Seated around the kitchen table of their two-story home, Pat and Robin Swilling were having none of it. The Georgia Tech great, now a successful real estate developer, and his wife, practically rolled their eyes at two of their sons, Tre and Bruce. They were trying to impress upon a visitor how much, once they leave for college, their parents were going to miss the free labor they’ve been providing.
So what did the two have to do?
“Everything,” Tre answered, and his brother cackled with delight.
“Tell the truth,” said Robin, prodding in a firm tone. “Tell the truth. Tell the little work that you do.”
“No, it’s not little work,” Tre answered back. “It’s very extensive.”
Bruce picked up from his brother.
“It’s quite a lot,” he said. “I have the kitchen. Sweep the floors, the stove, put the food up, dishes up, stack the refrigerator, make sure everything is clean.”
“In the kitchen,” Robin followed, clarifying. “Just this one area.”
“But that’s a lot,” Bruce said, lightness in his voice.
It sounded like this sort of conversation isn’t infrequent in this home, both well-appointed and comfortable, one that Pat Swilling himself designed and built. And that, by itself, is a piece of grace not just for Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who six years ago was Bruce Jordan and unknown to the Swillings but is now counted as a son, but for the whole Swilling family.
For Tech, the end result of this addition is that Tre and Bruce will be enrolling at their father’s alma mater in June, two gifted defenders who aim to reclaim the glory that their father, their uncle (Darrell Swilling) and their father’s cousin (Ken Swilling) captured for the Yellow Jackets in the 1980s and early ’90s. For the Swillings — Pat, Robin, sons Pat Jr., Tre and Bruce and daughter Starr — the substance is far greater.
“He’s meant a lot,” Pat Swilling Jr., Pat’s eldest son, said of Bruce. “He’s meant everything to our family.”
About six years ago, the elder Pat Swilling was coaching Tre’s sixth-grade AAU basketball team. The Swilling Storm were in need of some big men. Through the gym door at St. Dominic School came Willie Allen, now a 6-foot-7, 310-pound offensive tackle at LSU and Bruce, who was then about 5-6.
“These giants walked in the gym,” Robin said. “You couldn’t help but say, ‘Whoa.’”
To that point, Bruce’s life had not been easy. He had lived in public housing and been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and moved from living with one parent to the other. In a January article in the New Orleans Advocate, he said he was in a family full of drug dealers. Robin drove him home that day, and a connection between him and the Swillings began to form.
Bruce began spending more time with the Swillings. Early the next fall, Robin got a call from Bruce, who needed help getting enrolled in school.
“So we went through that, and I didn’t like what I saw at the school that he was attending,” she said. “So at that point, I knew I needed to make a change for him.”
The Swillings became Bruce’s guardians, and he began spending more and more time at their home, doing homework and getting fed. Before long, he was living there full-time, and Robin had enrolled him in a different school with the idea of catching him up to the point that he could eventually join Tre at Brother Martin High, a grade 8-12 all-boys school among the more prestigious in the city. Bruce transferred there halfway through his freshman year.
The Swillings’ intersection in Bruce’s life proved all the more critical when his grandmother Consuella Jordan, who was his primary caretaker, and his mother, Constance Jordan, died in the years after he moved in with the Swillings.
“I loved my mom,” Bruce Jordan-Swilling said. “I miss her, actually. I wish she was here right now so she could see the person I’ve become today.”
In time, he unofficially changed his name to Bruce Jordan-Swilling. He started to call Pat and Robin “Dad” and “Mom.”
“It was just kind of natural, to be honest with you,” Pat said.
Pat and Robin downplay the role they have played in Bruce’s life.
“It was what we were supposed to do,” Robin said.
Yes, the Swillings can play a little football. Bruce, a linebacker, was a four-star prospect (247Sports) who was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Tre, a three-star cornerback, picked Tech over Alabama, LSU, Michigan and others.
Despite their father’s collegiate exploits — he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and led the Yellow Jackets’ “Black Watch” defense with Ted Roof — signing with Tech was not a given. Pat told them to choose the school that they felt was the best fit and offered opportunity.
But Tech won, thanks in no small part to Roof’s recruiting efforts from the time they were freshmen.
“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, Pat’s my friend, I got ’em,’” Robin said. “No. Ted was there. He was on the phone. He was calling my phone. He was doing everything he needed to do.”
Also luring them to Atlanta: the chance to continue the family legacy.
“It means a lot to be able to go into the stadium and to happen to see,” Tre said, before his brother completed the thought.
“Your dad’s name,” he said, referring to the banner along the east stands of Bobby Dodd Stadium that lists the school’s College Football Hall of Fame inductees.
Bruce and Tre will room together, along with Roof’s son T.D. and Cortez Alston, a defensive lineman from the Westminster Schools whom the Swillings befriended in the recruiting process.
They’ll try to pick up where Darrell and Ken Swilling, who helped the Jackets win a national championship in 1990, and their father left off. They’ll play with the weight of inevitable comparisons. But Bruce and Tre can support each other as brothers do.
“I think we’re all excited,” Pat said. “Not just me, and I tell them — we have so much extended family, Swilling-wise, in that area. A big family.”