TAMPA, Fla. — This didn’t look like her son. As Orma Swearinger stood on the sideline in the gym, she noticed something she rarely saw before or since from D.J. She noticed fear.
D.J. was about 8 years old, and his basketball team, coached by Orma, was playing a talented opponent that ran over D.J.’s squad.
Orma prided herself on being tough on her players, especially her son, who she had groomed from birth to embrace an assertive demeanor. So on the car ride home, she told him, “You were playing scared.” She kept telling him that. He kept denying it, saying he wasn’t scared of anybody. But he vividly remembered her words.
“I think it was an insult to me, telling me that I was scared,” he said. “That was just something that drove me in sports for the rest of my life, not to play scared at all.”
Swearinger is now the boldest personality on South Carolina’s football team, a free safety who plays while wearing gold teeth, delivers ferocious hits and isn’t shy about hugging and kissing his parents and younger sister in public after games.
A third-year starter with six interceptions and 14 pass breakups in his career, Swearinger exited in typically brash fashion this season, which ends Tuesday against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. He celebrated a touchdown by throwing the ball into the stands. He flexed over an opponent after knocking him down. He gave passionate speeches before games.
His career concludes Tuesday, when USC will try to finish 31-9 over the past three seasons, compared to 35-33 in the previous five. USC’s sudden rise to national prominence reflects Swearinger’s fearless approach. So do the words tattooed on his left forearm. “WARRIOR” runs down the front. On the back, a warrior’s creed: “The heart of a warrior. I am never defeated. The mere thought of my opponent defeating me, they have already defeated themselves.”
Born a ‘warrior’
Orma named her first child Dayarlo Jamal because she wanted a unique name, like her own.
“You want to give them a name that suits who they are and is kind of prophetic,” she said.
The second part of his first name, Arlo, means warrior, she said. Jamal means handsome. Orma has always called D.J. “my handsome warrior.”
By the time he was 6, his father taught him football in the backyard. A plastic trash can doubled as a tackling dummy. Robert Swearinger worked the third shift at Greenwood Fabricating & Plating. He’d get off at 7 a.m., sleep a few hours and wake to find D.J. waiting for him, ready to practice football.
He never minded getting hit. He played with neighborhood kids five years older than him, tackle football with no pads, and popped back up when they pounded him.
“He gained a lot of respect from the older guys,” said his childhood friend, Mike Coats. “A lot of guys, they didn’t want to take that hit.”
Though Robert played high school football, Swearinger is every bit his mother’s son. Orma grew up in tiny Johnston, where she and her two sisters played basketball against their six brothers and other boys. No matter how hard the girls got knocked down, they had to stay in the game.
“We learned to take it,” Orma said. “We learned to be very physical, very aggressive.”
At Benedict College, she was a 5-9 slashing wing player who yearned to compete against bigger women in the post, where “I felt at home,” she said. When she coached Swearinger’s youth basketball teams, she made sure he addressed her as Coach and not Mom, because “I didn’t see where being his mom on the court was going to help him.”
While Swearinger attended Greenwood High, Orma took two years of karate lessons. Swearinger was too busy to participate, but Orma knew he could gain insight from her instructor, Master Darnell Leak, a former Marine. He talked to Swearinger about reading an opponent’s mannerisms and sensing his vulnerabilities. Leak spoke with Swearinger before his games and gave him the warrior’s creed that is now tattooed on his arm.
Swearinger prepared for Greenwood games with unbending intensity. On Thursdays, teammates studied video at his house. On Fridays, he always sat in a quiet area of the locker room, listened to music on headphones and rarely spoke.
Before one big game during Swearinger’s senior year, teammate Kelcy Quarles, now a USC defensive tackle, approached Swearinger and said another player was goofing off across the room. Swearinger got up and told the kid to calm down. A few minutes later, Quarles told Swearinger the kid hadn’t stopped. Swearinger again asked him to chill out. The kid told Swearinger, “You can’t talk to me.” Swearinger slapped him in the face.
“I didn’t hear nothing from him, so I guess that helped him focus,” Swearinger said.
‘Eating’ at USC
Much of the time, Swearinger is silly. Greenwood teammates giggled at his impressions of coach Shell Dula, and how Swearinger angled his eyeglasses just like Dula did. Everybody in Greenwood has called him Swag for years. Since ninth grade, he has worn sunglasses in the locker room before games. This summer, he treated himself to a white pair of Gucci shades, “because I said I was going to buy something that was worth my season.”
He proudly embraces his personality and the people who laid the foundation for it. Every morning when he wakes up, he kisses both wrists, where his grandparents’ names are tattooed. He brought a calmer version of Swag to USC, but chirped so much in practice as a sophomore that teammates Corey Addison and Martay Mattox told him, “Ah, shut up, Jungle Boy.”
That nickname sounded cool to Swearinger. Tarzan was always his favorite cartoon character. As Swearinger prepares for games, he likes using metaphors that would work in the wilderness.
“I’m always talking about how if you don’t hunt, you don’t eat,” he said. “That’s one thing I always said: You put me in the jungle, I’ll come back obese, because I’m going to eat real good. I use the field as a jungle, and on that field, I always say I hunt quarterbacks, I hunt running backs and I hunt wide receivers.”
This season, he called himself Two Spoons, because he wanted to “eat” (succeed) more on the field. He sometimes celebrated plays by mimicking a person eating with a spoon in each hand. Before games, he asked linebacker Shaq Wilson, “Where’s my other spoon, bro?”
Swearinger said he is never nervous before games, and that stems from more than just his self-assuredness. More than once, a text message arrived at 2:30 a.m. on Lorenzo Ward’s cell phone. It was from Swearinger, who had just noticed something while analyzing video.
“D.J. is probably the one player that I’ve coached in my coaching career that loves football more than he loves anything,” the defensive coordinator said.
Swearinger’s voice is among the loudest and most respected in USC’s locker room. He addressed the team before the Oct. 6 home game against Georgia and delivered an impromptu emotional speech.
“I told them to visualize being in a place of peace with their families,” he said, recalling the moment. “Now think about your enemy or somebody coming in and taking your loved ones’ belongings, coming in your house, taking your little sister’s toys, coming in your house, taking your mom’s clothes. I said, ‘Well, this is what Georgia is trying to do.’ Georgia is the enemy, trying to come take what’s ours.”
Sometimes, his expressions of aggression approach behavioral boundaries, even in a confrontational sport like football.
Like many players, he loves talking on the field. During this year’s Clemson game, he kept predicting a big hit and telling the Tigers, “I’m gonna catch one of y’all.” In the fourth quarter he hammered tailback Andre Ellington in a clean but vicious collision. He leaned over Ellington, shouted an explicit word that equated Ellington to a woman and flexed his arms downward.
“What am I doing?” Swearinger thought as he flexed. A penalty flag flew. While Swearinger walked away, he admonished himself and kept telling himself, aloud, “That’s stupid.”
Swearinger drew no other penalties that game, but he did not remain silent. Late in USC’s 27-17 win, he thought about the analysts who said during the week that Clemson’s offense was too talented for USC. “Just remember the talkers,” he told USC’s defenders during the game.
With the win in hand, Swearinger said he walked near Clemson’s sideline and yelled at the Tigers, “Y’all a bunch of talkers. Y’all will never beat us.” Swearinger said he used profanity toward the sideline, but never directed his words at any specific player or coach.
But the Tigers perceived the comments as aimed at coach Dabo Swinney, who told his players they would be kicked off the team if they ever spoke like that to an opposing coach, according to TigerIllustrated.com. Some Clemson fans ripped Swearinger on message boards. Others wrote that the Tigers could use some of his edgy attitude.
“I took all the talkers as a personal insult to me, insult to my defense, insult to my coach, insult to the state,” Swearinger said earlier this month, as he prepared to channel his emotions one more time in the bowl game.
Regardless of what he does after Tuesday, in the NFL or elsewhere, his college career — intense and silly moments alike — will remain an important part of this era of USC football. And no one will soon forget him as he is now, forever bold.