For the first five games of 1990, Swilling was a whirling, swooping presence who made four interceptions and 34 tackles. But he severely sprained his right ankle on the opening kickoff of the fifth game, against Clemson, and while he went on to make 11 tackles that day, he sat out the next two games. Tech team physician Jay Shoop told him the ankle would require six to eight weeks to heal, but Swilling suited up early, for the team's pivotal game against Virginia. While Georgia Tech won, 41-38, Swilling was embarrassed before a national television audience by Virginia receiver Herman Moore, who made nine catches—five of them while covered by Swilling—for 234 yards. "We made Herman a first-round pick," says Tech defensive backfield coach Chuck Priefer. "We want Herman to send his first $100,000 to us."
Swilling was not the same player for the remainder of the season. "I played horribly against Virginia," Swilling says. "It changed the whole season, and my whole attitude about leaving school. I felt I had things to prove. People judged me. That bothered me a lot."
Swilling's confidence eroded noticeably as he dealt with public criticism for the first time in his career. He uncharacteristically began making mistakes in practices and allowing catches in games that previously he might have intercepted or broken up. His opportunity for redemption, when Georgia Tech beat Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl, was unsatisfactory. Swilling was hardly a factor.
"It's hard, when you've been praised all the time, to think you're doing something wrong," Clay says. "People started looking at him like maybe this guy isn't all that good. I saw him change. He started breaking down in practice. He didn't know who Ken Swilling was."
If Swilling's confidence was fragile, it may have been because he is younger and less experienced than most people realize. Although he is a senior, he will not be 21 until next month, and he has really played only five full seasons of football. He gave the sport up altogether for two years in high school after he broke his sternum while playing running back in ninth grade. But he returned to football when his fear wore off and when he saw his cousin Pat use football as an avenue to get a scholarship to a major college.
Swilling's athleticism is the stuff of legend around Toccoa. He rarely came off the field at Stephens County High School, where he also started on the basketball and baseball teams and ran track. But for a while he was the least renowned of the three Swillings, behind Pat and Pat's younger brother, Darrell, 21. Darrell, now a senior inside linebacker at Georgia Tech, has few NFL aspirations; instead, he is intent on a "bright future in the corporate world."
Ken grew up about a mile from his cousins, and was the smallest and the slowest of them. He lost all the footraces. "All I thought about was that one day I was going to beat them," he says. "I thought if I could beat them, I could beat anybody."
Even then, however, Swilling had a certain fluidity of movement. Says Darrell, "He does things without effort that other people have to work at."
Ross saw Swilling perform a breathtaking feat one night in his senior year of high school, when Stephens County played a regional championship game against Villa Rica High. With seven seconds left and Stephens County trailing, Swilling caught a 40-yard prayer of a pass, outjumping and wresting the ball away from four defenders, then streaked 20 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Ross is still taken aback by the things Swilling can do, particularly the speed with which he moves. Swilling's habit of coming out of nowhere earned him the nickname Captain America. "I never coached a guy like Ken who could step in and play any position," Ross says.