The lore surrounding D’Andre Swift’s brightly colored cleats is evolving into legend among the St. Joseph’s Prep football coaches.

Before the running back ascended to his current status as a potential first-round pick in this week’s NFL draft thanks to three stellar years at the University of Georgia, Swift was the budding star from Mount Airy. He’s always had an appreciation for style, so it wasn’t a surprise when he took the field wearing fluorescent cleats in his first season with the Prep in 2013.

Tim Roken, the offensive coordinator at the time, remembers asking then-head coach Gabe Infante what he thought of Swift’s footwear.

“He said, ‘Let’s see how many touchdowns he puts on the board first,' ” said Roken, who was named the Hawks’ head coach last offseason. “He went out and scored a few that night and had a big game for us and we were able to let him have his way.”

But Roken doesn’t know that there’s still a secret about those cleats -- faithfully kept by Tom Sugden, Roken’s offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

“He did it all in soccer spikes," Sugden said. “There’s no front spike on the front of the cleat. At the top of your toe, there’s no front spike there.”

Sugden, the offensive line coach at the time, told Swift after the game about the disadvantage he unwittingly put himself at, and that was the end of the cleats.

“I never told Coach Infante about that,” Sugden said. “You don’t bring everything to the boss, you know?”

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Long before Swift was a fashion-forward Division I recruit with the Prep, he was a standout on the Enon Eagles in Mount Airy. As he ascended through the ranks of the youth football league, Swift led his team to a league championship.

By the time he reached the Prep, he was a 15-year-old dealing with high expectations and the looming culture shock of transitioning to private school.

“People knew about him from his area,” Roken said. “They knew he was special. ... Because of that, he put a lot of pressure on himself and felt like he had a lot of expectations.”

Learning to lead

Swift answered the bell, and did so quickly.

Sharing a field with Olamide Zaccheaus, John Reid, and Jon Runyan Jr. — all of whom were on their own paths to the NFL — Swift earned playing time as a freshman. His first game was against Dallas Jesuit in sweltering late-August Texas heat.

Partly because of teammates cramping, Swift earned an early opportunity and didn’t disappoint.

Infante and Roken said Swift’s first year was spent learning how to lead by watching Zaccheaus, now a receiver on the Atlanta Falcons, along with Reid and Runyan, who are also NFL draft prospects.

“He understood that Olamide and John Reid, and watching Jon Runyan, the way those guys worked, that’s the way you do things if you want to be really great at something,” Roken said. “He followed in their footsteps and became a leader for us as well.”

By the time Swift left the Prep, he was a three-time state champion with 4,112 career rushing yards. In his senior season, he ran for 1,564 yards and 25 touchdowns to go with nine receiving scores, leading the Hawks to a 14-0 season that included a state title.

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After winning that final championship, Swift did something else no Prep player had ever done before: He gave Infante a Gatorade bath. The proof is still the coach’s computer desktop background.

“He’s the only player to do that to me in my entire career,” Infante said. “The smile on his face is this devious, ‘I got you,’ prankster smile. And that’s him. This devious, funny prankster, guard-down, loving person.”

The dead-leg

Infante has a game tape from 2014 stowed away for a specific purpose.

When he’s scouting potential running back recruits from his Temple office, he’ll replay a Swift touchdown against Pine Richland to help remember the physical tools necessary to ascend to college football’s highest levels.

“To this day, I still use it as a litmus test when I’m evaluating backs from around the country,” said Infante, the Owls’ running backs coach. “It showed a couple of things on one particular play that only elite backs can do. He got sandwiched between two tacklers and a third defender tried to fit him up. He kind of got triangulated, and he blew through all three tackles. He was able to churn through all three. He cut to his left and the safety had an angle on him, but he outruns everyone to the end zone.”

Infante said the power, acceleration, and top speed he showed in the state championship game are the traits he searches for now:

“It’s probably one of the greatest runs I’ve ever seen anybody at the high school level have in the last 25 years.”

When going back through Swift’s catalog of improbable rushes, it’s hard to get a consensus on which one reigns. Each coach and teammate has his favorite, and no answer is the same.

Georgia offensive linemen Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley, and Isaiah Wilson all conceded they’d sometimes get caught flat-footed midway through a play because they were watching their fellow NFL draft prospect.

Both Kindley and Thomas picked runs against Kentucky as their favorites but didn’t agree which one was better.

Thomas liked Swift’s 60-yard score in 2018 because the coach’s film showed him and Kindley chest-bumping as Swift hurled toward the end zone.

“It’s crazy blocking for him," said Thomas, a projected first-round pick. "A lot of times I’d see myself [on film] out there not blocking anybody, I’m watching him just to see what he can do because he’s very explosive, it’s really good to play with him.”

Kindley is the only one in agreement with Swift himself on the best run of his Georgia career. The two favored Swift’s 20-yard touchdown run in which he evaded two Kentucky linebackers before charging through two more.

“I know after he gets past me, I know it’s gonna be a show,” Kindley said. "I’m ready for him to get past me so I can see what he’s gonna do. [On the touchdown run,] he got past me, he dead-legged somebody. I was like ‘Yeah, he’s that guy. He’s that guy.' ”

Swift added, “I don’t know how I did what I did, but it was amazing.”

Swift’s Georgia teammates called his often-used juke a “dead-leg," but Sugden said the coaching staff and players at the Prep trademarked a different name.

“We used to call it the stanky leg,” Sugden said. “Where he sticks that foot in the ground and breaks off the other way, stopping on a dime.”

‘Homegrown’

When Swift took the podium at the NFL scouting combine, he was peppered with questions ranging from which teams he’d met with to what getting drafted will mean to him.

When a presumably hungry reporter asked for his cheesesteak of choice, he answered without hesitation: Dalessandro’s Steaks or Ishkabibble’s.

Later, Swift explained how he’s tried to emulate his hometown’s attitude.

“That’s where I get my mentality from, I can’t help it,” Swift said. "Tough mindset, I’m a gritty guy. I compete, I love to compete, never back down from a challenge. Everything Philly, that’s in me. That’s why I play the game the way I play it.”

During his high school career, Swift would sometimes get a ride to and from practice from Sugden or Roken, who lived nearby. Sugden, a Roman Catholic graduate and native of Northeast Philly, remembers the red-carpet treatment Swift got while the Prep’s team and coaching staff volunteered at an Enon football camp.

With Swift now NFL-bound, his high school coaches see a new way forward for those growing up in areas similar to his.

“I know my city is supporting me, so it’ll be a blessing, just to be mentioned at the top is a blessing.”
D'Andre Swift

“He’s homegrown, for the kids in our city to see such a positive role model — even to see a guy from the city to go to St. Joe’s Prep was impressive to people from his neighborhood,” Sugden said. "It’s a carrot for these kids to reach for, like ‘Hey, this is possible.’

“He’s setting the standard for what is possible,” Sugden added. "I don’t think we have enough role models in the city. He’s not from right outside or across the bridge, he’s from Philadelphia, and that means a lot. He’s a superhero to these kids.”

As for Swift, being the first running back taken on Thursday would bring some positivity to his hometown, something he says has been in short supply during his lifetime.

“Coming from the city I come from, not a lot of good comes out of Philly," Swift said. "Just being able to make it out and be on this route that I’m on, I don’t take it lightly, I don’t take it for granted. I know my city is supporting me, so it’ll be a blessing, just to be mentioned at the top is a blessing.”