Dabo Swinney overcame pain and poverty to be on the cusp of history

Swinney: 'Everything matters when you're trying to be the best' (3:32)

Marty Smith sits down with Dabo Swinney to discuss the Tigers' undefeated season, "Clemsoning" and their sense of urgency. (3:32)

PELHAM, Ala. -- Carol McIntosh still remembers what she noticed when she cradled her third son for the first time in a hospital bed more than 46 years ago.

"He was holding his hands up in fists," McIntosh said. "I knew he was going to be a fighter."

Indeed, William Christopher Swinney came into the world with a resolute spirit on Nov. 20, 1969, and he has been fighting for his family and those people closest to him ever since.

Of course, Swinney's first day on Earth might have been one of the few times anyone close to him actually called him by his birth name. Soon thereafter, his older brother Tripp, who was still a toddler, started calling him "That Boy," which apparently sounds like "Dabo" in some parts of Alabama.

On Monday night, Dabo Swinney will try to guide No. 1 Clemson to its first national championship since 1981 when the undefeated Tigers play No. 2 Alabama -- his alma mater -- in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

While it is undoubtedly the biggest game of Swinney's coaching career, it is far from the biggest battle of his life. His difficult family life as a young man, as well as his unrelenting determination to forge a better life for not only himself but also his family, have transformed "That Boy" into the ultimate scrapper.

"He's always been the underdog," said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, one of Swinney's teammates. "He has had to fight for everything and has never been given anything. That's what has made him so successful. He loves being the underdog because he's lived it his entire life."

As a boy, Swinney didn't have to look far for inspiration. His mother, the former Carol McGraw, was afflicted with polio when she was 2 years old, shortly after her own parents divorced. She spent most of the next 11 years as a patient at the Crippled Children's Clinic and Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Because the polio attacked her muscles, she was temporarily paralyzed and was also stricken with scoliosis. Polio infected most of her upper body, and she was placed in an iron lung to help her breathe.

At one point, McIntosh's body was so disfigured that her head could touch the side of her feet. She spent 14 months in a knee-to-neck body cast, which allowed her only the use of her arms. Doctors told her mother she would never have a normal life and wouldn't walk again.

"I was isolated from my family," McIntosh said. "I never grew up with my siblings. My mother was able to see me twice a week for a very short time, but she could only see me through glass."

Miraculously, after undergoing more than a decade of treatment and two surgeries to straighten her spine, McIntosh walked out of the hospital. She was home-schooled for a couple of years and then attended Woodlawn High School. She was a majorette in the marching band and featured on the cover of the Birmingham News Sunday Magazine.

Two weeks after McIntosh graduated from high school, she married her first love, Ervil Swinney, whose family owned a gas station. Before too long, he opened an appliance repair business and was operating three shops. Their first son, Tracy, was born in 1964, and then Tripp was born in 1968. Dabo was born the next year.

Life was good for the growing family.

"He was just a really nice person," McIntosh said of Ervil. "He was a good father for a long time. We were just an average family."

Perhaps more than anything else, Ervil Swinney passed along his love for University of Alabama football to his sons. On Sunday mornings during football season, Dabo and his father watched "The Bear Bryant Show" on TV, while drinking Cokes and eating Golden Flake potato chips. Dabo grew to become a passionate Crimson Tide fan. He walked down the halls of his elementary school wearing an Alabama hat and waving a big, foam No. 1 finger and crimson-and-white pompoms.

"My dad was the biggest Alabama fan ever, and I was brainwashed," Swinney said. "In Alabama, when you come out of the hospital, they have to stamp your birth certificate with either Alabama or Auburn, or you don't leave."

Ervil Swinney also loved Bryant, who guided the Crimson Tide to seven national championships in 25 seasons, and his youngest son loved their larger-than-life coach too.

"I thought he was the greatest thing ever," Dabo Swinney said.

In fact, Swinney still remembers hearing whispers in the hallway of his middle school when Bryant died on Jan. 26, 1983.

"It devastated me because I was going to play for Coach Bryant," Swinney said. "He was a hero of mine. I never got to meet him, and I was so devastated by that."

ONE OF THE best memories of Swinney's childhood occurred on New Year's Day 1980, when a friend's family invited the Swinneys to New Orleans to watch Alabama beat Arkansas 24-9 in the Sugar Bowl.

"That's all I knew," Swinney said. "I always told people Alabama was the smartest state because it has four As and a B."

During the 1980s, the nurturing home life Swinney had always known started to crumble around him.

In 1984, when his brother Tripp was 16 years old, he was involved in a serious car accident and was badly injured. The car in which Tripp was riding plowed through a neighbor's house, throwing him out the windshield. He suffered severe head injuries and was in a coma for a couple of weeks. Doctors told McIntosh her son might not survive. After Tripp woke up, he had severe memory loss. He didn't recognize his parents or his brothers.

McIntosh spent several weeks working with her middle son to restore his memory. Finally, after the family's poodle barked at a doorbell, Tripp called out the dog's name. His memory slowly returned. But Tripp's injuries had a lasting effect, and he has battled alcoholism for much of his life. After Tripp was briefly homeless in Atlanta, Dabo paid for him to attend six months of treatment. Tripp was sober for several years before a recent relapse.

Ervil Swinney also battled his own demons. When Dabo was in high school, his father's business started to slow down. Eventually, Ervil was more than $250,000 in debt. As Ervil struggled to pay the bills, he turned to the bottle. On the nights his father drank, Dabo escaped to the backyard or the roof of his house. On some nights, Dabo even slept in the family's car until his father woke up sober.

"I just think he couldn't deal with losing his business," McIntosh said of Ervil. "He was a person that couldn't drink. It made him very violent. It makes some people loving and sweet, but he was the opposite. He'd be gone for days and wouldn't remember where he'd been. He wouldn't remember what he'd done until we told him."

McIntosh shielded her three sons from much of the domestic violence in their home. She hoped to keep her marriage intact until her youngest son graduated from high school.

"I kept thinking it would get better because I knew the good person in there," McIntosh said. "I knew I wanted to keep a home for my boys and wanted to keep us together."

Finally, Tracy Swinney told his mother she had to leave his father. They divorced, and the family's home was foreclosed. When Dabo learned his parents were divorcing, he cried in the field house at his high school.

"It affected him a lot more than me," said Tracy, a retired police officer, who now operates Dabo's All In Team Foundation. "When the storm hit, he was right there in the middle of it. I didn't want to be that person, either. I couldn't understand why someone needed alcohol to survive."

With his older brothers gone, Dabo and his mother stayed in motels and then moved into a condominium. They were evicted after only three months because they couldn't pay the rent. McIntosh, who had always been a homemaker, earned $8 an hour working at a department store.

They temporarily moved into the small apartment of Dabo's grandmother and then bounced around friends' homes. Despite their struggles, Swinney was an honor roll student and football star in high school. He enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1988.

"A lot of kids would have gone the other way and not dealt with it," McIntosh said. "Dabo was a very positive person, always saw the good and thought he could make it work. He was no different then than he is now. He kept me laughing and motivated me, even in my darkest days."

Shortly after Swinney moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1988, he invited his mother there to show her his apartment. He told her, "You can live here with me and my roommate. We can all live here together."

The only problem: Unit 81 at Fontainbeau Apartments near campus only had two bedrooms. She would have to share a bedroom with her son, and Alex Morton, a friend from Pelham, would take the other bedroom.

"Dabo, that would be kind of hard," she said.

As far as Swinney was concerned, though, three wasn't a crowd. It was family. He showed McIntosh his bedroom. He pushed his bed against the wall and divided the room in half. When McIntosh told her son there wasn't enough room for their clothes, he placed a broomstick in the closet so they could hang more.

Somehow, Swinney and his mother made it work. McIntosh kept her job in Birmingham and worked nights and weekends, so she wasn't at the apartment as much. They shared a bed for three years, until they later moved into a three-bedroom house.

"Dabo's approach was that he wasn't embarrassed and didn't shy away from it," said former Alabama safety Chris Donnelly, one of Swinney's roommates. "He was like, 'This is the cards I was dealt.' It's part of who he is, and it's part of God's plan for him. Everybody just accepted it and went with it. We all loved her and she loved us."

On McIntosh's off days, she cooked chicken and dumplings and other meals for Swinney and his friends. She attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings with her sons and Bible studies at coaches' homes, and she watched Swinney play softball and basketball games in recreation leagues. Every summer, she took Swinney, his brothers and his friends to the beach.

"When you go back and talk about these things, it churns up so many memories because it was hard and our hearts were so broken," McIntosh said. "But those were some of the happiest times of my life because we were together, we were safe and we were peaceful. We didn't have much, but we had everything we needed: We were together."

DURING SWINNEY'S FIRST year at Alabama, he watched the Crimson Tide play three times before he decided to try out for the team as a walk-on. He and 45 other candidates started the grueling walk-on program in January 1989, and two months later he was one of only two players left standing.

That summer, Swinney cleaned gutters and worked other odd jobs to save enough money to pay his share of the rent and utilities, as well as his tuition. When preseason camp started in August 1989, he went to Coleman Coliseum to get his class schedule. He was told his Pell grant and student loans hadn't come through. He had to pay $550 the next day or he wouldn't be allowed to enroll in classes. If he wasn't a student at Alabama, he couldn't play on the football team.

Swinney called his mother at her job in Birmingham and told her the bad news. She went to her credit union for a loan, but was turned down. Neither one of them had money in the bank, as they were still struggling to make ends meet.

"I had no answers," Swinney said. "A thousand dollars. At that time, it might as well have been a million for me."

Swinney was resigned to the fact that he would probably have to move back to Birmingham and work for a semester to save money for tuition. He wasn't sure there would still be a spot for him on Alabama's football team when he returned.

Worse, his longtime girlfriend, Kathleen Bassett, whom he met in the first grade and fell in love with as a sixth-grader, was enrolling at Alabama. After two years apart, they planned to be together again.

"I was devastated," Swinney said.

After crying with his mother on the phone, Swinney dropped to his knees and prayed to God for help. Then he checked the mail outside his apartment. Along with a few pizza coupons, there was a letter from Discover. He didn't have a credit card but opened the letter anyway. Inside, he found two blank checks. He called the toll-free number on the letter. Much to his surprise, Swinney was told he had a $1,000 credit line. He wrote one check for $550 to pay half of his tuition and one for $450 to pay his rent.

"Obviously, it was part of God's plan for me," Swinney said. "That's just how I look at it."

Swinney spent the 1989 season on Alabama's scout team. The next year, after the Crimson Tide's receiver corps was plagued by injuries and inconsistency, he was elevated to the travel squad. He had one catch for 18 yards in a 45-7 victory over Cincinnati on Nov. 17, 1990.

The next season, Alabama coach Gene Stallings awarded Swinney a scholarship. He was hardly a star player, catching two passes for 15 yards as a junior and four for 48 yards as a senior, but he was a good leader and solid contributor on special teams.

"He was an average player," Stallings said. "He wanted to be a great player, but he just wasn't blessed with a lot of talent. He had a lot of heart. I knew he was extremely poor, and I gave him a scholarship. I'm glad I did, because he needed one."

No matter where the Crimson Tide went, Swinney was there with his camera, documenting every moment.

"I guess he was just making memories," said Mickey Conn, another Alabama walk-on, who is now the football coach at Grayson (Georgia) High School. "When you're from Alabama, it's a dream come true. When you're living it, it's him seizing the moment. Carpe diem is a good description for him. He's always seized the moment and lived every day to the fullest."

In Swinney's final game at Alabama on New Year's Day 1993, he started against Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide defeated the Hurricanes 34-13 to finish 13-0 and win a national championship.

By the end of his college career, Swinney had reconciled with his father, who was there to see his son graduate from Alabama in 1993.

"Every time Dabo saw Dad, he was trying to influence him," Tracy Swinney said. "He'd tell him, 'Why don't you stop drinking? Why don't you go to church? Why don't you put all of this behind you?' One day, God put his hand on him and he did."

At first, Ervil Swinney promised to cut down on his drinking. For several years, he only drank on Tuesdays and Saturdays. When he remarried in 1997, he promised his second wife he would stop completely.

"He was devout with it, so you just didn't call him on Tuesdays and Saturdays," Dabo Swinney said. "The rest of the days were great. Then he just gave it all up. He quit drinking. He quit smoking. He got his life right with the Lord, and it was amazing to watch the last 14 or 15 years of his life. He figured it all out, and it was special."

After Swinney graduated from Alabama, Stallings hired him as a graduate assistant in 1993. With his heart set on a coaching career after he completed an MBA, Swinney asked Kathleen to marry him. Then he had to break the news to his mother that she'd have to find a new place to live.

"Dabo, you didn't think I was going to live with you and Kathleeen after you're married, did you?" McIntosh asked him.

She told Swinney that she would get another apartment and find new roommates. Swinney told his mother that he'd be the last roommate she ever had, and he paid half of her rent until she married Larry McIntosh, an insurance salesman from Birmingham, in 1998.

On the first Valentine's Day after McIntosh moved out of her son's house, she came home to find a red rose, candy and a card waiting for her on a table in her apartment. Part of the inscription read, "Thank you for all that you sacrifice to see that I have everything."

"You just do what you've got to do, but I loved having my mom there," Swinney said. "It was a little different at first, but when you're in the middle of situations in your life, you just make the best of it. That's kind of how I've always lived my life. That's to me what true peace and happiness is all about."

Swinney spent three years as a graduate assistant, and then Stallings hired him as a full-time coach in 1996. In 2000, he was fired with the rest of Alabama coach Mike Dubose's staff. For the next two years, Swinney worked for a commercial real estate company in Birmingham, helping develop projects in Las Vegas and other parts of the country.

After a two-year hiatus from coaching, Swinney joined former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden's staff in 2003. When Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, Swinney was named the interim coach and then his replacement.

NOW, AS SWINNEY prepares to coach his team against his alma mater with a national championship on the line, his only wish is that his father was here to see it.

Ervil Swinney was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 and surgeons took one-third of one of his lungs. He also fought heart disease, undergoing six bypass surgeries before losing a second bout with cancer on Aug. 8. Friends found him slumped in his chair at the hardware store he ran in Alabaster, Alabama. He is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, not far from Bryant's grave.

Last summer, while undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Ervil Swinney lived in his son's basement. They took rides in Dabo's truck, attended his sons' baseball games and watched TV together in their boxers. There were some of the happiest times of their lives.

Swinney still has four voicemails from his dad on his cell phone. He listens to them regularly and can't seem to let them go.

"'Big Erv' goes home to be with the Lord in August and here we are 14-0," Swinney said. "I just have to believe he's having a lot of fun up there and smiling down. This would have been like his little shop down there, that little M&M Hardware Store down there in Alabaster. It would have been a scene right now, coming in to see my dad and talking about Alabama and Clemson, because that's his two teams."

On Monday night, "Big Erv" will be "smiling down" on his youngest son as Swinney tries to coach the Tigers to a national championship.

"It's kind of cool," Swinney said. "I think it's neat. I think God has got a sense of humor. I really do. I think it's great."