A guy who wears a black visor over his eyes, has the number 1 emblazoned on his jersey and has K. SOLO painted on his shoes probably ought to add a cape to his ensemble. Who could have known that Georgia Tech was harboring a comic-book superhero in safety Ken Swilling, otherwise known as Captain America?
At 6'3", 236 pounds, and with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.41 seconds, Swilling is the model football player, a consensus All-America who looks the role, with a granite physique that appears all the more harmful in this getup. "If you were to draw a picture of a football player in a uniform, you'd draw Ken Swilling," Tech coach Bobby Ross says. "He's the guy you want to get off the bus first when you go visiting."
Swilling is also a quiet, small-town fellow from Toccoa, Ga., with a streak of passivity, a hint of spirituality that makes him believe his own dreams, and a silken athleticism that makes everything appear too easy for his own good.
Sometimes Swilling is all of the things he is supposed to be, and sometimes he is not. Although he returns to the national co-champion Yellow Jackets (11-0-1) and to a defense that did not allow a touchdown for the first 19 quarters of 1990, there is the slightest suspicion that he is overrated. Also, he will be playing an unfamiliar position; hoping to take better advantage of Swilling's linebacker size, Ross is moving him from free safety to strong safety.
Swilling could have entered the NFL draft but decided against it, mainly because scouts were uncertain about him after his injury-nagged junior season. Despite the five games in which he amassed tackles in double digits, Swilling's 1990 season included mediocre performances in a couple of Georgia Tech's biggest games. Swilling has on occasion been too slow to anger and too burdened by the weight of his publicity. "With a mean Ken Swilling we could be something," defensive back Willie Clay says wistfully.
Dreamy might be Swilling's preferred state. Captain America has a hard time getting up in the morning. He oversleeps morning meetings, mandatory breakfasts and, sometimes, classes, though he is an adept student: He is majoring in management and has been an occasional visitor to the dean's list. But dreaming might be one of his most peculiar powers. When Swilling dreams something, it often comes true, or so he claims. While in high school, he dreamed he would wind up at Georgia Tech instead of at Alabama or Clemson, and woke up one morning repeating the engineering school's name. When he arrived at Tech for the first time, he claims he recognized the buildings. Swilling suggests his dreams come from the power of prayer, and that belief made it all the more confusing and irritating for him in his freshman season, in which he started from the Yellow Jackets' opening game. There seemed to be no higher meaning in the Rambling Wreck's losing season other than the fact that they were lousy. "God," he asked, "why would you send me here to a team that's 3-8?"
The 1989 season didn't start much better, as Tech lost its first three games. But the Yellow Jackets won seven of their last eight, with Swilling intercepting five passes during that stretch. After he returned two interceptions for touchdowns of 95 and 72 yards against N.C. State and Boston College, respectively, his coaches finally stopped calling him Pat, after his cousin Pat Swilling, a member of Georgia Tech's famed 1985 Black Watch defense and now a New Orleans Saints All-Pro.
During the summer before the 1990 season, Swilling dreamed that Georgia Tech would go 11-0, and he had the audacity to say it out loud. "Everybody looked at me like, man, you're stretching it," he says. "But I could see it."
He dreamed of big games and big plays; his dreams woke him in the night. When the season began, sometimes he would be running across a part of Tech's Grant Field about to make a hit or an interception, and he would remember a frame from a dream. "When it happens, it's like déjà vu," he says. "If I dream about somebody, I might see them. If I dream about something, it might happen. Sometimes it's so intense I wake up sweating."
Swilling's most significant recent dream occurred when he was trying to decide whether to return to Georgia Tech for his senior year or enter the NFL draft. His sleep was invaded one night by a childhood friend who had died in a drug-related incident. Just as Swilling used to plead with the friend to get away from drugs, in Swilling's dream the friend was beseeching him to finish his college career. There was also a pragmatic reason for returning to Tech: NFL scouts' appraisals of him were mixed.