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.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LES CAR­PEN­TER

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.

Boom!

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.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

D.J. Swearinger wears No. 36 to honor former Redskins safety Sean Tay­lor, who wore it as a rookie.

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