Commentary

Whitewright shaped Tyrone Swoopes

The future Texas quarterback is biggest thing going in small town, but doesn't show it

Updated: February 20, 2012, 1:47 PM ET
By Max Olson | HornsNation

Tyrone SwoopesDamon Sayles/ESPN.comClass of 2013 quarterback Tyrone Swoopes verbally committed to the Longhorns on Feb. 17.

WHITEWRIGHT, Texas -- Welcome to Whitewright, a no-stoplight town 60 minutes north of Dallas.

Despite its appearance, Whitewright is not as sleepy a town as you'd imagine. The 1,700 who call this place home do have a downtown district. It's a block long, but at least it's got a movie theatre.

Looking for a bite to eat? There's the Dairy Queen across the street from the high school, and a barbeque joint opened up a while back, too. And don't forget the Mexican restaurant, Casa Vieja, located next door to the theatre.

Locals here still talk about the lady who moved up from Dallas and single-handedly revitalized Whitewright by renovating the Odeum Theatre and opening that Mexican café. They still bring up the fires that burned down almost half of the town 100 years ago.

There's another thing Whitewright has that sets this Texas town apart, a treasure that had so many drooling college coaches searching for the town on a map because they just had to take a look at the next Vince Young.

Meet Tyrone Swoopes, a quiet 17-year-old who didn't know he was the best football recruit in the state of Texas until many websites started telling him so.

You may have seen YouTube clips of his touchdown runs already, but they don't reveal as much about Texas' new quarterback commit as most assume. They can't capture how this small town has shaped him.

A normal kid

Yes, Tyrone Swoopes has always been this quiet.

Elizabeth Swoopes doesn't call it being a loner. Her son just values his alone time. "But don't confuse his soft-spokenness with weakness," she said.

She has seen him come out of his shell in the past year, even as the number of outsiders who want a piece of him steadily increases.

He answers as many calls from reporters as he can, signs the occasional autograph and is learning to handle being revered.

"I just try to play it down as much as possible, try to make it seem not as big as it really is," he said. "Just to keep myself sane and from going crazy."

That's how his mother raised him. And she always had wanted to raise him in Whitewright and see him go to the high school where she was valedictorian.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes hometown
Max Olson/ESPN.comTyrone Swoopes is proud to call Whitewright, Texas, which is about four hours away from Austin, home.

When Tyrone was 2, his family moved from Colorado to Texas after Tyrone Sr. left the Army. After briefly living in the Dallas area, the Swoopes settled down in Whitewright.

Tyrone Sr. and Elizabeth got divorced in 2001. Though he now lives an hour away in Lewisville, Texas, Tyrone Sr. remains an involved presence in the lives of his children. He even rearranged his schedule at the bank he works at to make more time for their games. Living in Whitewright has made raising Tyrone, 12-year-old daughter Zada and 7-year-old son Jeremiah a bit easier for Elizabeth. She appreciates the fact that when her kids want to go to someone else's house, she already knows their parents. She likes that, as a middle school teacher and high school track coach, her kids are always nearby.

The small-town lifestyle meshed well with the lessons she'd tried to impart on her children: Don't get in trouble, do what's expected of you and respect your elders.

"Elizabeth has done such a good job of raising those kids," Whitewright coach Jack Wylie said. "She's a very, very strong Christian woman, and she holds them accountable."

And she knows how to be a disciplinarian. Whenever Tyrone's grades start slipping, she immediately confiscates his cell phone.

"He's old enough where you don't get spankings anymore -- you've got to get them where they feel it, and a lot of times it was his phone," he said.

At home, he spends a lot of his time in his room or playing his PlayStation, and he likes to watch cartoons with Jeremiah. The laid-back quarterback isn't much different around his high school.

"I'm used to being just a regular, normal kid who wakes up, goes to school, comes home and watches TV," he said. "Nothing about me is too flashy. I'm pretty normal. I wouldn't say I'm boring, but people might call me boring, because I don't do too much."

There's nothing normal about his talents when he has a helmet and pads on, but so far he's been able to keep his two worlds separate. The superstar doesn't demand to be treated like one.

If Swoopes really is supposed to be the future savior of the Texas football program, he's not acting like it.

"You'll never meet a more humble kid," Wylie said. "You'd never know he's the No. 1 kid in Texas."

No slowing down

Midway through his freshman season, Swoopes was no star-in-the-making. Back then, he couldn't have been more frustrated.

In the first game of his Whitewright career, Wylie -- then the Tigers' defensive coordinator -- made Swoopes his starter at free safety. He led the team in tackles that night despite playing the entire second half with a busted shoulder.

The injury kept Swoopes sidelined for seven games. Watching from the bench wasn't easy. Whitewright, a Class 2A school, won two games in 2009. Its eight losses came by an average margin of 29 points.

There were times when Elizabeth sensed her son wanted to transfer to a bigger school with a better football program. The advice she gave Tyrone during those trying months stuck with him.

"A bigger school doesn't necessarily mean there won't be challenges," she said. "Part of growing up is learning how to be a man and working through those challenges."

When he got back on the field, Whitewright coaches finally gave him a chance to play quarterback during the season finale against rival Gunter.

They'd been reluctant to do so that season. Wylie said the staff had a feeling he'd be the Tigers' quarterback of the future, but the newcomer wasn't ready to take a yearlong beating behind a far-too-inexperienced offensive line. Swoopes was just as tall at nearly 6-foot-5 but weighed 185 pounds back then, not the chiseled 220 he has grown to be.

But college coaches already were starting to take notice. In the summer before his sophomore year, Wylie called TCU linebackers coach Tony Tademy, a former colleague at McKinney High.

"I told him, 'Y'all are going to have to see this kid,'" Wylie said. "So Tyrone went to their camp and ran a 4.51 [40-yard dash]."

And then he ran wild as a sophomore in a simplified Whitewright offense, rushing for 2,336 yards and 29 touchdowns and throwing for 15 more for a Tiger team that went 10-1 and broke Gunter's 30-game district win streak.

At Wylie's urging, Texas started sending coaches to scout Swoopes. TCU coaches visited the high school three days after their Rose Bowl victory in January 2011 and made an offer.

After the season, the mail and scholarship offers started pouring in. College coaches from all over the country started making trips to Whitewright. They had to meet the quiet kid from the tiny town.

Welcome to Whitewright

A little more than three years ago, Wylie moved to Whitewright. At first, he had a hard time believing what he was seeing.

"I tell people, 'You don't know it, but you've just been transported to Mayberry,' " he said. "This place is like 15 or 20 years ago.

"We have the nicest kids I've ever coached here. Sometimes you wish they weren't quite so nice on the football field, but they really are."

To outsiders, the town might not look like much, but the Whitewright football coach and athletic director likes that it's off the beaten path. The community is close-knit, and its love for Whitewright football and basketball is strong.

If you ask Wylie, the best quirk of the town is the Odeum Theatre, an Egyptian-themed, one-screen cinema. It's open only four days a week, and it almost always refuses to show R-rated movies. They just don't sell here.

"This is small-town USA," said Daphna Boatwright, an employee of the theatre. "Everybody knows everybody. There's no secrets here."

Around the Odeum on Grand Street, there's an old-fashioned barber shop, an auto parts store, a few small boutiques and a big, vacant hardware store on the corner.

Swoopes is proud to call this place home. He likes that Whitewright is a quiet town and has no qualms with what it does or doesn't have. If he and his friends want to get out of town on a weekend night, they drive to Sherman, Texas, for bowling or a movie.

Elizabeth is confident an upbringing in this insulated environment is a good thing. After all, it did work for her. There's less pressure and no getting into trouble at school. Even with his successes, Tyrone doesn't feel he gets treated too differently around town.

And he likes it that way. In a town this small, ego doesn't play well. Maybe that's why he didn't see all this national recruiting attention coming, and why he's not taking it for granted.

"I know it can be taken away in the blink of an eye," he said. "I don't let it get to my head. I'm trying to stay the same person I was before all this."

Making the choice

When Jodie Stringer left town for family reasons last summer, after a two-year stint as Whitewright's head coach, Wylie took over the program and gave Swoopes the keys to his offense.

The freedom to make more decisions and read coverages wasn't a burden. Swoopes still produced 3,661 total yards and 42 touchdowns in his junior year.

Those stats and a junior highlight tape full of long touchdown dashes only amplified the comparisons to Young.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
Max Olson/ESPN.comTyrone Swoopes grew up a Longhorns fan and felt comfortable in Austin.

"I've watched that highlight video probably 100 times," Texas receiver commit Jake Oliver said. "Everyone compares him to Vince Young. I think he's more like Terrelle Pryor."

After Arlington Martin running back Kyle Hicks committed to Texas on Saturday night, he went online and pulled up the same video. "I like the way he runs, the way he can really make guys miss," Hicks said.

The scholarship offers flooded in from across the country: Alabama, Stanford, Oregon, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Auburn and every school in the Big 12. Even new North Carolina coach Larry Fedora called Wylie, an old friend, on Tuesday to offer and ask if he was too late.

"It all kind of seems like it happened overnight, really," Elizabeth Swoopes said. "He's been playing football since second grade, and he's always been pretty good. I guess it wasn't until last year that I realized just how good he was."

Tyrone felt honored to get phone calls from the likes of Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, but moving far from home never interested him much.

Texas has been his heavy favorite school for a long time. Swoopes grew up a Longhorns fan and felt no school wanted him more. He also bonded with co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who set himself apart from all the recruiters by showing he genuinely cared.

"Every time I talk to him he's asking about the family, how's basketball going, how life is going in general," Swoopes said. "Some of the other coaches, all they care about is the football part of it. He's kind of different from everybody else."

Most of all, Swoopes wanted to feel comfortable and didn't want to be far from home. A four-hour drive to Austin is long, but it won't stop his family, friends and teachers from coming to his games.

Still, the decision wasn't easy. Publicly, Swoopes said he was in no hurry and wanted to wait a few more weeks before deciding. Privately, he was ready to become a Longhorn.

His mother urged him to pray on it and put off making a decision until he knew he'd be at peace with his choice. On Thursday evening, Elizabeth picked Tyrone up from a baseball game and went with him over to Jeremiah's basketball practice. As they waited for practice to wrap up, Tyrone spoke up.

"Mama, I've made up my mind," he told her.

"You have?"

"Yeah. I prayed about it, and I want to go to Texas."

The challenge

A weight is off Swoopes' shoulders now, but how will he handle what's next?

There will be more attention, more scrutiny. The Vince Young comparisons -- no matter how unfair they are -- won't die. Swoopes will have to be much better as a senior or some will deem him overhyped.

This fall, opposing defenses will scheme to stop him, thanks to that target firmly affixed to Swoopes' back. They'll throw blitzes at him he's never seen, assign extra defenders charged with the task of making the so-called best quarterback in the state look bad.

When the summer of 2013 finally arrives and Swoopes enrolls at Texas, he'll step into one of the biggest fishbowls in college football. More hype means more pressure. Meanwhile, the kid from the high school of 275 students will start taking classes in lecture halls full of hundreds of other UT freshmen.

And then there's the issue of redshirting. He'd prefer not to, but it might be in Swoopes' best interest. Elizabeth is interested to see how he responds if he must practice but not play.

"I just want to play and be out there with my teammates," he said. "It's not an ego thing. I'm a competitor. I really don't have an ego, that's just how I am."

Will the golden boy from the tiny town develop an ego? Will he stay out of trouble and keep his grades up, or feel lost in a city of more than 790,000?

Will Tyrone Swoopes change Texas, or will Texas change him?

Mom expects bumps in the road, no doubt, but she's confident her son has the character it will take to handle the looming pressure. Swoopes knows there will be stressful times. After 16 years in Whitewright, a new experience might be good for him.

"I think I'll stay the same I've always been," he said. "I won't really bother anyone. I'll stay quiet, chill."

And no matter how tough things might get, Whitewright will never feel too far away.

Max Olson covers University of Texas sports and recruiting for HornsNation.
Follow HornsNation's coverage on Twitter:

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter