When he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Luke Swan desperately wanted to keep playing football.
The former Badger walk-on, who became a 2-year scholarship starter at wide receiver, was a fan favorite at UW, finishing his career with 60 receptions for 1,046 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2007 — his senior season — the Fennimore native served as a team captain, but his collegiate career didn’t have a happy ending.
Swan severely injured his hamstring in just the sixth game of the season against Illinois. The injury required surgery and Swan was ruled out for the year.
Coming off an injury with modest height at just about 6-feet tall, Swan was not selected in the 2008 NFL draft. He did however, earn a try-out with the Kansas City Chiefs and was signed as an undrafted free agent. He was on the roster for just over a month before he tore his hamstring again. The Chiefs placed him on waivers.
But Swan wasn’t about to give up on his dream to play professionally.
He decided to join the cast of Michael Irvin’s television show “Fourth and Long” which aired in 2009. The show gave 12 contestants an opportunity to compete for an invitation to the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp, with the hope of making the team’s final roster.
Swan was cut from the show in just the fourth week after suffering another leg injury.
It appeared as though football would no longer be a part of Swan’s life.
He took a job in the corporate world with ME Insurance. He got married and wanted to settle down with a steady job that could provide some stability.
He worked in insurance for about a year and a half, but Swan soon realized he couldn’t stay away from the game he loved.
“I always kind of had football in the back of my mind,” said Swan, 26.
After an extended break from live action and a history of injuries, playing was no longer an option.
But Swan could coach.
When he left UW after that 2007 season, head coach Bret Bielema knew his former wideout had a future in coaching and he made sure Swan understood that.
“Swanny is a guy that I talked to originally when he was leaving us,” Bielema said. “I told him that when his professional football career came to an end I would be interested in hiring him.”
“I knew coaching was a possibility,” Swan said. “I had discussions with some of the coaches when I was still here and then the right kind of opportunity came.”
Bielema had an opening for a graduate assistant in the offseason and Swan called expressing interest. And just like that, Swan was back with the Badgers for spring camp.
“I absolutely missed it,” Swan said. “I really developed a love for the game and I missed it a lot. If I had stayed in the corporate world I think it would have been good and I would have enjoyed it. But my passions are more here than anywhere else.”
Adjusting to a different role
Years ago, when Swan entered the locker room, he was there to put on his pads. He got his ankles taped, grabbed his helmet and trotted out onto the field ready to hit and be hit.
Now, Swan grabs a hat. He picks up his play chart and practice schedule and jogs out of the Camp Randall tunnel in sweats.
That’s still taking some time to get used to.
“I still kind of have the mentality that I’m one of these guys, that I’m a player,” Swan said. “I want it to be that way but it’s not that way at all, I’m a coach. …It’s a different feel definitely.”
But as much as Swan would like to be out there running the routes, he knows his job now is to teach them.
As a first-year coach, Swan needs to determine how he will approach his role as a teacher.
“It’s a position that I’m still feeling out, honestly,” said Swan. “It’s a combination of things and I’m still learning my style as a coach. … You want to keep that coach-player relationship and gain their trust but also let them know when they’re doing something wrong. Whenever there are mistakes I’m alongside them letting them know I’ve been there.”
Swan’s big smile and friendly manner makes it easy to assume he’ll play the role of big brother for UW wideouts, but according to receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, Swan and every other graduate assistant must first and foremost establish themselves as authority figures.
“As a graduate assistant one of the first things you want to do is establish that you’re a coach,” Alexander, who was a GA himself for three years at his alma mater Southern California, said. “Luke has plenty of responsibilities and he’s learning from us coaches how to communicate those things.”
Swan and Alexander have been working together with the Badgers for just over a month, but Alexander can already see the positive impact Swan is having on his position group.
“It’s been really good. We have a young group of guys and having him with his experience and his success, he can give these guys some pointers,” Alexander said. “They understand that he’s played the game more recently than I have.”
Redshirt sophomore Jared Abbrederis and the rest of the wide receivers believe Swan’s fresh input to go along with Alexander’s experience will serve as a tremendous asset throughout the season.
“Having these two coaches really helps us out with all the young guys,” Abbrederis said. “They both have their different twists on things so it helps out getting more than one view. It’s been valuable.”
Working for new rewards
Abbrederis is one of the players whose been working closely with Swan this spring.
Much like Swan, Abbrederis came to UW as an unheralded, in-state walk-on wideout. Their similar backgrounds created an instant connection and their player-coach relationship has continued to grow.
“Luke was a great example for me because not only was he a great athlete but he was a great guy,” Abbrederis said. “He came in as a walk-on, same as me, and had to work for everything he earned. It’s good to have him here and he has a lot of good advice.”
Swan has become Abbrederis’ coach at an interesting time in the young receiver’s career.
With senior Nick Toon out for the entire spring due to foot surgery, Abbrederis is now the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart. The redshirt sophomore made a name for himself last season hauling in 20 catches and scoring three touchdowns and he’ll be counted on to play a bigger role in 2011.
He’s become a reliable, fundamentally sound target, but Swan is hoping to take Abbrederis’ game to the next level.
“Abby’s getting to where he understands the basics and for me it’s been fun to be able to expand his mind a little bit,” Swan said. “Just get him to think a little outside the box — how to work his routes and how to go from a solid receiver to a great receiver — kind of expanding his game.“
Bielema believes Abbrederis’ has done just that.
“He is up in the offices all the time, working with the young guys,” Bielema said. “He’s really beginning to grow as a playmaker.”
“That’s exciting for me as a coach,” Swan said of Abbrederis’ productive spring. “It’s exciting to see something that you’ve talked about translate over onto the field.”
That is the kind of reward Swan is now working for. He can’t score the touchdowns. He can’t make the clutch third down catch over the middle.
Instead, he has to teach others to make those plays. He has to help them improve each day. His players’ growth is what drives him.
The switch from player to coach takes time and Swan admits he has a lot to learn. But he’s connected with his players and is excited to teach them everything he knows about the game he can’t live without.
“I feel a little bit like a freshman here with this coaching thing. It’s a process,” Swan said with a smile. “But the guys have really opened up and accepted me.
“I think they feel like this guy has been there and done that and we can learn something from him.”