From the Gridiron to the White House
By Mike O'Brien
On August 20th, 2013, President Barack Obama addressed the accomplishments of more than thirty men in the East Room of the White House. Among those? Amherst alumnus Doug Swift ’70.
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., there was only one option for Swift. Football. Surrounded by the sport throughout his adolescence, he never contemplated anything other than playing the game he loved.
The son of two doctors, Swift opted to stay away from the medical field and pursue his dream. After a successful four-year campaign with the Jeffs, the 1970 graduate embarked on a new journey.
Despite interest from several NFL teams during his senior season, Swift’s name was never called during the draft. In hopes of achieving his life-long goal, he resorted to Plan B. Under legendary Amherst coach James Ostendarp’s guidance, Swift set out north to experience a short-lived professional stint in Canada. After roughly a month, he was cut, but his spirits were not broken.
Swift was pleased with his performance and believed he could play at the next level. He wasn’t the only one either, as players in Canada encouraged him to look for a NFL spot.
Luckily for him, he had the fortune of playing for Ostendarp and Amherst assistant coach Tracy Mehr. Ostendarp was well connected within the NFL circle and called a friend of his, Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who was entering his first season with the Miami Dolphins.
The year was 1970 and Ostendarp had arranged for Swift to visit Miami. The timing was impeccable. Before the season began, a dispute during the merger of the NFL Players Association and AFL Players Association caused a brief players’ strike. However, Shula opened camp nonetheless to rookies and undrafted players. After a week or so, Shula called Ostendarp, “we found our starting linebacker.”
For a guy who wasn’t even on the Dolphins radar, Swift impressed the Hall of Fame coach by how good and intelligent he was. According to Shula, “Swift was one of the smartest guys we had.”
The transition was difficult at first. The Amherst alum, who was accustomed to an eight-game schedule, had already played a couple games in Canada, went through two training camps, and played six preseason games with the Dolphins. By the time the season began, he felt as though he had already played a full year.
After the initial struggle to find a rhythm and maintain normalcy, Swift eased his way into the NFL schedule as he started to enjoy the routine; one that allowed him to play a full season by recovering the first half of the week and focusing on the game the second half.
And it showed on the field. Before choosing retirement at the age of 26, Swift started all six-years of his NFL career. During his six-year tenure, he played in three Super Bowls and was a vital member of the historic 1972 Dolphins team and its “No-Name Defense.”
The starting outside linebacker played a pivotal role on that ’72 Dolphins squad, which remains the only undefeated team in NFL history. The Dolphins finished 17-0 and were led by six current Hall of Famers including Bob Griese (quarterback), Larry Csonka (fullback) and Nick Buoniconti (linebacker).
Forty years later, the ’72 Dolphins were invited to attend the White House.
The event came to fruition quickly. Just one week prior to the ceremony, Swift received an email that looked suspicious. “My wife is always advising me, if it looks like an insane email, just delete it,” laughed Swift. “So I did.”
Fortunately for Swift, he received another one, this time from the Dolphins. Swift opened the email and was astonished to see the White House invitation. Having been there once already, the fine arts major was completely enthusiastic about his return to the beautiful house with amazing formality, furniture and of course, paintings.
The trip was arranged by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who flew everyone in and provided a hotel for the night.
At 11:09 a.m. Tuesday, August 20th, the thirty-plus members boarded a bus as they headed towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Upon their arrival, the team went through heavy security before receiving a tour of the East Wing.
Following the tour, they convened in a large room where they stood and conversed, waiting for the dress rehearsal to begin. Eventually, they made their way into the East Room where they walked into a bleacher stage designed for an elementary class, not former NFL players.
When the risers were adjusted to be more accommodating, the big guys were asked to stand in the back so the smaller guys could be up front. Swift recounted his good friend (and the smallest guy on the team), field goal kicker Garo Yepremian, positioning himself directly behind the podium.
“After that was done, they said Hall of Fame guys in front of the little guys. So all these big bruisers stood in front of Garo and put him out of the picture,” recalled Swift with a chuckle.
Leaving the rehearsal, the former players reconvened in the large room again, where they were met by an energetic President Obama. He made his way around the room, shaking each player’s hand individually while presenting his sports trivia knowledge of the guys.
And then, for the 54th time during his term, President Obama walked into the East Room, stood at the podium, and honored another historic sports team in front of media members and well-wishers.
“I am proud to welcome the only undefeated, untied team in NFL history to the White House for the very first time, give it up for the 1972 Miami Dolphins,” said President Obama during the opening remarks.
Four decades ago, saluting athletes was not an established tradition and even if it was, President Richard Nixon was preoccupied with the Watergate Scandal. Because of this, the members of the historic Dolphins team never received their due until that day.
As the eight minute presentation wrapped up, Shula handed the President a No. 72 Dolphins’ jersey signed by every present player with the lettering “UNDEFEATED” etched on the back.
In his closing statements, the President acknowledged the accomplishments of the players both on and off the field. “Nobody could argue with this record, nobody could argue with what you have gone on to do after you have hung up the shoulder pads for the last time. Players from this team have gone on to become a minister, a mayor, a doctor, a state senator, a high school counselor…many successful businessmen.”
And as the formal ceremony concluded and everyone adjourned to their regular lives, Swift went back to Pennsylvania Hospital where he is now an anesthesiologist. Swift, a father of two, followed his parent’s footsteps after all and retired in 1976 to attend medical school. He resides in downtown Philadelphia with his wife, Donna, and enjoys spending time with his three grandchildren.
“If I hadn’t had the football opportunity, who knows where I was going,” said a grateful Swift. “It was a miraculous thing for me.”
A miraculous thing indeed as Swift’s football days started with a dream and ended with two Super Bowl rings, a White House trip, and an illustrious career in the medical field.