field wearing layers and layers of sweatshirts underneath his white jersey. His linemates are growling as they ram the blocking sled. Swilley looks left. Then he looks right. Suddenly he's off. He sprints across the field, bounds up a hill and disappears into the woods.
"Hey, guys," yells Scott Studwell, a Vikings linebacker. "Swilley's gone over the wall—again. Oh, those temperamental artists." It will be 10 minutes before Swilley sees fit to join his teammates back in the huddle.
Swilley went over the hill—all the way over—once before. That time he didn't come back for a year. His version of the Great Escape occurred in 1984 after five years as the Vikings' starting center. That's when Swilley retired and went back to Aubrey, Texas, to build a home he designed. "There's not a whole lot of self-expression in football," the 30-year-old Swilley says. "There are so many rules and guidelines. You're not creating anything new. You're just using your athletic ability. What about the soul within you? Sometimes I hear a voice inside me calling, 'Hey, I want to get out.' "
Swilley expresses himself in unusual ways. He has been known to stand on his head during practice "to keep from falling asleep." He also juggles toy penguins in the locker room "to stay sane." If he's feeling funky, he'll dress in brightly colored high-top sneakers, tacky Hawaiian shirts and faded big overalls with his harmonica in the chest pouch. The sophisticated Swilley, however, wears a leather jacket, designer corduroys, argyle socks and tassel loafers. He also dabbles with the piano.
Swilley says that when he was growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., he was "a nerdy kid with a dopey haircut." A few years later, while his friends were out practicing their sports, Swilley sat in his bedroom and began to doodle with Magic-Markers and colored pencils. This was fun. Soon Swilley was designing kites and tree houses and creating models of the town's buildings, using paper-towel tubes and cardboard boxes.
Football had not become a problem yet: He was much bigger than the other kids. And his size helped when they would rough it up on a concrete parking lot next to the hospital. But organized football?
"In ninth grade," Swilley recalls, "all the coach did was take us up to the high school for somebody to beat on us. We got dogged around. We felt intimidated. I thought, 'I don't need this.' " So he quit.
It wasn't until his senior year in high school that he rejoined the team. "There was a new coach who appreciated athletes," says Swilley, who was 6'3", 220 pounds. He played tight end and defensive line and wound up with a scholarship to Texas A & M, where he enrolled as an architecture major.
"I lived in the football dorm," Swilley says. "What a zoo! It was impossible to apply myself. I had about a 1.28 grade point average. It was too hard to be good at both football and architecture, so I chose football. When football got too confining, I'd throw my helmet into the stands and scream, 'I'm not going to do this!' I'd keep telling myself that, someday, if I could make money playing pro football, I'd be able to devote myself to my art."