Homelessness, Heartache and Hoops: Caleb Swanigan's Rough Road to Purdue

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagOctober 21, 2015

Mar 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; McDonalds High School All American athlete Caleb Swanigan (50) poses for pictures during portrait day at the Westin Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The dream seemed far-fetched for a 6'2", 360-pound eighth-grader who spent his nights in a Utah homeless shelter, where people shot heroin in the restrooms and left needles near the sink.

Still, 14-year-old Caleb Swanigan—"Biggie," he'd long been called—seemed determined when he announced to his brother, Carl, that he wanted to become a basketball player.

"Obviously," Carl says, "he was going to need some help."

Caleb couldn't ask his father, a crack cocaine addict who often went months without seeing his six children. And it wasn't going to come from his mom, who didn't have a steady job and was living on food stamps and welfare checks.

Carl had the knowledge to assist Caleb on the hardwood, but not the means. He had signed a scholarship with Ole Miss in November 2004, dropped out of high school the following semester and then lost his right eye in a shooting a year later. Eleven years older than Caleb, he had a job and kids to raise.

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Still, it was obvious to Carl that, hidden beneath those excess pounds, his little brother had a unique talent and, just as important, a passion about the game. Carl decided to help Caleb the best way he knew how.

He picked up the phone.

"Come get Biggie," Carl said into the receiver. "Take him away from here. He needs you."

Within a few weeks, Caleb had moved into the home of Roosevelt Barnes, a prominent sports agent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who had mentored his older brother years earlier at the request of a mutual friend.

When Barnes heard about Caleb's situation in 2011, the summer before his eighth-grade year, Barnes didn't hesitate to take Caleb in. Within weeks he'd filed adoption papers and is now Caleb's legal father.

"Biggie had a kind heart," says Barnes during an interview with Bleacher Report in June. "He didn't want to be a drug dealer. He didn't want to get into fights and end up in jail. He seemed determined to make something of himself. But the setting he was in...he didn't have a chance."

Caleb Swanigan measured 6'2" and weighed 360 pounds before moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his soon-to-be adoptive father Roosevelt Barnes.
Caleb Swanigan measured 6'2" and weighed 360 pounds before moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his soon-to-be adoptive father Roosevelt Barnes.Photo courtesy of Roosevelt Barnes

Four years later, Swanigan is a far cry from the overweight teenager who once seemed destined for a bleak future. Now 6'9" and a sturdy 250 pounds, Swanigan is less than a month away from making his college debut at Purdue following a high school career in which he earned McDonald's All-American honors and a ranking by ESPN.com as the ninth-best prospect in the class of 2015.

Tabbed by the school as "perhaps Purdue's most-decorated recruit in school history," Swanigan was also named Indiana Mr. Basketball—the first Boilermaker signee to achieve that distinction since Glenn Robinson, who won the award in 1991.

"Caleb," Purdue coach Matt Painter says, "has definitely generated a lot of excitement."

Speak with him for only a few minutes, though, and it's clear the attention hasn't consumed Swanigan. He's grateful, he says, for his success—mainly because he overcame so much to attain it.

"Some of the [high-profile] guys in my class are flashy and all over social media," Swanigan tells B/R. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, but I don't act that way."

Swanigan leans back in his chair.

"I remember what it's like to not be on top."

Caleb Swanigan was still an infant when his mother, Tanya, awoke her five older children in the middle of the night and gave them 10 minutes to gather their belongings. 

"Hurry," she said. "We're leaving."

Less than an hour later, Carl Jr. says the family—which lived in Indianapolis at the time—was on a Greyhound bus bound for Utah, escaping before Swanigan's father had returned home to discover that Tanya had accidentally dropped Caleb, causing bruising to his face.

Caleb was too young to remember the trip, but there would be countless others during a childhood spent on the run.

"Indiana to Utah, Utah to Indiana," Caleb says. "We were always going back and forth."

One of the reasons, according to Carl Jr., was that their mother was frightened of their father.

Carl Swanigan Sr. was arrested and charged with murder in January 1995—two years before Caleb was born—following a shooting death that occurred in a Salt Lake City crackhouse. But he was freed five months later when evidence presented at the trial couldn't prove that he committed the crime.

Upon his release, Carl Sr. told the Deseret News that his stint in jail was a blessing because it made him realize how drug use had caused his life to spiral out of control.

"I got in touch with God and I found myself," Carl Sr. said in a June 1995 article. "I found that I didn't want to be a drug addict the rest of my life."

Determined as he may have been at the time, Carl. Sr. didn't make good on his pledge. His sons say he started using crack cocaine once again and began to drift in and out of their lives. It wasn't uncommon for Carl Sr., who stood 6'8", to disappear for months at a time before popping in randomly for a week or so—often high and enraged.

"He'd come into the house and go after my mom," Carl Jr. says. "He was on drugs and delusional and thought she was cheating on him. She'd run outside and he'd chase her into the street. Just crazy stuff that we all had to see."

Just as it was when Caleb was an infant, Tanya's response to the abuse was to flee.

By the time he was 13, Caleb estimates he'd lived in five homeless shelters, where dinner often meant standing in line for bologna sandwiches or soup provided by a local church. Most of the clothes the Swanigans wore came from donations or thrift stores, and Tanya depended on "Secret Santa" programs to provide Christmas gifts for her children.

On a few occasions, Tanya cobbled together enough cash to move the family into an apartment, but their stay rarely lasted more than a few months before they ran out of money and were evicted, forcing them back into a shelter.

Though he scored only two points, Swanigan also grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots in April's McDonald's All-American Game.
Though he scored only two points, Swanigan also grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots in April's McDonald's All-American Game.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The environment was particularly rough in Utah, Carl Jr. says, where it was normal for hundreds of homeless people to linger outside the shelter, some of them prostitutes and addicts shooting up in broad daylight. Things didn't get much better inside, where the smell of body odor and spice (synthetic marijuana) hovered in the air.

When it came to education, Caleb says he only did his homework when he "felt it like it." Because they moved so frequently, not one of his five older brothers or sisters ever attended a high school for more than two consecutive semesters, and none of them earned a diploma. Three of his siblings have served prison stints for crimes ranging from armed robbery to assault to theft. Then there's Carl Jr., who has lived nearly 10 years with a glass eye.

Now almost 30 and raising 11 kids, Carl Jr. says he and his brothers and sisters are still affected by the poverty and instability that marred their childhood.

"We never learned how to deal with things, with life," says Carl Jr., adding that his wife has suggested he see a therapist. "When something gets tough for us, the first thing we do is run."

He pauses.

"Not Biggie, though. Biggie is different. Biggie got saved."

The first night in his new home, Caleb Swanigan sneaked into Barnes' kitchen just before bedtime and consumed a jumbo-sized box of Wheaties and a gallon of milk.

Barnes was shocked.

"I hope you enjoyed that," he told Caleb, "because you're not going to live like that anymore."

Indeed, Barnes didn't waste any time establishing ground rules once Caleb Swanigan joined him in June 2011.

The $1 burritos Swanigan regularly purchased from gas stations were replaced by chicken breasts and fish. The kid who'd grown used to eating ice cream sandwiches every night now looked forward to broccoli and asparagus. Breads, sugars and starches were removed from the house, and Barnes took Caleb to get his heart checked.

Swanigan transformed himself from a 360-pound child into a 250-pound big man with a pair of FIBA titles on his resume.
Swanigan transformed himself from a 360-pound child into a 250-pound big man with a pair of FIBA titles on his resume.Francois Nel/Getty Images

By late fall, Swanigan had dropped 45 pounds, prompting Barnes to call former NBA coach John Lucas and persuade him to allow Swanigan to attend his invite-only camp in Louisville.

When Swanigan became winded after just two trips down the court, Lucas turned to Barnes, who was sitting in the bleachers.

"I can't believe you brought him down here," he said.

Barnes couldn't help but chuckle. He wasn't surprised—nor was he discouraged.

By that point he could sense that Swanigan was serious about developing into a high-level basketball player. And if Swanigan was willing to put in the work, Barnes was willing to help him.

Swanigan enrolled in speed and agility classes, where he was taught drills to improve his footwork. There were 6 a.m. cardio sessions before school each morning with Barnes and ball-handling and shooting sessions in the evenings. Then came homework, dinner and additional cardio before bed.

"[Barnes] made me understand what it means to love the game," Swanigan says. "I'd always loved playing it, but he showed me how to love every part of the process. The workouts, the diet, the moves and footwork. It took awhile, but eventually I embraced it all.

"He gave me the direction and the discipline that I'd never had before."

More than anything, that is what was gratifying to Barnes, especially early on. He couldn't predict what Swanigan would become as a basketball player, but what he did know was that a kid who had attended school only sporadically—a teenager with absentee parents and siblings in trouble with the law—now had a passion in life, a purpose.

That was Barnes' goal when he filed the paperwork to adopt Caleb in 2011. The process took nearly three years, as private investigators had to be hired to locate Caleb's parents, question them and have them sign documents.

"I adopted Biggie because I loved him unconditionally," Barnes, 57, says. "I wanted to show him that, no matter what happened, I wasn't going anywhere. I felt like it was my responsibility as a man to help this kid, because no one else was going to do it.

Roosevelt Barnes and Caleb Swanigan pose with their lawyer (left) and the magistrate who oversaw the case (right) on the day the adoption was finalized.
Roosevelt Barnes and Caleb Swanigan pose with their lawyer (left) and the magistrate who oversaw the case (right) on the day the adoption was finalized.Photo courtesy of Roosevelt Barnes

"All I wanted to do was love the kid and say, 'Hey, you've got a chance in life, man.'"

Swanigan opened his freshman season at Homestead (Indiana) High School donning jersey No. 44—the same number Barnes wore during his playing days.

With his weight dropping steadily and his strength and skill set continuing to develop, Swanigan eventually blossomed into one of the top post players in the country.

As a 6'9", 250-pound senior, Swanigan averaged 22.6 points and 13.7 rebounds to lead Homestead to its first state title in school history. Along with his McDonald's All-American and Mr. Indiana Basketball honors, Swanigan helped Team USA win FIBA World Championships in 2014 (U17) and 2015 (U19).

Lucas says Swanigan reminds him of former Ohio State star Jared Sullinger because of his ability to score both under and away from the basket—a power player with a shooting touch and skill. He also praised his passing ability and a basketball IQ that Lucas compared to that of Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley.

"He's a manufactured basketball player," Lucas says. "There's no way you could've predicted that a 6'2", 360-pound 14-year-old was going to turn into a McDonald's All-American. He worked hard and made himself into what he is today.

"Roosevelt deserves a lot of credit. I hate to think where [Swanigan] would be right now if he wouldn't have rescued him. It probably wouldn't be pretty."

Still, there are those who believe Barnes had ulterior motives when he took Swanigan into his home more than four years ago.

The issue became a hot topic in May when Swanigan decommitted from Michigan State, which he had pledged to in April without warning Barnes. Two weeks later, he signed with Purdue, where Barnes played both football and basketball.

Barnes has no problems admitting he told Swanigan that he wanted him to be a Boilermaker— "Of course I expressed my opinion. I'm his dad," he says—but adds it had nothing to do with Purdue being his alma mater. Instead, Barnes believes Swanigan will be able to showcase more areas of his game playing power forward alongside 7-footers Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons.

"He can really pass and he can really shoot the basketball," Barnes says, "and that's one of the reasons we chose Purdue. It's nothing against Michigan State. This is just a better fit at this particular time because of the personnel and how they plan to use him."

A former NFL linebacker, Barnes says it also irritates him when people suggest his job as a sports agent may have influenced his decision to adopt Swanigan.

"If I was going to go out and get a kid for basketball reasons, I'd go find a Chris Webber or a Shaquille O'Neal—a freak," Barnes says. "The only thing freakish about Biggie was how many calories he could devour. Maybe if I wanted to develop the next hot-dog-eating champion, the next Joey Chestnut, people would have a legitimate gripe.

"I might be an agent, but before I'm an agent, I'm a man who loves the Lord. I'm a Christian and I love kids. That's why I did what I did."

Each and every morning, the routine is the same.

Carl Swanigan Jr. picks up his cellphone, calls up Google and searches for information about his brother, Caleb. Over the weekend, there was news about a 23-point, 12-rebound performance in a scrimmage. Other times he's come across tweets and threads on Purdue message boards.

As much as he'd like to call every day, Carl Jr. wants to give Caleb his space. He doesn't want to be a distraction as the season approaches. He wants him to remain dialed in and focused—immune to the hardships back home.

"He doesn't need to hear about any of that stuff," Carl Jr. says. "He's got a bigger goal.

Mar 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; McDonalds High School All American athlete Caleb Swanigan (50) poses for pictures during portrait day at the Westin Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

"The few times I've talked to him, he's sounded focused. That's why he's going to make it. He's always been different than everybody. If I'd had his mind-frame, there's no telling what I could've done. But I never had his ability to push through things. I never had his willpower."

Comments such as those are what drives Swanigan.

As much as he's doing it for himself, he's also playing for the family members who never did something positive with their lives.

Swanigan will wear No. 50 in remembrance of his birth father. That was Carl Sr.'s age when he died in a nursing home two years ago, just hours before he was to undergo surgery to amputate both of his legs. At nearly 500 pounds, Carl Sr. suffered from diabetes.

Swanigan also hopes to honor his mother, whom he hopes will tune in occasionally from the two-bedroom apartment she shares in the Houston projects with her two daughters, their seven children and a cousin.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Swanigan wants to be a source of pride for Barnes, the man who altered his life by picking up that phone call from Utah four years ago.

"I've got a lot of people living through me," Swanigan says. "Hopefully I can give them a reason to smile."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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