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Off the field, Harry Swayne is the guide for Ravens players

By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

9:30 PM EDT, August 17, 2013

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For Ravens players, Harry Swayne's office is unavoidable.

It sits a couple of yards from a side entrance to the locker room and almost directly across from the lounge where players watch television, get haircuts or take naps during rare down time amid the NFL grind.

Swayne played 15 years in the NFL and has four Super Bowl rings, but his work space, aside from mementos and a Ray Rice figurine in the center of his desk, more resembles the office of a high school guidance counselor than a long-time football man.

A poster of the Ravens' college graduates hangs over his desk. Information on post-playing career opportunities and important phone numbers are displayed prominently. Motivational and spiritual messages dot the room, along with pictures of Swayne's wife and five kids.

"I might be the only one in the building — at least on the football side — that doesn't care as much about how they play on Sundays," Swayne said. "I'm more concerned with how they react to how they play on Sundays."

Swayne is 48 years old and 55 pounds lighter than he was during a playing career that included a stint at starting right tackle on the Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV team. These days, he is in his fourth year as the Ravens' director of player development, a role that calls for Swayne to build relationships not only with players, coaches, team executives and their families, but also with corporate sponsors and business and community leaders.

It's a tireless, yet rewarding job that has come under scrutiny recently with the slew of offseason arrests of NFL players, most notably the murder charge against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The arrests, including one involving linebacker Rolando McClain, who retired less than a month after joining the Ravens, have spurred questions about the level of responsibility NFL teams have in recognizing and preventing destructive off-the-field behavior.

Swayne didn't comment on individual cases, but he was more than willing to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about player development directors.

"If there is a problem off the field with players — and there always is and always has been — [people say] what's going on with player development?" Swayne said. "One thing we are not is behaviorists. In my line of work and this is for all 32 player engagement directors, we don't babysit 20-something-year-olds. They are going to do what 20-something-year-olds do across all cultural groups, across this whole country. Their parents can't keep them from going out and doing some stupid stuff. Certainly, the player development director isn't going to be able to either.

"But in that same respect, what we are is proactive individuals who like to approach things where it puts us out in front of some cloudy decisions before they even get an opportunity to make a bad choice. All 32 player engagement directors kind of have that approach."

Wearing many hats

Swayne returned to the Ravens in 2008 as the caregiver to his former teammate O.J. Brigance, the Ravens executive who is fighting Lou Gehrig's disease. Now, he's the guy who usually sits closest to potential draft picks when Ravens officials are interviewing them, trying to determine whether the prospect has the types of characteristics the organization is seeking in its players. He's the guy whose opinion is sought by everyone from owner Steve Bisciotti to general manager Ozzie Newsome to coach John Harbaugh to star players like Rice. He's the guy who along with Brigance helped develop and maintain a four-tiered player development program that is regarded in league circles as one of the NFL's best.

That program focuses on continuing education, financial education, player assistance services and transitions to post-NFL life.

"People ask if I can give them information, what should the structure look like, how much involvement should this individual have, who should they report to. I just tell them, 'I'd like for you to speak to Harry Swayne, who is in Baltimore.' That's the winning model," said Troy Vincent, the 15-year NFL cornerback who runs the NFL Player Engagement Organization. "He has it all. He's the benchmark."

On any given day, Swayne will help a Ravens rookie enroll in classes to get him closer to finishing his degree, field a call from the wife of one of the team's newer players about living in the area, edit the resume of a former Raven looking to break into the business world, and talk to a business leader about whether his company has any internship opportunities available for players.

"They think they'll play forever, [so] they take it with a little more [of a] grain of salt when we talk about the importance of finishing, getting your degree and getting yourself ready to enter into your second career," Swayne said. "We really only have two or three guys — [Joe Flacco] of course, and Terrell Suggs — who could make an argument that they won't have to work another day in their life. Even the Ray Rices of the world, it's hit or miss. We're talking about 60 some odd years after you last played in the NFL. Most of them just on sanity alone will be working somewhere. So getting them prepared for that, getting them interested in that, getting them ready for that, that's the lion's share of my time."

Swayne meets at least once a year with Ravens veterans to discuss career development and has 10 required meetings with rookies, expanding on what they learned at the league's mandatory rookie symposium in June. During the offseason, Swayne says, he has 21 to 22 daily meetings with first-year players and that doesn't include the phone calls and dinners that he has with their parents, partly to remind them that their job hasn't ended now that their son is in the NFL.

"One thing that's nice about Harry is he really doesn't look at the football side. He looks at the 'you as a person' side," said Ravens rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a fourth-round draft pick out of Harvard. "It helps to have a guy like that around. Everyone else is evaluating you and what kind of football player you are. He's just here to help you as a person, to help you grow."

Getting the call

Swayne has been awakened in the middle of the night numerous times over the years by phone calls from players in a bind or facing a tough decision. He prefers those rather than calls from the team's director of security Darren Sanders informing him that there was a serious incident involving a Raven.

"The mistakes that guys make don't so much bother me. I don't think the Ravens have ever looked at the mistakes that their players have made as bothersome and that guy is despicable," Swayne said. "I know the places that some of these young men are in. Some of them are very healthy places, but some of them are in very difficult circumstances. A lot of stress, job-related. Off-the-field stuff just with their family alone adds more variables that really could be a setup to a bad decision.

"We hold our athletes culturally to a much higher standard than we would ever think about holding ourselves to. I think in a lot of ways because I know what's coming on a particular player, I'm willing to come to his side despite the mistakes that he made. He needs to know that we're not just kicking him to the curb."

Swayne insists that he made the same mistakes that NFL players are making nowadays. He also keeps in mind the transition that kids are making going from college to the NFL, a jump he calls "almost unfair." He entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick out of Rutgers, and he managed to stay in the league for parts of three decades after changing positions — from defensive end to offensive tackle — as a rookie.

Along the way, he played 186 career games for five teams, earning two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos (1997 and 1998) and two with the Ravens (one as a player and one as an executive).

"Harry can relate to almost everything our players go through," Newsome said. "Harry has been a rookie, a veteran to a new team; he has changed positions, moved his family and even been released. He has experienced it all. … He has a keen eye and knows what type of player and person fits our Ravens profile. Once we make a rookie a Raven, the program Harry directs is as good or better than any in the league. It's like he's giving the players, in a short time, a masters in how to be a pro and be responsible for those around you."

Said Rice: "Year in and year out, I kind of walk by his office and tell him that everything that he's taught me as a pro has surfaced over the six years that I've been in the NFL. I just thank him for giving me the knowledge and the tools not just to be a great football player, but to be great on and off the field. Having him around, a guy who played in the NFL, a guy who has wisdom and is not going to B.S. anything for you, that's a great thing."

Giving back

When ex-NFL player Tyrone Keys founded a nonprofit mentoring and scholarship organization called "All Sports Community Service" that helps challenged youth in Tampa, Fla., attend college, his former Buccaneers teammate was the first to step up and serve as a sponsor.

Swayne helped several students, including a young man named Thomas "T.J." Lewis who went to what was formerly known as Queens College (N.C). Lewis now lives in Baltimore and is the senior vice president of strategy and business development at Urban Lending Solutions. The same kid who Swayne would arrange to come to Ravens games as a kid wound up advising Swayne years later when his NFL career was winding down.

Swayne, Lewis recalled, was pondering a potential career in banking after his playing career was done.

"Harry has been called to be in the ministry, and this is his ministry. This is his lane," Keys said. "He's definitely in his calling."

At least once a year, Vincent brings up the question to Swayne: "Is this where you want to be?"

"I say that because I see other great things in him because he touches so many different areas," Vincent said. "If he wanted to go directly into human resources, he could do that. He understands employee policy, employee law. He understands the community, the importance of fans, the corporate interests. I think there is a greater thing for Harry. The sky is the limit."

Swayne, though, loves the relationships he's built and the environment that Newsome and his staff perpetuate. During a 40-minute interview, he acknowledged that he initially had no visions of becoming a player development director. He was more than happy in Chicago, where he spent five seasons as the Bears' team chaplain, but the struggles of a close friend and former teammate brought him back to Baltimore.

"O.J.'s case was an extenuating circumstance," Swayne said. "I'm now talking to guys about transitioning after their final play in the NFL. Me and O.J. talked about his last day talking, his last day being able to swallow, his last day walking. When you're talking about the transition for O.J. Brigance, from holding a pen to not, from walking to being in a wheelchair, and now what I'm doing is helping guys transition away from the game so they can work into another job? That really was like my job/shadow internship to prepare me for this position here. I went from caring for O.J. to caring for 60-some odd guys."

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Harry Swayne file

Age: 48

Born: Philadelphia

College: Rutgers

NFL: Played 15 seasons as an offensive lineman with five teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1987-1990), San Diego Chargers (1991-1996), Denver Broncos (1997-1998), Ravens (1999-2000), Miami Dolphins (2001).

Post-NFL career: Was the Chicago Bears' team chaplain in 2003-2007; was hired by the Ravens as assistant director of player programs in 2008. Promoted to director of player development in 2010.

Career highlights: Has four Super Bowl rings, two with the Broncos (1997-1998) and two with the Ravens (2000 as player, 2012 as executive).

Personal: Swayne and his wife, Dawn, have five children: daughters Tosca (14), Sheri (9) and Nina (8) and sons Chris (13) and Rod (6).

Quote: "What helps Harry get close to our players is the type of person he is. He is far, honest and kind. He wants to help players succeed on and off the field. Our guys recognize that in him." — Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome