When Tyler Swafford visited the Dachau concentration camp, he was jarred by the juxtaposition between the birds singing on a sunny day contrasted with the evil he could feel in a place where more than 40,000 people were murdered during the reign of Adolf Hitler over Germany.
“It was just really, really eerie,” said Swafford, who ended his redshirt sophomore football season last fall as Eastern Kentucky University’s starting quarterback. “Kind of the inescapable weight of history was on you.”
One does not oft hear college QBs speak of “the inescapable weight of history.” Then again, not many NCAA Division I football players partake of the wide-ranging college experience Tyler Swafford has.
Three years ago, Swafford came to Richmond determined to carve out a memorable career as EKU’s quarterback. Instead, the Franklin, Tenn., product used resources available at Eastern plus study-abroad programs and became a student of the world.
How many American college students have been to Casablanca and sat at a desk used by Winston Churchill?
As part of a study-abroad program in January, Swafford visited the Villa Mirador, where, during World War II, British Prime Minister Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in 1943 to plan Allied war aims.
“I got to sit at Churchill’s desk, see all the pictures between (Churchill and Roosevelt) from that meeting,” Swafford says. “It was pretty cool.”
How many students from Kentucky universities have been inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s political headquarters in Brussels, Belgium?
On the same study-abroad trip, Swafford was part of a group of students who toured NATO.
“We were in the cafeteria they had there at NATO, and there were generals and political officers from all 28 member states,” Swafford said. “They all are speaking different languages. It was just like this great mesh of languages and culture united under this one roof.”
How many American college football quarterbacks have spent a week in China?
In February, Swafford played in the American Football Union Chinese New Year’s Bowl in Shenzhen, China. It was an all-star game in which invited American college players played with and against native Chinese footballers.
“(The Chinese players) were mostly smaller than us but there were a couple of big linemen,” Swafford says. “There was one guy who tried to rip my face mask off in practice. He didn’t understand the rules. We called him ‘Bull.’ He was a big guy. Spoke no English. I was (back to pass) and didn’t have anybody open. He broke through the line, just grabbed my face mask and started yanking it, like trying to rip my head off.
“The coaches were like ‘Bull, stop that, stop that, you cannot do that. You have to tackle him. That’s a penalty.’”
For the game, more than 20,000 Chinese fans showed up to watch as Swafford threw two touchdowns and led his team to a victory.
During this past school year, how many American college students won a prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarship — named for the former Democratic U.S. Senator from Maine — and earned the right to spend the 2017-18 school year studying in Ireland?
Actually, there were 12 winners from 323 applicants.
Of those 12, how many took part in the scholarship interview process in a Washington, D.C., hotel the morning of Nov. 19, then hopped on a private plane and flew back to Kentucky to play quarterback in a college football game that afternoon?
First, Swafford faced a panel of questioners at the Dupont Circle Hotel that included Frank Bruni, the New York Times op-ed columnist.
“I got a couple of questions about the election,” Swafford said. “I think being from Tennessee and then going to school in Kentucky, (Donald J.) Trump country, these people from D.C. and New York wanted to know what the heck was going on, how did this happen?”
One questioner asked Swafford what he would have done had he lived in 1930s Germany when the Nazi Party was consolidating power.
Did Swafford answer “Kill Hitler?”
“I talked about that, I actually did,” he says. “I referenced (German writer and Christian pastor) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was involved in multiple assassination attempts (against Hitler). If you are living in that era and you know what is going on, you think about drastic measures.”
Leaving the Mitchell Scholarship interviews, Swafford “thought I did well” but didn’t have time to dwell on it. He was whisked via a car service to a small Virginia airport where, with the approval of the NCAA, EKU President Michael T. Benson had helped arrange a private plane to fly Swafford back to Richmond to play quarterback against Eastern Illinois.
Alas, Swafford got knocked out of the Colonels’ 24-0 loss to EIU in the fourth quarter with a separated shoulder and concussion. So when he got the call that night informing him he had become the first student from a public university in Kentucky to win the Mitchell Scholarship, “I was pretty woozy,” he says.
Spending the 2017-18 school year studying in Ireland at University College Dublin means Swafford’s EKU football career is over.
So Swafford will speak Saturday at EKU’s graduation ceremonies as a representative of the school’s College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences. A Globalization and International Affairs major, he is graduating in three years.
“Tyler is pretty well the epitome of what we want a Colonel to be,” says Benson, the EKU president. “But for all his accomplishments, a college quarterback, a truly impressive academic record, what has always impressed me most is how humble he is. He’s a genuinely nice young man.”
The son of parents who are both Nashville-area attorneys, Swafford plans to ultimately attend law school, perhaps become an international human rights lawyer.
Whatever direction his life takes, Swafford says a college education that has taken him far from American shores has immeasurably broadened his perspectives.
“When you are at Dachau, saw the crematorium, the gas chamber, the mass graves, it sticks with you,” Tyler Swafford says.