Arkansas coach Mike Anderson recaps the Razorbacks' ...
Center seasoned heading into final year
Arkansas center Travis Swanson instructs teammates during the Razorbacks' Red-White Game on April 20, 2013 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
At first blush, giving in does not appear to be Travis Swanson’s thing.
The fifth-year senior’s image has been front and center in the University of Arkansas athletic department’s summer marketing campaign. You’ll find Swanson’s face on the front of the football media guide and on a variety of other promotions. In one case, he pops up in a photo montage with teammates Kiero Small and Chris Smith wearing a cardinal red T-shirt that reads “Never Yield.” By Swanson’s head, for extra emphasis, is the Twitter phrase #NeverYield.
It’s all part of an overarching message that’s percolated through the minds of many Arkansas fans and brewed up something along of the lines of this: New coach Bret Bielema’s in town, and he’s brought a tougher game along with him. No more of that sissy, spread passing stuff all the time. We’re going to see far more smashmouth football and far less mistakes. And when it comes to smashing mouth and moving pigskin, nobody does it better in these parts than our very own preseason first team All-SEC center Travis Swanson.
Bielema, a former lineman himself, loves the guy. Absolutely gushes about him. Bielema says he’d be “very, very surprised” if this upcoming season Swanson doesn’t lead the SEC in pancake blocks, which entails pushing an opponent onto his back - possibly the sport’s most spectacular form of #NeverYield-ism.
Swanson’s 6-feet-5, 315 pounds and strong enough - according to him - to squat 520 pounds and bench press 225 pounds 27 times in a row. He’s got nimble feet and excellent technique. Sam Pittman, Arkansas’ offensive line coach, sees him using both as he gets out in front of tailbacks this fall: “We want to get the ball outside, do a lot of one-back set - he becomes a fullback, basically, in our scheme.”
Bielema readily compares him to Peter Konz and Travis Frederick, the last two elite centers he coached at Wisconsin. Atlanta selected Konz in second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Dallas picked Frederick in this year’s first round. Bielema believes Swanson, at this stage, is “better than both those guys.”
Not yielding - in the weight room, in the classroom and on the field - has clearly taken Swanson far. He’s the nation’s No. 1 center according to nfldraftscout.com, and he was the Hogs’ No. 1 vote getter when it came to a leadership poll taken before spring practice, Pittman says.
But over the course of his 22 years Swanson has also shown he knows the appropriate times to yield, too.
It’s this ability that will take him even farther.
Swanson grew up the eldest of two sons in the northeast Houston community of Kingwood.
One of his first great loves was guitar. Inspired by the music of John Mayer, he bought an acoustic for $50 in sixth grade and ended up spending hours every night in his bedroom teaching himself how to play it. He also fell in love with lacrosse, which he played through the 10th grade.
He played defender, a perfect position for someone so much bigger and more physical than everybody else. “I was essentially a safety,” he recalls.
With such a protective mentality, to go along with the hulking frame, Swanson naturally gravitated toward to the guard position on Kingwood High School’s football team. Playing there, and a little at tackle, Swanson flourished and became rated among the top 75 nationally as a guard and tackle. He loved his trip to a Razorbacks camp in the summer before his senior season and chose Arkansas over Kansas, Texas Tech, Arizona and Georgia Tech.
Bobby Petrino, then the Hogs head coach, said there was a chance Swanson’s gifts - long arms, excellent vision, high intelligence - could be better used at center. Swanson relented to that possibility, even if it meant wiping away all the years he’d spent specializing at guard. He started getting up at 4:30 a.m. in the spring of his senior year to practice center skills like long snapping with a family friend. The friend, Chris Bush, had been a center for the University of Oklahoma and offered the help for free, said Todd Swanson, Travis’ father.
All the work soon paid off. Early in the Razorbacks’ 2009 fall camp, Petrino and his coaches moved Swanson to center. He’s stayed there since then. Swanson says he’s come to love the position because it allows him to essentially be the offensive line’s head coach. “He’ll make every call at the line of scrimmage,” Bielema said, to dictate how the line will block the amount of expected pressure from the defense . “He’s gonna identify the [defensive] front and alert everybody of possible issues.” Swanson “works with the quarterback to make sure the protections are right.”
The 2009 season wasn’t eventful for Swanson on the field. As a redshirt, he didn’t play a down. But plenty happened off the field. He started working toward a criminal justice degree and one day, at the Northwest Quad campus dorm, met Emily Holder through a mutual friend. The sort-of-quiet guy from Texas and the kind-of-quiet girl from Cabot clicked. They became friends, then best friends, then, sometime last spring, an official couple. She isn’t into music like he is, but that didn’t stop him from trying to play “Sweet Home Alabama” for her on his guitar that freshman year. He butchered it, they laughed, and he hasn’t really messed with that song in front of her since then, Holder says.
In 2010, Swanson won the starting job from Seth Oxner, who’d started all 13 games the previous season. Swanson started every game that record-setting season, and helped break a spate of other new records in the next one. Heading into the 2012 season, the Razorbacks looked like a Top 5 team ready to vie for a national title.
Then, a motorcycle accident. Bobby Petrino in a neckbrace. A UA employee named Jessica Dorrell. Shattered expectations for fans and players alike.
“It was frustrating,” says Swanson, recalling the events surrounding Petrino’s firing in the April, 2012. “I think, obviously, a lot of guys felt angered but then I tried to tell as many guys as I could ‘There’s no reason to be mad, because you can’t control it. You being made is not gonna change everything that happened, it’s not going to bring him back, it’s not going to fix this.”
In other words, yield to fate. Take life’s lemons along with its plums. .
At times, the entire 2012 season seemed like a lemon. “It just wasn’t our year and everything just fell apart in a sense,” Swanson says. The low point came three games in, at the end of a 52-0 home loss to No. 1 Alabama. Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who was sidelined due to injury, vented his frustration at the postgame press conference. “Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there? Absolutely,” Wilson said. “As a leader it sucks to see people not do their jobs and to see things go wrong, there has been a lot of things go that way. As a leader, at this point you have to look forward.”
Swanson, then the team’s only captain who wasn’t a senior, said he “felt the exact same thing that Tyler felt. It was just frustrating. At that point, we had never had back to back losses since I’ve been there. I hadn’t had that since I was in high school, so it was hard to deal with. It motivated the heck out of me.”
Whatever extra motivation, and extra effort, certain Hogs put out post-Alabama was for the most part washed out by the disappointing 4-8 final record. But for Swanson - who was chosen second team All-SEC - and many of his teammates, last season wasn’t a total loss.
For starters, it allowed Bielema to be hired. Swanson said he’s loved picking Bielema’s brain for football and leadership advice. “I met with him a ton, more than I have ever with any other coach.” It also allowed a whole new staff of assistants and trainers to come in and reinvigorate the players. The most impressive improvement has been the added muscle and definition each offensive lineman has gained during the offseason. Strength coach Ben Herbert has stressed the meal planning component of nutritious eating more than the last strength coach, Swanson said. He added he, along with a few other players, have visited Herbert to craft customized, weekly meal plans.
Swanson’s parents, Gina and Todd, have noticed “a drastic improvement” in their son’s diet from last season. These days, “we go to Trav’s place, we’re having chicken, salad,” Todd Swanson said. “We’re like ‘We gotta go to Sonic,’ and Trav’s like ‘Nope.’ We’re like ‘Where are the chips?’ and Trav’s like ‘Nope.’”
The diet, the workouts, the coach talks - it’s all part of something bigger in Swanson’s mind. He refuses to pay heed to conventional wisdom that Arkansas is rebuilding this year and wins five, maybe six, at best seven games. “We have a lot of talent all across the board,” he says. “We all know that we’re going to shock a lot of people this year.”
And yet, no matter how shocking a win the Hogs may notch this season in the thick of their daunting SEC schedule, Swanson’s most cherished memory of 2013 likely already happened. It had nothing to do with football.
She said 'yes'
He and Emily Holder spent Friday, August 2, touring Eureka Springs. There, Emily said, they strolled through Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and took photos of its abandoned and abused tigers, lions, cougars and leopards. They ordered prints of the photos, which Travis picked up on their way back to Emily’s Fayetteville home.
Back home, Travis handed Emily a Walgreen’s pack of about eight photos. He told her to choose one she wanted to frame.
Emily expected to see pics from the trip. Instead, she got a surprise.
The first photo was an image of a personal note. “Dear Emily,” Travis wrote. He thanked her “for being a part of his life and always being there for him,” Emily recalled.
Each of the following images also began “Dear Emily” and touched on a particular memory or place from early in their relationship - “the storyline of how we met.” She smiled as she flipped past the cafeteria where they’d rendezvous every night.
The last image was of the door of the dorm room where they first met. “Dear Emily, thank you so much for walking into this room freshman year,” Emily recalled reading. The image also included Swanson’s hand, holding a box, a round cut diamond ring in it.
“I looked up and saw him on one knee.”
A million moments, from those first few seconds in the dorm to the “yes” that came tumbling from her mouth, had yielded a promise of lifelong love.