Pursuing a professional basketball career overseas no longer seemed appealing to Erik Swoope after the University of Miami forward had an end-of-the-year meeting with his head coach last month.
Almost unfathomably, he suddenly had a more enticing opportunity.
Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga informed Swoope that someone from the Denver Broncos had left a voicemail asking whether the senior had interest in scheduling a workout before the NFL draft. Swoope had never played organized football at any level before, but the Broncos believed his 6-foot-5 frame, explosive athleticism and aptitude for learning gave him a chance to make the same transition from undersized power forward to NFL tight end that stars Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham once did.
"I was completely shocked," Swoope said. "That was about the last thing I expected Coach L to tell me. Once I figured out this was real and that he wasn't kidding, I was really excited. I took a week to think about it but then I decided I wanted to see what they had in mind."
In the four weeks since his unexpected discovery that he was on the NFL's radar, Swoope has taken a crash course to familiarize himself with a sport he'd only watched on TV before. He has lifted weights to add muscle to his already chiseled frame, done basic drills to improve his pass catching and route running skills and sought out advice from athletes who have made a similar jump from basketball to football.
Swoope's commitment has impressed NFL scouts enough that they've told him he has a good chance to make an NFL team's practice squad next season even if he is not selected in the later rounds of the draft next month. His workout with the Broncos last Thursday went well enough that officials from the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs have since called to express interest.
"I think he has a great chance of playing in the NFL," Larranaga said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, he's a hard worker and he'll pick up new concepts quickly because he's just very bright. One of the easiest ways for me to judge is that I was able to play Eric four positions. Most guys can only learn their position, but there were games I had Eric guard the point guard and games I had him guard the center. His athletic ability allowed him to be very versatile in basketball and his intelligence allowed him to learn every position."
The notion of an NFL career is sometimes still difficult for Swoope to fathom because of his lack of football experience. Whereas others who attempted the same transition at least dabbled in football in high school, the only football Swoope played prior to the last month were games of two-hand touch in the cul-de-sac outside his childhood home in Lake Elsinore, Calif.
In fifth and sixth grade, Swoope was already too heavy to meet the weight restrictions to play Pop Warner football with his friends. And throughout his four years at prestigious Harvard Westlake High School in North Hollywood, he resisted frequent recruiting pitches from football coaches because basketball was his top priority.
"Every week they'd tell me, 'Anytime you want to play, the field's right here,'" Swoope said chuckling. "It was difficult to resist because I had friends on the team and some of my friends on the basketball team were like, 'Man, we should just all go out for football and have a great senior year.' I thought about it every year, but I'd been playing basketball for so long and the scholarship opportunities I had were there for basketball."
Basketball certainly wasn't a bad alternative.
Swoope helped lead Harvard-Westlake to a section championship as a junior and averaged 21.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for a Warriors team that went 25-5 as a senior. His playing time was sometimes sporadic at Miami, but he finished with a flourish as a senior, starting his last 10 games this past season and scoring in double figures in six of his last seven.
It's unclear exactly how Swoope got on the NFL's radar since a Denver Broncos spokesman declined comment until after the draft. The idea Denver might scout college basketball in search of draft prospects is conceivable, however, considering its tight ends coach worked with Gates with the Chargers and has since molded ex-Portland State basketball player Julius Thomas into a Pro Bowler with the Broncos.
If the Broncos indeed stumbled across Swoope watching ACC basketball, Larranaga has a good idea what intrigued them. From his penchant for catching alley-oop passes seemingly headed out of bounds, to his knack for out-muscling or out-leaping taller players for rebounds, to his love of contact and physicality, Swoope's style of play in basketball translates well to football.
"In Erik's case, he's best when there's contact," Larranaga said. "I don't think that's going to discourage him at all. I even told my coaches, I could see him being on special teams tracking guys down and throwing people away to get to the ball carrier."
Something that should inspire Swoope is that his transition isn't the most difficult one attempted by a member of his family. Older brother Devin competed in track and field, and basketball in high school before a junior college football coach spotted him during a basketball game and persuaded him to give a new sport a try. Devin began as a 315-pound nose tackle at Glendale College, moved to outside linebacker when he first arrived at Division II Northwood University and eventually shed enough weight to finish his career as a 215-pound wide receiver.
"All they're asking my brother to do is gain 10 pounds rather than lose 100," Devin joked. "His transition is easy compared to mine."
Jokes aside, Devin is the ideal mentor for his younger brother since he has experience catching passes, running routes and learning a brand new position and sport. They've done many of the same drills the past few weeks at Miami that Devin did at Northwood as he was first learning the receiver position.
"I've made it as difficult as I possibly could for him just to see how he would react," Devin said. "I was rifling the football at him and he was catching everything. There's a tempo to running routes and he'll have to learn that, but even on grass he's still very fluid and very explosive. I definitely did not feel like I was working out with someone who had never played football, that's for sure."
Between drills with his brother and friends on the Miami football team, intense weight lifting sessions with his strength coach and chats with Graham and others who have been in his position, Swoope feels he is making swift progress.
Ideally, he'd love to wow the Broncos or another NFL team enough to be a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick in May. Realistically, he hopes to latch on as an undrafted free agent, continue to soak up as much new information as he can in training camp and earn a spot on a practice squad next season.
"It will come down to the conversations I have with teams and my workouts," Swoope said. "In a perfect world, maybe I'd go in the seventh round. But no matter what this has all been extremely exciting. Just the fact I'm getting calls and that I'm considered a potential NFL player is so flattering and so enjoyable."
Highlights from Erik Swoope's final basketball game with Miami last month:
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