Influence of Drew Swan persists as Athens Academy seeks state title

When Athens Academy’s football season ended last fall in a 17-10 state quarterfinal defeat to Mount Paran Christian, senior linebacker Drew Swan gave simple words of encouragement to junior teammate J.D. Bearden: “It’s your turn now, buddy.”

 

Those words are now etched in Bearden’s mind. A flood of memories hit him last week as the Spartans defeated Mount Paran Christian to advance to school’s first class-A private state championship game this Friday.

“I’ve thought about [those words] and I’ve kind of taken them as: Now it’s my turn to live my life the way that Drew did,” Bearden said. “He lived his life in such an amazing way that impacted me in a way that I wish I could do to others.”

In early June, Swan died from injuries sustained during a skateboarding accident. This came weeks after he graduated from Athens Academy following 16 years as a student there. He had signed with Rhodes College to run track this fall.

Bearden still remembers being welcomed by Swan on his first day of varsity football at Athens Academy last season. With their lockers adjacent, the two linebackers forged a tight bond.

“It felt unbelievable that this type of thing could happen to somebody that close to you. We weren’t really sure how to deal with it,” Bearden said.

Athens Academy head football coach Josh Alexander, Bearden and two of his fellow rising senior teammates — Thomas Lupton and Taylor Boswell — visited Swan at the trauma center in Macon hours after he was airlifted from Athens.

“It was a hard thing to see. It hurts to see one of your best friends, a guy you look up to so much, in that condition,” Bearden said.

Swan died two days after the accident. In the days that followed, Team 40 — the moniker Athens Academy adopted for the 40th year in program history — rallied around Swan’s legacy ahead of the 2017 season.

“Of course I grieved, and many of the people on this team did,” senior Jackson Reynolds said. “I think the team really used that grief to smell the roses, in a sense.”

The Spartans kicked off their season against Walker with a pre-game video tribute as Swan’s closest friends and teammates fought back tears. Athens Academy won 42-7, the first of the Spartans’ 13 straight wins.

“We feel like we’re playing with 12 this year,” senior Owen Roberts said. “He’s there with us every play, every snap.”

Throughout the season, Swan’s jersey number, 24, has not been worn. Rather, every Thursday and Friday the Spartans all suit up as Drew Swan: in white undershirts with “24” in bold green and “Swan Strong” printed above.

“We wear these shirts under our pads and it’s just a reminder of who he was, how he played the game and to not take a moment for granted,” Roberts said.

To his teammates, Swan was a “mad man” in the weight room. Roberts recalls Swan one time bragging to him about his third workout that day. Despite his small frame for a linebacker at 150 pounds, Swan made up for it with intensity “unmatched,” Bearden said.

Alexander called Swan an “overachiever.” Swan also dedicated many hours to his sister, Sam, who has cerebral palsy, and he volunteered with Extra Special People, a Watkinsville-based program for children with special needs.

Swan’s wide, infectious grin could be seen from a mile off, and he could almost always be found running up and down the hills of Athens Academy’s campus.

Athens Academy players paint Swan’s No. 24 in the heart of that campus on Slaughter Field every Thursday. The team circles around it every game before returning back to the home locker room. Earlier this season, Athens Christian painted the 24 on its field in solidarity with the rival Spartans.

Players honor Swan individually as well. Bearden texts Swan’s former cell phone number before every game with a new personal message each time.

“I guess that’s my way of keeping that connection,” Bearden said.

Lupton pauses every time he reaches the 24-yard line during the team’s pre-game walk.

“I just touch my feet right there on the yard line and recognize him,” Lupton said. “I wish I had something I could hold onto of his just to let him know that I’m thinking about him and I’m playing for him every game.”

The football team is not alone in remembering Swan through rituals and momentos.

“Every time you look around campus, there’s always a ‘Swan Strong’ T-shirt, or everybody’s wearing the ‘Swan Strong’ wristbands. That’s how we remember him and how he’s impacted all of us,” senior Charlie King said.

Whether Athens Academy can win its first state championship on Friday remains to be seen. The Spartans face Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy on Friday morning at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a matchup between two undefeated squads. ELCA is seeking its third consecutive state title.

Spartan players maintain there is a different feel about Team 40. Roberts calls it urgency, particularly for the seniors. Reynolds attributes it to a new outlook in light of Swan’s death.

“Our kids are very resilient,” Alexander said. “They know who Drew was and how he went about his business, and the worst thing you could do is not honor him in a specific manner. We try to do that every day.”

Bearden and the Spartan players who knew Swan closely say they do feel the sting of loss every so often. But tackles and touchdowns have gone a long way toward easing the pain.

The players say Swan’s spirit has never left the hills of Athens Academy. He’s been with them, watching this season, approving with his signature smile.

“It definitely feels like he’s up there, and he’s got the best seat in the house,” Bearden said.

(The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.)

 

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Sat, 2017-12-16 10:00am

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