Even though Bengals rookie cornerback Isiah Swann, son of a former bodybuilder, sculpted one of the great Ivy League careers with 17 career interceptions, he still didn't get picked last month in what turned out to be a difficult spring for small-school players to be displayed. He's hearing the same thing Bengals great Reggie Williams heard when he also came out of the Hanover, N.H. wilderness in the wake of a more typical NFL Draft.
"I get it," says Swann from his greater Phoenix home Monday. "I know the image of the Ivy League when it comes to athletics. FCS. Small schools. Business schools. I know the stereotypes. That's fine. I'm out to prove what I'm about."
From his home in Florida, where he just got through baking some cookies in his latest of so many diverse passions, Williams thought back to that first post-Paul Brown spring of 1976.
In his first season no longer the Bengals head coach, general manager Paul Brown selected Williams in the third round of the NFL Draft out of Dartmouth and 13 years later when he retired as the greatest linebacker in franchise history they both had the last laugh.
"(Swann) will have the same knock I had," Williams says. "But hopefully the time I spent in the NFL has made it easier on him and a lot of other Ivy League players. I'm very proud of him. For him this is a major accomplishment and for the Dartmouth College football program."
Williams, the highest drafted player in Big Green history, was the third Dartmouth player taken since the NFL teamed with the AFL in 1967 to start drafting players. Four have been drafted after him and not one since 2004, but as a two-time Super Bowl starter he helped put the Ivy League on the map. Heading into Opening Day weekend last year, there were 22 Ivy League alums on rosters.
None from Dartmouth. But Williams, who watched Swann play in the 150th year anniversary game of college football last year at Yankee Stadium against Princeton, keeps the faith.
"He has a great reputation as a student," Williams said. "A smart guy. A good guy. I had the pleasure of watching him make some big plays in the end zone to win a game that kept Dartmouth in the Ivy League race."
The Williams NFL example is very much there in the halls of Robert Frost, Dr, Seuss and Mister Rogers.
"He was a baller up here," Swann says. "I didn't put it together as soon as I signed. But then a day went by and I started thinking. 'Oh, wait a minute, the Dartmouth legend Reggie Williams went there."'
That came a day after the last few minutes of college free agency, when Bengals secondary coaches Steve Jackson and Robert Livingston handed off the phone to each other and Livingston informed Swann that Bengals president Mike Brown had quarterbacked Dartmouth.
Told the exact year was 1956, Swann observed, "Before Coach (Buddy) Teevens."
A few years, you might say. Teevens played quarterback for Dartmouth in the late '70s before becoming head coach twice, this last time for the past 15 seasons. A little closer to Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, class of 1986.
Teevens, amazed at how the 5-11, 191-pound Swann continually jumped routes and routinely baited receivers and quarterbacks, says he's as good a cornerback as he's ever coached and before he came back to Dartmouth he put in three years at Stanford and five at Tulane.
Here's a guy that had a hat trick (three interceptions against Holy Cross), a coast-to-coast trip (76 yards for a TD vs. Cornell) and a league trophy (an end-zone pick on the last snap of his career to preserve a four-point win over Brown to give The Green a share of the Ivy title). When he was a junior his nine interceptions made him Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. That last interception cemented him as the school's all-time leader, not to mention a legend of The Green.
"As I tell our players, I want a great football player at football time, a great student at academic time and a great guy all the time," Teevens once said. "And that was Isiah Swann."
Whether all that's enough to stick with an NFL team is a much bigger question. Swann is no dummy. Here's a guy who picked off a 4.3 grade point average with the help of advanced courses among the 4,000 or so students at sprawling Chandler High School to draw the interest of all three service academies and most of the Ivy League.
Nevermind that he paired those 17 interceptions with a 3.1 grade-point average in Hanover while securing a degree in environmental studies.
So he more than knows the score. He realizes his shot nearly evaporated as the pandemic grew this spring, wiping out pro days for those players that weren't invited to the NFL scouting combine. He did get a chance to play inside as well as outside at the East-West Game, but the teams couldn't follow up at a pro day and he couldn't be invited to a team facility.
"I think it definitely hurt," Swann says. "With all this corona stuff happening the small-school guys kind of got overlooked. I think only (nine) of them got drafted. Not a lot got picked up (in college free agency). Nobody is doing the mini-camp tryouts. I'm just grateful for the invite to get a shot and prove them right."
Swann and his agent found what he calls "a mock pro day," in Tampa, Fla., where he worked out before the draft, in an event run by former Titans scout Richard Shelton during the first week of April. Swann says he and about a dozen others went through the combine drills that can be seen on You tube.
"I don't know how much credibility it gets. I figured I might as well do everything I could," Swann says. "We sent the numbers out to the teams to see what happens."
Nothing happened. Even though the numbers look pretty good. According to the clip, Swann ran the 40-yard dash twice, at 4.4 and 4.5 seconds, logged a 39-inch vertical leap and put together a 6.96-second three-cone drill and a 4.25-second shuttle. Compare that to LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton, a second-round pick. According to published reports, Fulton ran 4.46 seconds in the 40, 6.94 in the cones and 4.36 in the shuttle with a 35.5 vertical.
"Before the draft, 13 to 14 teams called me to say they were interested," Swann said. "Then as the draft went on, sixth round, seventh round, all those teams stopped talking to me. After the draft I waited 45 minutes and that was the longest 45 minutes of my life. Just waiting and waiting for a call and finally Coach Jackson called."
It didn't matter it's a tough mountain. The Bengals have spent the offseason adding five veteran cornerbacks in free agency (the CFL reigning interception champion as well as $20 Million Man Trae Waynes), but Swann knows there'll be a mountain anywhere.
"I was super excited," he says. "I'm OK with everything that happened. I'm 100 percent grateful to be here."
All of this doesn't surprise Dartmouth defensive line coach Duane Brooks, a 25-year Ivy veteran who helped recruit Swann out of Phoenix.
"He just wants a shot. He's driven. He's focused," says Brooks, who believes he can stick around the pros because of his brains. "You're getting a guy that is one of the great anticipators of route running. He can anticipate a route. For us, he was never out of position. He was always where he was supposed to be."
The question, it seems, revolves around his speed and change of direction. Does he have the juice? If NFL teams can't see a workout live or help put it together, they have a hard time going off just tape. Bengals scouts have been known to measure off the 40-yard dash at pro days themselves as well as clock them.
But it's not like he's unknown to them. Andrew Johnson, their east coast scout, liked him enough to write him up and discuss him. He's not sure if there is any difference between the importance of not having a pro day or the team visit.
"I think they mean about the same," Johnson says.
The Dartmouth guys think he has enough juice to run and change direction up here. Believe them, it's not the first time it's been discussed.
"I would always bust his chops," Brooks says. "I'd tell them, 'They think you run a 4.89,' and, boy, that would get him hot. We're playing Cornell and he picked that ball off and went the other way, he was flying. He ran past me on the sidelines and I'm thinking, 'Maybe he is a 4.4.' And he is."
Track is in the family. His father, Patrick, ran in high school before he served in the Air Force for 20 years. So is the discipline of working out. Before having him and his 17-year-old brother Isaac, his mother, Jerri, was a bodybuilder and served in the Army for a tour.
"They taught me how to lift at a very young age," Swann says. "She would always show me her (newspaper clippings). She was holding trophies, so she was winning … She can still do pushups, pullups. She can still give me piggy-back rides. She's still ridiculously strong for no reason.
They knew they had instilled enough discipline in him that they weren't going to have to carry him to make the college call.
"My dad secretly wanted me to go to Harvard. She secretly wanted me to go to Air Force," Swann says. "But they wanted me make up my own mind. That was great. I really felt like it was a family at Dartmouth. Harvard was cool and the campus was great, but I was really drawn to the people at Dartmouth."
Williams says he can see Swann being at home when cuts come.
"Wide receivers and cornerbacks," Williams says. "You need a lot of them and guys have to survive."
Sure. A long shot. But Swann looks at an old Dartmouth linebacker and the quarterback from '56 and sees a rocket.
"The stars are aligned. That's what I told my family," Swann says. "It's in the stars."