Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has never been ashamed of his upbringing, coming from Pelham, Alabama.
At the national championship media day in 2018, I sat in a pool of reporters as Swinney was asked about how his growing up in Pelham and attending the University of Alabama influenced who he is today.
I have tried to find the right context to share this story. However, the story that he shared was so powerful that any words other than his own would simply not do it justice.
“It’s just amazing, it really is. It’s just – I’m so proud of where I come from. I never say I’m from Birmingham. I was born in Birmingham. I was born at South Highlands Hospital and grew up in West End. I literally lived right behind West End High School until I was four, four and a half, and then my mom and dad, I guess this little bitty town in the middle of nowhere at the time, Pelham, no interstate or anything, long way to Pelham from Birmingham, I guess some houses were popping up and cheap and that kind of stuff, so it was kind of a – we moved out to Pelham. But my grandmother lived right off 20th street in Ensley her whole life, so I grew up going to Birmingham all the time, up in Ensley, cutting my grandmother’s yard and hanging out up there.
“Technically I was born in Birmingham, but I was raised in Pelham. I will always consider that home. Even though Pelham has changed, there’s I-65 going through it now, and we’ve got some – we even have an amphitheater now in Pelham, it’s still home, and I’ve still got a lot of friends there.
“That’s what shaped me. That’s all I can say. I mean, I think that we’re all shaped from and by our experiences of life, and for me, growing up in Pelham and going to Valley and River Chase and Pelham High School and being around all my coaches and Billy Tohill and Jim Backus and Paul Kellogg and Coach Crook and Jim Phillips and all that crew and all the great teachers that I had, those people are the ones who really shaped me and helped fuel a belief in me.
“I was always the shortstop, always the point guard. I was the captain. But I had a belief in all those things because of the teachers and the coaches that put me in leadership roles early on, and I just had this drive, and I know that came from my experiences with my family and all the people who helped shape me.
“So it was a special journey, and for me, I ended up at Alabama, I had some opportunities. I remember my basketball coach called me in his office. He’s still mad at me to this day because Coach Kellogg, he thought I was a really good basketball player, and I think I was pretty good, too, but he wanted me to play college basketball. He felt like – he had some people that were interested, and he was like, are you going to do this or am I just wasting my time, and I’m like – I said, coach, you’re wasting your time. I’m going to Alabama.
“Once I realized that I could go to Alabama, I didn’t know that I could go to school. I thought I was going to have to go a JuCo route and either play baseball or play basketball or go to a smaller school and play football. I thought that was going to be the route I was going to have to go until one of my counselors told me that I would qualify for what was called a Pell Grant. I didn’t know what a Pell Grant was, and I didn’t know how to do student loans. I had no clue. I had no collegiate background in my family of how to do that type of stuff.
“So once I found that out, I’m like, man, I’m going to Alabama. That was my dream as a kid and so that’s what I did. So I moved to Alabama in the summer of ’88, moved into a little apartment, and got any student loans, got my Pell Grants, and ended up being there until spring of ’01. I went there when I was 18, I left when I was 31. So Tuscaloosa was also a huge part of shaping me, the experiences I had as a student-athlete, the challenges, again, the drive, going into the walk-on program with Rich Wingo and Terry Jones and surviving that to get a chance to be a part of the team and chase my dream and the relationships that I developed.
“And then just the success, you know, little goals, make the team, make a travel squad, make a road travel squad, get in a game, get in the rotation, make some plays, get started on special teams. It was just all – make all-conference academic, and all those type of things. All those goals that I had from the structure of my time as a student-athlete and the people who poured into me and the men that believed in me and gave me an opportunity from Tommy Bowden and Bill Curry when I first got there, Terry Jones, Rich Wingo, to Woody McCorvey and Gene Stallings, Homer Smith, all these folks, and then just talked to Coach Stallings yesterday before I flew out here. I was going to work, you know, I finished up, I’m getting ready to take a job, and he’s like, you need to get a masters. You start in July. You’re going to be a GA for me.
“So the next thing I know, I’m coaching.
“But to me, I think when you’re seeking God’s guidance for your life, when you’re seeking God to order your steps, he will order those steps. He will put the right people in your path and open the right doors, and sometimes what our plan is – because we have the greatest plans of all time as people, but God’s plans is always different, it’s always perfect, and it’s always sometimes very surprising. And so for me, I didn’t go to college to be a coach. I went to be a doctor and I was going to run a hospital, and get my MBA and go do my thing, and in ’93 Coach wanted me to be a GA, and just like that I had the clarity of my life on this is what I’m supposed to do, this is my calling, and this is why my journey has been the way it’s been since I was a little kid because God was shaping me and preparing me for what I’m doing right now.
“And so that’s just how I look at it, and I’m so thankful for all the people and the experiences that I’ve had along the way, and that’s what’s brought me here. You know, it’s just surreal to be in this situation. It’s such a blessing. There’s so many young people that never get an opportunity to kind of be a part of something like this, and there’s certainly so many great coaches that never get a chance to be a part of this. And so for me to do it as a player and now my third time as a coach, to experience – I mean, it’s just so cool to be able to compete at the highest level on this type of stage against the very best.
“You know, as a kid growing up, that’s what you want. You dream about stuff like this, so to actually be able to live it, man, I’m just so thankful. I prayed that this morning. I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to be a part of it, and I don’t take it for granted. I just have such a great appreciation for how hard it is, and for how hard it is for so many people to come together with a common purpose. It’s just – it’s indescribable.
“But it all starts with a belief, and for me, that belief started as a little kid in Pelham, Alabama, a belief in myself and a belief in a future and a hope in a future that was greater than my present circumstances. I always had that, and that’s what’s driven me my whole life.”