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Family matters for Swinney

Ervil Swinney holds court just about any day at M&M Hardware, a throwback country gathering place a little south of Pelham where the old guard drinks coffee and solves the world's problems. As they sit on the makeshift bench just outside the front door, it is apparent Swinney and his buddies are as well - versed on health-care reform as they are on the inner workings of a washing machine.

They also know a lot about football, and every one of them lives and breathes the fortunes and misfortunes of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Except for Ervil Swinney. He is a converted Clemson fan, for good reason.

Right there behind the cash register hangs an 8-by-11 picture of Ervil's son, Dabo, the coach of the Clemson Tigers. Dabo is pictured standing next to Howard's Rock at Clemson's Memorial Stadium.

On the Photo "Thanks for showing me the way. I am so proud of you! I love you! Dabo."

The picture and its inscription are as sure a sign as any that Ervil and Dabo Swinney are father and son again. Dabo says their love and bond never have been stronger. "One of the things I believe in is forgiveness," Dabo said recently as he sat in his plush, new offices at Memorial Stadium. "It's one of the greatest gifts we have from God: forgiveness."

Forgiving for Swinney means recognizing Dad no longer is the same man whose bout with alcohol abuse ripped apart the Swinney family at the seams. Ervil Swinney no longer is the man who turned to alcohol as a way to deal with his bankrupt business. He no longer is the man who left his family to fend for itself, not knowing from day to day where or what Mom and Dabo would call "home," even if it was a car parked in the woods for the night.

The Ervil Swinney standing behind the counter at the hardware store is not the same man Dabo and Mom ran from 25 years ago. He has not had a drink in years, having shaken the habit as a promise to his second wife, Phyllis. He no longer smokes, the removal of a tumor from his lungs having taken care of that bad habit. Ervil is back to being the fun-loving, gregarious man Dabo knew as Dad growing up. He is back to entertaining with his quirky sayings, the ones Dabo warns you about when you go to meet him. "Don't that just blow your wife's dress up in the air," Ervil says at the hardware store, and hardly anyone within earshot blinks, perhaps because they've heard all of them before.

Ervil is back to supporting himself and his wife. He runs his washer and dryer repair business out of the hardware store and does not miss a day of work, even at age 64. He also is back to being Dad to Dabo and his two brothers, Tracy and Tripp. That means dropping by Dabo's office sometimes before home games and giving a few tips to his son. He is there for a hug and a handshake after a Tigers win. "There's been a lot of hurt over the years, but the wounds are healed," Dabo says. "My dad got saved. He's had six bypass surgeries. He's had lung cancer. He had a third of his lung cut out. He's still going and kicking. He's a funny guy, a really funny guy. He's got a great personality, and always has."

Dabo Swinney had the dream childhood. He was 2 when Mom and Dad moved out of Birmingham to the suburbs. Pelham represented the emergence of suburbia, located 15 miles from the Birmingham business district. Split-level and ranch-style houses lined up perfectly along streets with curbs and neatly mowed lawns. The Swinneys lived on a corner lot at 1000 Ryecroft Road. The two-story house was white with blue shutters and had a screened-in back porch. It was the center of activity in Cahaba Valley Estates, where football and baseball games were played in the backyard and basketball games were staged in the street.

The neighborhood kids often watched TV in the Swinney living room, lured by the sweet smell of the double-chocolate muffins Dabo's Mom baked and the tall-tale stories Dabo's Dad loved to share. Kids would come from all neighborhood outposts on Sundays to gather and watch the "Bear Bryant Show." If they were lucky, the kids got to join the Swinneys at an Alabama football game in Tuscaloosa. The entire Swinney family attended the 1980 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and whooped it up as Alabama defeated Arkansas. One summer, Ervil coached Dabo's Little League baseball team. The boys did not win many games, but no team had more fun, thanks to Ervil. Then there were the summer vacations to the Miracle Strip in Panama City, Fla., where Ervil emptied his pockets of quarters and watched his three sons go wild at the Fun Land arcade.

More than anything else, Dabo remembers Christmas with Dad. The Swinneys were the Griswolds before "Christmas Vacation" hit the big screen. The house was swallowed by Christmas lights. Plastic snowmen and reindeer covered the front yard. Best of all, Ervil perched himself atop the house and played the part of "Santa on the roof" one night every December. "Me and my brothers would sleep in the same bed the night before Christmas," Dabo says. "We'd sit in there and tell jokes and listen for Santa." It was the perfect family, the envy of neighbors. The three boys all were popular at school. Dad's business provided the family with all it needed or wanted. Mom was "Mrs. Cleaver," staying at home to make certain three square meals were on the table each day and all holes in blue jeans were mended.

It was the family Carol McGraw dreamed of as a child, the one she was denied growing up. Carol's parents were divorced when she was 2 months old. She first met her father when she was 42. Then she was at his death bed in 1985 when she made the decision to let him go. "I'm your child, and I forgive you for never being part of my life," she whispered to him just before he died. "You're going to a good place now." By age 18 months, McGraw was one of many victims of the polio epidemic that hit the country in the 1940s. She was temporarily paralyzed and needed the assistance of an iron lung to breath. McGraw was admitted to Birmingham Crippled Children's Hospital at the onset of the polio diagnosis and remained there for 11 years.

She was separated from her three siblings and her mother, who ran a bakery shop in Birmingham to support the family. At age 9, doctors were concerned about the abnormal growth of McGraw's spine, and for 14 months she was encased in a cast from her head to her knees. She could move only her arms. "That's all I knew. I didn't know my home," Carol says of her days in the hospital, which allowed visits from her mother once a week, but only for two hours. "I didn't know my own bedroom at home." Told she would never live a normal life and probably never walk, McGraw sat in her hospital bed for hours, days, months, years - and dreamed. "I would dream of having a family and having a home," Carol says, "and when I got my family, I would do anything to keep that family together."

A second spinal surgery allowed the girl of 14 to leave the hospital and enter Woodlawn High School as a freshman. By her senior year, she was featured on the cover of the Birmingham News Sunday magazine. Her story of transformation from cripple to majorette fell under the headline: "Cinderella never had it so good." Two weeks after graduation from Woodlawn in 1962, she married her first true love, Ervil Swinney, who had just graduated from Jones Valley High in Birmingham. Ervil was an outstanding athlete in basketball and baseball. He would have played football as well, but his father needed help running the family-owned gas station. Ervil also was an excellent student and was accepted at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Education was not a high priority in the Swinney family, and Ervil went to work for his father.

Then Ervil got into the washing machine repair business. Before long he had two, then three shops going. Business was good; good enough for the Swinneys to begin raising a family. Tracy came first in 1964, then Tripp in 1968 and finally William Christopher. The first name of the couple's third child was in honor of Ervil's grandfather, the middle name because Mom and Dad wanted to call their youngest son "Chris." The name stuck until young Tripp kept referring to his brother as "that boy," which came out sounding like "Dabo."

Years later, during an all-star baseball tournament, the shortstop was introduced as "William Swinney." At first, Swinney did not budge from the dugout. "Oh, that's me, isn't it?" Dabo said, and he ran to the foul line. Carol Sweeney was living her childhood dream. Her three boys were popular in school and were athletes. She was homeroom mom, a substitute teacher and an active member of the PTA. Then fate stepped in and dealt the Swinney family a couple of cruel blows.

In 1984, when he was 16, Tripp was involved in a horrific car crash, one block from home. He sustained massive head injuries and complete memory loss. Mom sat with her son for days on end flipping through photo albums in hopes that Tripp could identify anyone in the family. "You're not my mom! Stop telling me that!" Tripp shouted at his mother. "You're not my mom!" Finally, one day several months later, the Swinney's pet poodle began barking when the door bell rang at their home. "Peppy. Shut up, Peppy," Tripp said, according to his mom. Mom began asking questions of her son. "Do you know who that dog is?" "Yes, it's Peppy." "Do you know who I am?" "Yes, you're my mom."

As Carol dealt with her son's rehabilitation, her husband was feeling the effects of an economic recession. His washing machine repair business was slipping, and there was no turning back. Ervil's life was on a slow decline as well. "It was everything I could do to hold my family together," Carol says. "I always told my boys, 'Tough times don't last, tough people do,'" Ervil says. "Then I didn't practice what I preached. I let tough times get to me." Ervil's business soon was $250,000 in debt. Bankruptcy was on the horizon. The three-packs-a-day smoking habit he began when he was 9 had increased to five. His drinking, strictly social since he was 16, overtook him. He began drinking beer as soon as left work, and some days carried it on his breath when he reported to work the next morning.

"I just wasn't doing the right things," Ervil says. "That's all. I've never done anything minor league. If it's anything, it's major league. When it came to screwing up, I did it major league." Ervil disappeared for days at a time. Her oldest boys off on their own and trying to find their ways in life, Carol and her youngest son occasionally drove around town in search of Ervil. They checked local hotels. Many nights, they were happier not to find him than to deal Ervil when he returned home drunk.

Dabo learned to run when his father arrived home smelling of alcohol. He hid in the backyard. He climbed out his bedroom window onto the roof. He found refuge at friends' homes. He slept in the car, hoping that by morning the Dad he knew would return. "It ruined him. It ruined all of our lives," Carol says. "He was not a happy drunk. Then the next day, he would be perfectly normal." The behavior began the summer before Dabo's sophomore year of high school. Outside the home, the Swinneys remained the model family. Inside, the beautiful crystal ball of a family that Carol had dreamed of was dropped and shattered into a million pieces.

Unpaid bills began to stuff the mailbox. Finally, there was a foreclosure on the house when the Swinneys were unable to make the $60-a-month mortgage payment. Ervil moved into a mobile home behind his business. Mom and Dabo rented an apartment, but her job at the Galleria Mall in Hoover could not cover the rent and they were evicted. So they moved in with friends. Mom shared a room upstairs with two others. Dabo pulled a soft crate from beneath the sofa each night to sleep on. What was supposed to be a glorious senior year was a nightmare for Dabo.

When his parents divorced, he remembers sitting in the Pelham High field house sobbing. When cheerleaders went to decorate the front doors of the star football players, they did not know where to go for Dabo. But Dabo had an inner drive that Mom knew all about. His will to escape the situation and rise above the problems that surrounded him served him well. Dabo also had a desire to make his dad proud. It drove him every day, even those days when his father was nowhere to be found, those days when his father was anything but.

It was what drove him to attend the University of Alabama and walk on to the football team, even against his dad's urging to forget about games and concentrate on education. Between him and his mom, there was nothing that could stand in the way of Dabo's yearning to win back his father. The Swinneys rented Unit 81 at the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa while Dabo attended Alabama, sharing the other bedroom - and rent - with a teammate. Unable to afford two beds, Mom and son slept in one.

She drove an hour each way to Birmingham to keep her $8-an-hour job as a sales clerk at Parisian department store. On off days, she cooked chicken and dumplings, pot roast and peach cobbler for members of the Alabama football team. Dabo cleaned gutters and the two pooled their resources, which were not much. Once, so Dabo could take a beach trip to Florida with his buddies, Mom took out a $50 loan from the credit union. During his sophomore year, Dabo set aside enough money to purchase a blue topaz ring for his mother. She still wears the ring on her right hand. "It's got good memories," she says. "It's got hard times. It tells me of survival. It tells me of the love someone has in their heart."

Dabo played on Alabama's national championship team of 1992, starting at receiver in the title-game victory against Miami in the Sugar Bowl. No one beamed more than Ervil when Dabo walked across the stage at graduation, the first Swinney to earn a college diploma. Not long after, Dabo married Kathleen Bassett, starting one special union while breaking off another that left Mom living on her own for the first time in nearly 30 years

"Mom, you're not going to get a roommate," Dabo said. "I will be your roommate until I die." Even after he married, Dabo paid half his mother's utility bill and mailed a check for half her rent each month. On the first Valentine's Day after Dabo's marriage, Mom returned home from work to find flowers, balloons and candy on the table inside the front door of her apartment. "I sat down and cried," she says.

By then, Dabo also had reconciled his differences with his father. "When I started having a better relationship with my dad was when I quit blaming him for things, when I finally realized it's up to me and there's no excuses," Dabo says. "I really quit worrying about it and quit trying to fix things. When people deal with alcoholics ... what you try to do is try to fix it. But the people who are struggling with it, they don't see things the way you do.

"The other thing I learned was, until you want help, you can't help anybody.. Until they really want help, all you can do is enable them." After walking away from his family, Ervil one day realized it was what he missed most in his life. He met his second wife, Phyllis, in 1997, and with her the family he so wanted. Not long after their marriage, Ervil promised her he would stop drinking. He did. Then, in October of 2007, Ervil was diagnosed with lung cancer. Before he entered the hospital, Ervil stopped outside and smoked a cigarette. He has not smoked one since.

Dabo's mom also remarried in 1998 and took the last name of her husband, Larry McIntosh, an insurance salesman in Pelham. The couple lives in an upscale subdivision of nearby Hoover, not far from the Galleria Mall where she once worked for $8 an hour. A room downstairs is dotted with pictures of Dabo as Clemson's coach. Ervil and Phyllis live outside Pelham in the house Dabo gave them when he took the job of receivers coach at Clemson in 2003. Scattered throughout the house are photos of Dabo, standing next to Howard's Rock or with his arm around his dad and brothers.

On the Friday night before game days at Clemson, Dabo's home serves as the hotel for his family. Mom and her husband stay in one room, Dad and his wife in another. The couples get along famously and sit together at games, cheering their son's team. "Here's a family that was as broken as broken could be," Dabo says. "There's no family that could be more broken than this family. Now we're a happy family, and it all comes through the grace of God, people overcoming addictions, and just love."

While Dabo's attention these days has been on leading Clemson to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, he also begins to get excited about the Christmas season. It brings back the fondest memories of his childhood with his dad. As a salute to his father, Dabo again will stage a "Santa on the roof" night for neighborhood children to enjoy in his Clemson neighborhood. He also will place a plastic snowman on the front lawn, the one his father lit up in Pelham more than 30 years ago.

When Dabo went away to school at Alabama, he carried about everything he owned in one satchel, including that old, plastic snowman. It has been patched over the years, and Dabo says his wife, Kathleen, has to apologize to the neighbors for the eyesore in the front yard. To Dabo, the snowman stands as a part of his life that never left him - just like his father.