For me personally, writing this story is surreal. I never thought I would be writing about my favorite Husker from when I was a kid. I believe it was 1984 when my cousin asked me who my favorite Nebraska football player was, and I said “Shane Swanson.”
“Why him?” my cousin asked.
I said, “Because his first name is the same as mine and he plays receiver, my favorite position.”
Little did I know the reason my cousin asked me that question was because he was going to get an autographed photo of my favorite Husker as a Christmas present for me. My cousin went to UNL, and, living in the dormitories, knew some of the players.
So at Christmas, when I saw an autographed photo of Shane Swanson, I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was one of the best gifts I got that Christmas Day. I still have it to this day and have proudly included it as the photo on this page. It is probably one of my most cherished Husker autographed keepsakes from when I was a boy.
So, given that little tidbit of history, I am thrilled to finally get to write a story on my favorite Husker from my childhood days.
Swanson is from the small town of Hershey, Neb., a town located 12 miles west of North Platte.
“We lived south of town. My dad was a feed salesman and we had about 300 head of cows and a 400-hog finishing area. We did a little bit of farming with corn and wheat,” Swanson.
But the Swanson family was most interested in the rodeo.
“It was something we just did during the summer time,” said Swanson. “We had an area at the farm and practiced there. My dad was a two-time state champion steer wrestler in 1969 and 1972, and my mom was a barrel racer.”
Swanson got into rodeo at a young age and developed a skill at it, so much so that he became a state champion.
“I did a Lil’ Britches rodeo when I was younger and did high school rodeo and won several state championships in steer wrestling, and went to the national finals four years in high school,” Swanson said. “I placed 19th in the nation in steer wrestling my junior year.”
But another sport took him to even a higher level of success. Nebraska kids dream about playing football in Lincoln; for Swanson, it was an opportunity to gain a scholarship and go to college.
“I remember sitting in Coach (Tom) Osborne’s office, and he told me he wanted me to walk on. I told him that my goal ever since I was a freshman in high school was to get a scholarship somewhere, and I really didn’t care where. But I wasn’t going to walk on. So I left my recruiting trip to Nebraska with a walk-on offer, and when I got home I told dad and he was not real happy about it,” Swanson remembered.
For his high school football team, Swanson did it all. The 5-9 ½, 190-pounder played running back and defensive back, and also did all the punting and kicking for the team.
“I really enjoyed running back because you were going to get the ball the majority of the plays. I was recruited as a defensive back by Nebraska. By today’s standards they would label me as an athlete,” he said.
Swanson got full-ride offers from Wyoming, UNO and Kansas, so if Nebraska wasn’t going to offer, he was going to go to one of those schools.
“The following week after my Nebraska visit, I visited UNO, and while I was gone one of the assistant coaches from Nebraska called the house and talked to my dad,” Swanson said. “My dad gave him the business and the assistant coach said that Coach Osborne was in Texas recruiting, but he would call me on Monday. But 20 minutes later Coach Osborne called and talked to my dad. When I got home my dad told me about the calls and I said, ‘Oh my gosh you screwed everything up, they will never want me now.’ But on Monday, Coach Osborne called and talked to me and said, ‘Hey, I heard you were a little upset with us.’ I said, ‘Not really, but like I told you, I am not going to walk on anywhere.’ He said, ‘If you are still interested, we have a scholarship for you’.”
But that meant no more rodeo.
“My rodeo career was put on hiatus while I was at Nebraska. Coach Osborne didn’t think it would be good for me to be jumping off horses onto steers. So I didn’t rodeo at all in college,” Swanson said.
But that didn’t matter, because Swanson became a celebrity not only in the town of Hershey but in the entire western half of the state.
“I would say I was a local celebrity,” admitted Swanson. “At the time I went to Nebraska, I don’t think there was a player on the team west of Grand Island, so I was the farthest-west player from the state on the team. For that part of the state they were tuned in on TV and on the radio to see how I would do.”
Swanson quickly gained respect, and was the typical Nebraska kid who worked hard to become the best player he could, which in turn elevated the play of his teammates.
“I looked at it as the big time (playing for Nebraska). The tradition and pride Nebraska players have for their state and community and their work ethic, I think those out-of state kids saw that and knew that if they didn’t work hard they couldn’t rest on their laurels. The hunger the Nebraska kids have is just tremendous,” Swanson explained.
But as a freshman it was a bit overwhelming at first. Especially after getting called up for a game with the varsity.
“I’ll never forget my freshman year when I suited up for the varsity,” he said. “My roommate was named Mike Knox, from Colorado. I remember sitting in the locker room, and I looked over and said, ‘Look, there’s Dave Rimington, how can we compete with these guys?’
Mike pointed to Tony Felici and said, ‘Look, he’s putting his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and I do.’
And I said ‘You’re right, we are all here to compete.’”
Swanson went on to say that his expectations were to contribute to the team and be a part of the organization that had decades of success. He came to Nebraska as a defensive back, but was moved to wingback, a position he embraced.
“Being a wingback, you were asked to block and do a lot of things, so you have to be tough. In my career I was thrown 36 balls and caught 35. The majority of the time we were blocking defensive ends or defensive backs.”
Being “tough” was something Swanson didn’t have to work hard at doing.
“My family dynamics were to never give up and always working hard,” Swanson said. “When I was a freshman in spring ball, I was number 10 on the depth chart, and I worked hard and learned the system and by the end of the spring I was number two behind Irving Fryar. I certainly wasn’t the most talented guy on the field, but never shied away in getting it done. My nickname was ‘The Cowboy,’ just that rough-and-tumble attitude and effort.”
Swanson said that he learned a lot from Fryar in the way he ran his routes. But Fryar also learned from Swanson.
“I just kept pushing him,” Swanson said. “I didn’t have the physical attributes he did, but I pushed him every day in practice. I remember one time he and Mike Rozier were jawing back and forth and Irving said, ‘Well I just won’t block for you on this play then,’ so Mike said, ‘Well, we’ll just put “The Cowboy” in, I know he’ll block for me.’”
Swanson gives credit to his coaches for being able to coach the players beyond their physical abilities.
“Boyd Epley was the strength coach at the time, and I just did a lot of lifting and broke the position record for the hip sled at around 790 pounds,” he said. “I didn’t lift a lot of weights in high school; my main weightlifting came from unloading 50-pound bags into our warehouse, so I had a lot of natural strength from doing that. I ran a 4.7 as a freshman, and when I left Nebraska, I ran 4.42 in the 40.”
While he had to endure two years behind Fryar at wingback, Swanson maintained his “team first” attitude, contributing with his blocking, along with fielding punts and kickoffs.
“I focused on just being the best blocker that I could be, and if you look at some of the runs we had during that timeframe, we had a lot of long runs because the receivers were blocking downfield. Irving (Fryar) and I were both back my sophomore and junior years, and then I was back my senior year returning kicks and punts,” he said.
“The biggest thing is having no fear and the unique ability to make that first guy down the field miss,” Swanson said, about returning punts. “I don’t think I ever fair-caught, I always tried to catch the ball and make something happen. During my day, we always had two guys back to return punts; nowadays they just have one guy back.”
The 1984 season was Swanson’s final year at Nebraska. Gone was “The Scoring Explosion” that Fryar had been a part of, Swanson was the now the starter, having to follow was then called the best offense in college football history.
“The team we had in 1984 was a blue-collar type, as compared to the year before when we had ‘The Scoring Explosion’,” Swanson said. “We really didn’t have a lot of highly recruited superstars. Craig Sundberg at quarterback, myself, Todd Frain at tight end, even the offensive linemen we had were guys that had been there for four years and just waited for their opportunity.”
That 1984 team finished 10-2 and was ranked #3 or #4 in the national rankings. Not a bad season, but for Swanson it was a season that began with such promise. Nebraska gained the No. 1 ranking, and after demolishing No. 8 UCLA in Pasadena, looked like they were going to have another chance at the national championship.
“The most disappointing the loss that season was against Syracuse. We were kind of overlooking them after what we did to UCLA the week before,” Swanson said.
But there were some memorable moments for Swanson during that season, too. Like the time the Huskers were tied with No. 9 Oklahoma State, 3-3, with less than nine minutes left in the game. It was even more special, because as a senior it was the day and game he was being honored for.
“I took a 49-yard punt return back for a touchdown, which gave us the momentum to go on and win,” he said. “It just happened to be on ‘Shane Swanson Day.’”
After college, Swanson was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 12th round of the NFL Draft. He got cut by the Browns, so he finished a semester of college and graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science degree in education.
Then he bounced around between Philadelphia and Denver, playing three games in 1987 with the Broncos.
“I broke the team record for most all-purpose yards in a game, 298 yards, held by Rick Upchurch. Then the next day I got cut. So overall I got credit for two years in the NFL,” he said.
Swanson said he didn’t want to keep bouncing from team to team because at the time he had two young kids, so he started working for America West Airlines in October of 1987. Then he got into the pharmaceutical business in 2003, and has remained there ever since, now working for Teva Pharmaceuticals.
Swanson currently lives in Omaha, with wife Michelle and they have three daughters and two sons.
One of that last questions I asked Swanson was, “Do you like football or rodeo more?”
“You can’t play football forever,” he replied. ”My dad’s goal was to rodeo until he was 70, and he passed away at age 64 and was still doing it up till then. So I would say I enjoyed rodeo more than football.”
Swanson got back into rodeo in 1997, and did that with his dad for several years before the elder Swanson passed away from leukemia in 2004.
“So my goal in 2005 was to win the state championship in steer wrestling in his honor, and I was able to do that.”
That typifies the work ethic and “get it done” attitude that made Swanson one of the toughest wingbacks and steer wrestlers Nebraska has ever had.
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