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Reluctant convert finds his bliss on O-line

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


TAMPA -- Hold your heart, Fred Sanford style. This is the big one. I'm about to say something nice about Ray Perkins, a Tampa Bay coach I found easy and necessary to criticize.

I'll never forget Perk's record with the 1987-90 Bucs. He had Pearl Harbor numbers: 19 and 41.

Still, after all these years, it's only right and fair to say that Ray made the career of a 300-pound gent named Harry Swayne, a mediocre Bucs defensive end Perkins coerced into becoming an offensive tackle.

This morning, eight days shy of Swayne's 36th birthday, because Perkins found Harry's pro football calling, he is anything but some long-gone NFL nobody who never made much money.

He owes Perk dinner.

Becoming an OT has allowed Harry to play 14 seasons, earning maybe $15-million, winning two Super Bowl rings and rehearsing now with the Ravens for his fourth NFL Championship Game.

"Not long after he drafted me in 1987, Perkins began selling a switch from defense," Swayne said Wednesday. "I was backing up Ron Holmes at defensive end and wanted no part of O-line. I managed to fight off Ray for three years."

Shortly after becoming Bucs coach, Perkins used the No. 1 pick in the '87 draft on Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde. With the final Tampa Bay choice, Ray would get an Alabama quarterback, Mike Shula. In between, in the seventh round, Rutgers defensive end Swayne was snagged.

"With the Bucs, we kept having 4-12 seasons but were a fun-loving bunch," Harry recalled. "We had some great times." Funny, but I don't recollect much hilarity from the Perkins autumns. Eventually, the NFL would work beautifully for the big kid from Philadelphia.

Swayne started zero Bucs games in four seasons but, with the change to offense, he was signed as a free agent by San Diego. Harry never did become a Pro Bowl tackle, but his fortunes nonetheless have been splendid. Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, for some reason, made No. 70 a "transitional player," and Swayne's income vaulted to $1.8-million a year in the mid '90s.

Under line coach Alex Gibbs of the Chargers, the old defensive lineman kept getting better. Harry made the Super Bowl with San Diego, then he signed to jump to Denver where Gibbs had moved. Perkins' find played for two NFL champions with the Broncos. Now comes this unexpected shot with the Ravens.

"Early in my time as an offensive tackle," Swayne said, "I wanted every day to go back to defense. But now, with the Super Bowl rings, having opened holes for a 2,000-yard rusher (Terrell Davis in Denver), it's more than clear that Ray Perkins had a better idea for me."

Perkins, before his Bucs years, was coach of the New York Giants and succeeded Bear Bryant at Alabama. More recently, he was tight ends coach of the Cleveland Browns, but he now plans to retire and settle back in Tampa.

"Amazing, the twists your life can take," Swayne said. "Bucs, Chargers, Broncos and now the Ravens. Our (Baltimore) offensive unit is one that's humble enough to accept what we're capable of and what is needed.

"Our exceptional defense puts us in a lot of great situations. We don't produce 200-yard games by runners or 100-yard receivers and seldom threaten scoring 30 points."

Swayne stands as an accomplished old pro among Ravens offensive linemen who, until this season, had zilch playoff experience.

"In our meetings, the only other O-line guy who'd been in a post-season game was Kipp Vickers, a backup tackle," he said. "I kept telling them to expect the tempo and demands to pick up incrementally as we advanced."

It has reached optimum rev.

His quarterback is Trent Dilfer, an ex-Buc of more recent vintage, from last season. "I think it's been coincidence more than anything, seeing so many former Tampa Bay quarterbacks making the Super Bowl," Swayne said. "Trent is as fired-up a QB as I've ever seen, which is saying a lot of a lineman who once protected John Elway.

"Dilfer is no Elway, but who is? It's amazing to watch Trent work. At times, he throws passes like Elway that make you say 'Wow!' But if you give Dilfer too much time to think and he's more prone to mess it up."

Swayne will be matched Sunday against Michael Strahan, the best Giants rusher. "His strength is his strength, not his moves," Harry said. "Make a mistake and he's got your quarterback, especially on third down and in the final two minutes.

"I do feel fortunate, getting to four Super Bowls and making some good money. It's wonderful to be back in Tampa; my first time since leaving in 1990. So much has been built beyond Carrollwood where I used to live. A new stadium. Veterans Expressway makes trips to the airport easier, compared to Dale Mabry traffic.

"Yeah, by now I'm really, really glad Ray Perkins kept shoving me to change to offense."

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