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 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
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
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
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.
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
Years later, during an all-star baseball tournament, the shortstop was
introduced as "William Swinney." At first, Swinney did not budge from the
"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
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
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
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.