HS teammates Swearinger, Montgomery reunited

HS teammates Swearinger, Montgomery reunited
May 11, 2013, 9:00 am
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D.J. Swearinger heard screams from the other room.

He had already been drafted on April 26. He found out he was a Houston Texan and already talked to the team and the Houston media on the phone.

After being taken in the second round, he expressed his eagerness to play in Houston, with his idol Ed Reed. He was almost too excited to speak when asked about the chance to play with Reed.

But the second day of the draft wasn’t over. Not for Swearinger. Not for Greenwood, S.C.

And as Swearinger sat in his family’s home in South Carolina, he recalled his aunt asking him a simple question: “Where is Sam gonna go?”

Before the safety from the University of South Carolina could answer, there was a commotion in the other room, screams, cheers, laughter.

“All my parents and my family were yelling,” Swearinger said on Friday afternoon just after his first-ever practice with the Texans, “‘D.J.! Sam’s going with you!’”

And just like that, D.J. Swearinger and Sam Montgomery were reunited. Montomery called Swearinger’s mother to deliver the good news that Friday, that he was taken by the Texans in the third. That was the source of the screams.

Swearinger and Montgomery were friends growing up. They’re both from Greenwood, S.C. and both played high school football for the powerhouse Greenwood Eagles as a part of the 2009 graduating class.  

And now, they’re back together again.

“It makes it a lot (more) comfortable,” Swearinger said. “I look at him and it reminds me of the days when we had Gs on our helmets.”

Greenwood isn’t an extremely big town – around 24,000 people live there. But it’s a football town. That’s for sure.

Since the program started in 1933, the Eagles have won 14 state championships, with the most recent one coming this past season to go along with a perfect 15-0 record.

“We’re extremely proud of those guys,” current Greenwood head coach Gene Cathcart said of Swearinger and Montgomery. “We’re well supported here in Greenwood and we’re proud of those guys.”

And, as you can imagine, the program was pretty good when Swearinger and Montgomery were there too. But they won just one state championship while the two were in school. That came in their sophomore season under then-head coach Shell Dula. Swearinger was a sophomore and Montgomery wasn’t even on the team yet. He didn’t start playing until his junior season.

“Greenwood is a great football town,” said Dula, who was the head coach while Swearinger and Montgomery were at Greenwood and won three state titles as head coach.

Aside from the state title last season, Greenwood has played for the title in each of the past three seasons. And aside from Swearinger and Montgomery, there’s another pair of former Greenwood players in the NFL.

The Carolina Panthers have themselves a pair of Greenwood Eagles too. Last season the Panthers drafted cornerback Josh Norman in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Norman joined wideout Armanti Edwards, who the Panthers took in the third round of the 2010 draft. Edwards, who was the quarterback at Appalachian State when they took down Michigan, is also a Greenwood product.

“I thought about how unique that is,” Montgomery said. “Before I came down here, I actually went to Armanti Edwards’ house and got a pep talk. Talked about lots of different things, what to expect and to work hard and keep a level head.”

Swearinger and Montgomery only played together for two seasons in high school because of Montgomery’s late start. In their first season together, as juniors, the team went 11-2 but Swearinger got hurt in the final regular season game and the team didn’t go far in the playoffs.

As seniors, Swearinger and Montgomery were the stars of a 7-5 team that started 11 sophomores. That was also coach Dula’s last season as head coach. He retired and took a position as the director of the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association, which he still holds.

Aside from the boys from Greenwood, there was a common theme to the early portion of the Texans’ 2013 draft: The Carolinas. DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans’ first-overall pick, is from D. W. Daniel High School in Central, S.C., which is about 60 miles from Greenwood.

Swearinger said that he and Hopkins are friends and have been for a while.

“We knew each other in college,” he said. “We talked after the draft. Me, him and Sam, to be on the same team, it’s crazy. But it’s a blessing and I’m ready to play with them.”

Then, there was also Brennan Williams. Williams was the Texans’ first third-round selection out of North Carolina.

Texans owner Bob McNair grew up in North Carolina and graduated from the University of South Carolina. On Monday at the Texans’ charity golf event, he was asked about the team’s draft and the number of players from Carolina.

“That’s shows our scouting department is doing a good job,” McNair said with a smile.

The last time Swearinger and Montomery were on the field together wasn’t in high school.

It was actually on Oct. 13 in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. for a regular season game between Swearinger’s No. 3-seeded Gamecocks and Montgomery’s No. 9-seeded Tigers.

Coach Dula had seen Swearinger play plenty at South Carolina but he kept promising Montgomery that he’d make it down to Louisiana to watch him play for LSU. When he finally did, he got to see the game that pinned the two friends and former teammates against each other.

“You’ve got eight captains going to the center of the field and two of them are from Greenwood,” Dula said about the coin toss. “It was something else.”

The home team, LSU, ended up pulling off an upset in that October game. The Tigers won 23-21 after outscoring the Gamecocks 13-7 in the final quarter. It wasn’t just a big win for the Tigers; it was a big win for Montgomery.

After all, those are bragging rights and they now belong to Montgomery.

“It was special to play South Carolina,” Montgomery said. “And to win is definitely bragging rights for the rest of my life. D.J. can never say that he beat me in that game. It’s definitely something I hold.”

Swearinger and Montgomery are teammates, they’re friends. But they’re not alike. In fact, they’re very different.

“We have very different personalities,” Swearinger said. “He is older but it’s more like I’m the big brother. I have to keep him in line a lot. But it’s good that we’re on the same team so I could be his big brother.”

It’s not that Montgomery isn’t serious about football; it’s that Swearinger is extremely serious about football. He always has been.

Coach Dula said Montgomery will probably benefit more from having Swearinger around than vice versa. Swearinger would have been fine on his own.  

“We room together,” Montgomery said. “The playbook, we help each other study. Our relationship has grown so much already from what it was. I felt like when we were in Greenwood, we were like brothers. But now it’s like we’re really truly family. It’s definitely something that I appreciate to have him down here and help me through this process.”

Montgomery was a basketball player and a pretty good one too. He was the center for the Eagles in high school during his freshman and sophomore years.

But Dula wanted him to play football. So did Swearinger.

“Sam played middle school ball and just killed it in middle school and when he came to high school and didn’t play football, it was shocking to everybody in Greenwood,” Swearinger said. “Every year we would talk and finally his junior year, he came out. Fifteen sacks and got 50 offers that year. He should have been out there but we played a big part of getting him out there.”

After two years of trying to convince Montgomery to come out for football, it finally worked. Swearinger said he played an active role of recruiting his friend in high school and Dula always tried to emphasize that Montgomery had more upside in football than basketball.

“He was a 6-5 center for us,” Dula said. “But he couldn’t shoot. You can’t be a 6-5 center in college.”

And eventually, to the thrill of every Eagles’ fan in Greenwood, Montgomery finally came around in the spring before his junior season.

“I couldn’t shoot. So it was no need to be under that rim,” Montgomery said. “It was time to play some football.”

He missed out on two seasons of football in high school but Montgomery’s physical attributes made up for the lost time pretty quickly. Dula remembers the practices in the spring before Montgomery’s junior season. Plenty of college coaches and scouts were present and were drawn to lineman’s athleticism. “They didn’t realize it was the first time he was playing,” Dula said.

That interest kept swirling around Montgomery, even though he wasn’t exactly a student of the game. In fact, Dula said the team wasn’t able to get Montgomery in the weight room as much as they would have liked because Montgomery needed to focus more on his schoolwork to get his grades up for college.

Swearinger thought about football all the time. But Montgomery didn’t. He didn’t go home and just watch football, Dula said. So when Steve Spurrier came to Greenwood to meet with Montgomery, the pupil didn’t know who he was. He even asked Spurrier where he coached.

“I think Spurrier was a little taken aback,” Dula said chuckling. “(Montgomery) honestly wasn’t sure. He wasn’t the kind that would sit back and watch football.”

It was always about football for Swearinger.

Dula calls him the smartest football player he ever coached. Swearinger was always thinking about football, even though he played basketball for his first couple years in high school as well. He later ran the hurdles after sophomore year to help with his football skills.

And Dula still remembers when he first realized just how special Swearinger was and could be. The summer before Swearinger’s sophomore year, during a passing camp, defensive backs coach Kevin Addis (who played for Mack Brown at UNC) told Dula that they were moving Swearinger to free safety.

That move worked.

“From that point on, we realized what an impact player he was,” Dula said.

Swearinger ended up being the starting free safety and one of the key contributors to the team’s state championship as a sophomore.

“We knew he was going to be a good player,” Dula said. “He worked so hard. He pushed himself to be the best he could possibly be.”

Swearinger seems ready to be in the NFL immediately. He already began to impress Texans head coach Gary Kubiak on Friday.

"He handled himself like he’d been out here for a couple years," Kubiak said. "But that’s what he did at South Carolina. He’s the same type of guy.”

Dula said he plans on heading down to Houston at some point this season to see his two former players in the NFL. The Texans don’t play the Panthers this season so there won’t be a full Greenwood reunion.

But still, it’s pretty special for Dula, Swearinger, Montgomery and the entire town of Greenwood.

“They are certainly already representing it well and they will still continue to do so,” Dula said.

“It’s sort of shocking. It’s a blessing, you know,” Swearinger said. “It’s crazy that from the same hometown, growing up together, and being on the same team, the same NFL team. It’s a blessing.”

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