Dr. Doug Swift

A Super Bowl Winner to the Operating Room… An Unlikely Tale.

How many of us can remember where we were last week let alone on a particular Saturday in 1976? Dr. Swift remembers, he was taking the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) in the gymnasium at Boston University, the day before he would play the Boston Patriots. “I asked Coach Schula if I could leave for Boston on Friday rather than travel with the team on Saturday like usual. He knew I wanted to go to Medical School and when I explained that I needed to sit for the exam, he agreed.”

Doug Swift, # 59, starting line backer for the Miami Dolphins had finished the epic and still only undefeated (17-0) season in NFL history, just a few months earlier. What many fail to realize though was his pivotal role in that game. Swift blitzed Washington’s quarterback Billy Kilmer forcing him to hurry his attempt to Taylor and yielding an interception by Nick Buoniconti in the last few minutes of the first half. Miami capitalized on that turnover ultimately leading to a 14-7 triumph over the Washington Redskins and victory in Superbowl VII.  It had been a season like no other Swift grew up in Syracuse, New York. “Syracuse University has always had such a huge football program so if you grow up there, you just sort of have to play”, recalled Swift. “So I did. I loved the hitting and the culture. Football players are kind of blue collar athletes and that promotes a camaraderie and atmosphere that’s unique. At Nottingham High School, I played both offensive and defensive lineman and on the smaller size as a kid with what I remember as pretty average athleticism. I never really thought of myself as particularly gifted.  So I was just absolutely astonished when I was selected for the “All City team” my senior year. College coaches from all over were coming around recruiting for different schools and this one guy Jim Ostendarp from Amherst really impressed me. He was a real coach, a teacher, a mentor. He made me feel confident and I went to Amherst College, a Division III school. The emphasis up there is on academics so there was no early training camp and an abbreviated eight game season. We played the likes of Williams and Middlebury and Wesleyan. Coach Ostendarp  was just this incredible guy. He gave it to you straight.

Swift contracted a serious case of “sophomoritis” and told his coach that not knowing what he wanted to do, he was leaving Amherst for California. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do there but he was sure he’d find himself if he went, so he was leaving. That’s when Swift was astonished for the second time in his life,”The coach didn’t try to talk me out of it, he just said, you know Doug, I think you could go pro.” Swift said that he went back to his dorm amazed by the prospect. “ I had never thought I could do that. The NFL and the level of play are just unreachable. The very thought that I might be one of the few to have a shot gave me the focus I was missing and I became driven. Training became an obsession; the game all consuming.

“I thought I’d get drafted in my senior year but that didn’t happen.” Swift approached his coach and mentor.   “Ostendarp told me to head up to Montreal and try out for the Canadian Football League. I didn’t have anything else to do. It was that or a teaching job at some private school. So I went to Montreal”, Swift said laughing. ”The guy playing my position had left the team so they had a spot for me but two weeks later he returned and since he had previous contract, I was cut. The other guys on the team thought I had the talent to play and encouraged me to find another way.

I called my Ostendarp and told him I really wanted a chance at the NFL.  It turned out he knew a fellow by the name of Bob Young who had been the general manager for the Colts when Schula was at Buffalo. The Dolphins were one of the 1964 expansion teams. They never did anything though and Don Schula had been lured to Miami in 1970 to kind of turn things around.  At Ostendarp’s urging, Young called Schula and suggesting he give me a look.”  The next thing you know, a 21 year old art major from Amherst College, passed over completely by the NFL college draft, and then cut from the Canadian Football League, receives a plane ticket to Miami, with an invitation to attend the Dolphin’s training camp at St Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“It was just so random. I just kept thinking, wow I’m playing in the NFL, at least for as long as it lasts.” Swift still didn’t realize his talent. Sure I was pretty good maybe even formidable on a division III team but the NFL recruits guys from Penn State, the Big 10, the SEC, Division I schools where the competition is harsh. I was from Amherst.”

Swift was fortunate. It was 1970, the year of the players strike. The only ones in camp were the rookies and some of the free agents.” None of the veteran players were there when I arrived and for the first few weeks, Schula and the assistant coaches focused exclusively on us new guys. The coaching staff is sort of perched on your shoulder, always watching always correcting like a cross between a guardian angel and a nagging conscience. They would film us in practice and during games and then play the film in a team meeting to show you how you screwed up. Hey Doug, do you see that? Don’t do that. Then they’d reverse it and run it again. Doug don’t do that. That’s not good. And they’d back it up again and again. It was horrible, almost humiliating. OK. OK I get it!”
“Training camp somehow prepares you for the beating you’ll take in the season. You develop toughness mentally and physically that prepares you for what’s to come. You learn to bounce off the ground and each other and get up. I trained as hard as I could, relentlessly, but this was my shot and I wanted it”, Swift told me. When the seasoned players showed up a few weeks later Swift said, he had one more of the great revelations in his life, “Hey I can really play against these guys. In fact, I can play as well as them”.  Indeed he could and a small kid from a division III school would realize a dream he never thought possible in his wildest imagination. He would become the starting strong side line backer for the Miami Dolphins his rookie year.

The Dolphin’s would see their first winning season that year as Schulla guided them to the league championship. The next year the Dolphins posted a 12-1 record landing them and Swift in their first Super bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. I asked Swift what it was like to win a super bowl.  His response was typical of the humble man he is and he started laughing. “Let me tell you what it’s like to lose a Super Bowl” he offered. “I was devastated. To work so hard, to come so far, and then just toss it away, it’s the most deflating experience of my life. It took me weeks to get over that.”
The next year though, perhaps as a result of the denial the year before, the Dolphin’s would go 16-0, entering the Super bowl for the second time.” None of us was going to go through that again”, Swift told me. “I was a lot smaller than a lot of the guys at only 228 lbs. So was my team mate and fellow line backer Nick Buoniconti, but we wanted it more. I was just so dogged and determined. We had to win. We simply had to.”

Win they did. The Dolphins posted the only undefeated 17-0 record that year, the only undefeated season in NFL history. Swift would return to the super bowl for a third consecutive year in 1974 garnering yet another super bowl ring, but the excitement and the challenge of the game was ebbing. “I had sort of done it”, Swift told me. “I had aspired to one of the greatest achievements possible, to play and excel among the best athletes in the world, to pit my skill my toughness, my determination against theirs.  A lot of my friends from college were in graduate school, law school at the time. They were excited, invigorated, by new things that they were doing. They were still realizing their aspirations and their potential. They still had the enthusiasm and excitement engendered by the challenge of getting there. A close buddy of mine was in med school at U of Penn.  He was totally immersed in it and totally energized by it. His excitement was infectious and I decided to embark on a new challenge.

An art major undergrad, Swift never took any of the pre-med courses, so he enrolled at the University of Miami. ‘I started taking the pre-requisites I needed and not quite realizing what was involved, I decided to take organic chemistry in the fall of 1974 during the season. There I was carrying Morrison and Boyd under my arm as I’m traveling around the country from game to game. It’s tuff to study on the road so I was a little worried about the first O-chem exam which was scheduled for the Monday after the Falcon’s game. As luck would have it, I strong- armed Bob Lee, the falcon’s quarter back and broke my arm. I had a medical excuse for missing the exam and dropped the course for medical reasons. I reregistered the next semester in the “off season”.

“U of Penn was interested in atypical candidates and I guess I fit the bill so I started medical school there in 1976. My dad had been a general surgeon and my mom is a pediatrician but I really liked the physiology, pharmacology and pace of anesthesiology so elected to do a residency in that at Penn. I did a cardiac anesthesia fellowship there too with a six month rotation at St Michael’s in Toronto but by then Philadelphia was home and I took my first job at Temple.” Swift was there a short 18 months but long enough to achieve another first. He performed the anesthetic for the first heart transplant done at that institution before taking a position at Pennsylvania Hospital.
I asked Doug how someone transitions from NFL starting linebacker to physician and he said, “ Both require the same discipline, determination, delayed gratification, and doggedness to succeed. The excitement’s in the challenge.  I wasn’t always the best, but I was sure always the most determined”, in football; in medicine.

Swift today

As I interviewed Swift I was struck by the fact that throughout his career, he has never thought of himself as special. Indeed he has surprised himself on countless occasions. I watched Doug Swift play on the Dolphins when I was in high school and his talent was so obvious to my friends and I. Yet in speaking to him, his election to the all city team in high school, the faith of his college coach, his invitation to the NFL and the success he found there, were total surprises to him. He just never expected any of it. Swift thinks of himself as a pretty ordinary guy which I suppose is why he said that football players are kind of blue collar guys and he was inexorably drawn to the culture inside the sport. As a physician his work is exemplary but he goes about the business of caring for his patients in such an unassuming manner. Swift told me he eschews the limelight. He knew that well from his father who he described as a wonderful and amazing man. Throughout the interview, Swift spoke of his team mates and opponents, Nick Buoniconti, Lary Csonka, Manny Fernandez,Bob Griese, Jonny Unitis and others.  He described each of them as amazing and great guys. He was laudatory about all of their accomplishments while regarding his own nonchalantly.

Swift lives in Philadelphia with his wife, an accomplished triathlete. He supports her dedication to training, knowing firsthand what it takes. He continues to work as an anesthesiologist.  His son is a pulmonologist, his daughter a physical therapist and Swift hopes to be a grandfather in the not too distant future. He has a passion for fishing and is actively engaged in the Broadheads organization which promotes maintaining natural waterways in and around the Poconos.

story is by
Dr. Paul Langevin