Fueled by fury, inspired by a star
Perceived slights have driven D.J. Swearinger’s quest to become the NFL’s best safety. Now that he has found a home with Redskins, he just might be.
Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger struts across football fields with fists clenched, the same Bone Thugs-N-Harmony hook pounding through his head, wearing resentment like a pair of oversized shoulder pads. Burning in his chest is a volcano of slights, filled with all the voices of the doubters, the disbelievers and those who just don’t understand. The rage rises, building, building, building until at last it erupts into a blast of spit and screams and flying hair.
You don’t think Swearinger is the best safety in the NFL? Really, you don’t? Because here he comes now, 205 pounds of muscle carved in the same Miami gym that molded the rippling arms of LeBron James, ready to make you realize you have been hit by the NFL’s top safety. No. 1. Get it? That’s D.J. Swearinger. “It’s the thuggish, ruggish bone,” Shatasha Williams sings on the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song Swearinger plays on constant repeat.
In his mind he hears the Houston Texans coaches who didn’t get him, the critics who called him a dirty player and the chorus of football experts who hardly seemed to know who he was. He seethes. He rages. Then he goes looking for another pass to intercept.
He wears his dead hero’s rookie number, plays for his dead hero’s NFL team, imagining every minute that he’s prowling the secondary like Sean Taylor, hunting for a receiver to hit. And somewhere it occurs to him that at age 27, after all these years of fighting and fuming, he might be at exactly the right place, where people finally do get him, where everybody in football actually does know his name.
Making people notice
“I’m a very driven man,” he says. “When I’ve set my mind to something, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do everything in my power to do it.”
Finally, he has made people notice. He’s increasingly the face of a defense that ranks among the NFL’s best and has fueled the Redskins’ rise to first place in the NFC East. He is recognized as one of the best defensive backs in the game.
But even now, that often doesn’t feel like enough. Such as last week, when Pro Football Focus ranked Swearinger as the best safety in the league, because how could it not? After four interceptions, two forced fumbles, 25 solo tackles and a sack, it was impossible to ignore him anymore. But for some reason, the Pro Football Focus people didn’t put his picture on the graphic they produced and then tweeted, listing the NFL’s top five safeties. Swearinger tweeted back at them saying that he viewed it as a slight not to be pictured and that he would be using it as motivation.
How could they have known, however, that Swearinger had been monitoring their rankings for years, always wondering why his name never appeared on their lists? How could they realize they were part of a vast cabal of Swearinger misanthropes who just weren’t seeing the brilliance? When PFF didn’t rank him as one of the NFL’s top 10 safeties last season, he took a picture of the list and made it the background photo on his phone, looking at it every time he stepped into a workout. He would stomp through the gym, saying to himself, again and again: “I’m not even the top 10. I’m not even the top 10. I’m not even the top 10.”
His trainer, David Alexander — whose clients at Miami’s DBC Fitness include James, Wizards guard John Wall, Broncos edge rusher Von Miller and Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery — says Swearinger might be the most driven of anyone he works out. Some days he actually has to force Swearinger to stop sessions because he is going too hard.
“He’s hungry, man,” Alexander says. “He is one of the toughest guys to ever walk in my facility. He is that guy. He’s a physical beast in the weight room.
“You know, a lot of players talk about wanting to be great,” he continues. “They say, ‘I want to secure the [big contract], and I want to be the greatest.’ But he doesn’t just talk about it. He says, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”
And eventually everyone notices because there’s no way you can miss Swearinger when he’s on a mission to change your mind.
“You are the scariest safety in the league,” LeBron’s longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter — a huge football fan — told Swearinger last summer. Alexander whistles softly. “When you get guys like that noticing you . . .” he says.
Driven by slights
For more than a decade, Swearinger has been shaking people, trying to get them to notice. Back at Greenwood High in Greenwood, S.C., where his school’s three-time state championship winning coach, Shell Dula, told Swearinger he was one of the smartest players he had ever coached, Rivals.com thought he was nothing better than a three- star college prospect. During his senior year at South Carolina, he lit up the SEC only to be named second-team all-conference. Second team! He’s still burning about that one.
He was a second-round pick in the 2013 draft, not a first, but dazzled the Houston Texans with a swashbuckling frenzy, knocking Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker to the ground in a joint practice, drawing a cascade of nasty words from Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. Not that Swearinger cared much for what Manning thought; he screamed back in Manning’s face. Later that year, one of his hits ripped apart the knee of Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller, and that made people notice but not in a good way. Some called him a dirty player.
The next year, Houston coach Gary Kubiak left for Denver, taking with him Vance Joseph, the defensive backs coach Swearinger loved. Kubiak’s replacement, Bill O’Brien, didn’t seem to care for Swearinger. There was an argument with the new defensive backs coach, then an angry meeting with the two of them and O’Brien and then Swearinger’s release at the end of 2014.
What should have been a new start in Tampa Bay was ruined in the first meeting with the Buccaneers’ coach at the time, Lovie Smith, who Swearinger says read to him a list of infractions passed on by the Houston staff. Lost and certain he was being buried by the fraternity of NFL coaches, he left Tampa Bay midway through the 2015 season with a turf toe injury and wound up with the Arizona Cardinals.
Ultimately, it was Cardinals coach Bruce Arians who brought him back, telling Swearinger he thought the player deserved another opportunity. Even still, after a year-and-a-half of pouring his fury into every play in Arizona, the Cardinals didn’t re-sign him after the 2016 season, adding another layer to his motivation. It might have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Finding a home
How can you know when you find the perfect place? Swearinger signed a three-year, $13 million contract with the Redskins before last year and immediately found a home. In some ways, he should have expected this. He was coming to the team where Taylor starred, wearing Taylor’s rookie number, 36, and dressing in a locker that is eerily close to the one Taylor used in the old configuration of the team’s remodeled practice facility.
He had four interceptions and a forced fumble last season, but this year is when he has finally blown up. The player hated by coaches in Houston and barely wanted in Tampa Bay has become a leader in Washington, one of the most essential voices on a team that has quickly grown up.
The Redskins hear it in their locker room when he rants against teammates acting too carefree in the days after victories. The players feel it in impassioned locker room speeches. Everybody sees it in those pregame huddles when he screams louder and louder and louder, channeling another hero — Ray Lewis, whose dance he used to do before high school games — surprising even himself when he watches later on film.
“We need to be our brother’s keeper today!” he shouted before the win over Green Bay. “I’m your brother’s keeper! You’re my brother’s keeper! Ain’t nobody today but us, man!”
Later, when he saw this, he smiled. He had no memory of what he had bellowed. The words just came out.
“There was some really good stuff in there,” he says. “You know, that was a good one.”
Sometimes you really do find the right place.
“He’s always like that,” cornerback Quinton Dunbar says of Swearinger. “That ain’t no front. That ain’t no switch on. That’s just how he is on and off the field.”
It has taken time, but there is growth in that frenzy you see from Swearinger. The player who rages on the field and burns for you to see his football brilliance actually has a friendly smile. He pulls gently at his braids when he sits for conversations. He worries that people might get the wrong idea, that he’s some crazed monster of a man.
“They see the fiery guy on the field, and they think I’m just a fiery guy,” he says. “But I’m just a fun guy to be around. I’m going to be laughing and joking. When it’s business, I’m going to be about business, though, and that’s the thing that scares people. When I’m all business, man, especially on game days and close to game days, I’m a fiery guy. I talk a lot of trash, and a lot of people say, ‘He talks a lot of trash, man.’ I’m just being me on the field. There’s no bad meaning to it.” Then he says this. “I feel like I had a lot of growing up to do, for sure,” he says. “I think Houston taught me a lot. Even Tampa.”
There are years of lessons he brought with him to Washington, such as how to watch game film, which he now puts on the big laser screen he had installed in his home theater. He makes his girlfriend watch, too, expecting her to learn the nuances of his position so she can coach him. His 18month-old son and two-monthold daughter are also in the room. In Swearinger’s world, everyone is going to learn to be the best safety in the NFL.
He got the lesson in hard work from his parents, Robert and Orma, who had him as high schoolers, raising him with his grandmother while Orma went to college and Robert worked at the Greenwood Fabricating and Plating plant during the day and drove deliveries for Pizza Hut at night. Only after Orma graduated from school and got a science job did money come in.
As for the fire for everyone to understand he’s the best? Well, that was all him, going back to high school, back when Rivals gave him those three stars. He taped the word “Respect” on his helmet so he could remind himself every day how hard he had to push.
Not long after, looking for inspiration, he found a grainy video on YouTube, a highlight reel of Sean Taylor’s greatest hits from his rookie year with the Redskins. In the background, Bone ThugsN-Harmony thumped.
It’s the thuggish, ruggish booooooooooonnnnne.
He started watching that video before every game in college, then Houston, then Tampa Bay, then Arizona and finally Washington — No. 36 in a Redskins jersey carrying his own rage, knocking men off their feet. Seeing it now, everything makes sense.
He just had to find the right place. Then everyone would notice.
D.J. Swearinger wears No. 36 to honor former Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who wore it as a rookie.