IMAGINE THE pressure that comes with a PIAA state championship football game. Any misstep, fumble, interception, booted ball or botched snap can change the outcome and deny immortality.
With that as the backdrop, coaches tend to get really conservative, distilling the playbook so that only the uber-trustworthy handle the ball.
Now, imagine giving the rock to a 14-year-old freshman.
If his name is D'Andre Swift, you would be in good hands. Not only did the St. Joseph's Prep running back lead the team in rushing in Sunday's Class AAAA title win, he also took tops in the season opener. Not a bad bookend.
"I still just can't believe it," Swift said last night. "Just to be a state champion as a freshman and to send the seniors off like that feels good."
Swift finished with 68 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. A 61-yard, 12-tote performance in Week 1 against Dallas Jesuit in Texas let him know he belonged.
"When I first got here," Swift said, "I didn't think I could play on the varsity level."
He said those early doubts were forgotten after his first touch in August went for big yardage. Swift still gets nervous before every game, but said that initial carry is always the best medicine.
In the 35-10 clincher against Pittsburgh Central Catholic, one fourth-quarter run, on the state's biggest stage, showed why he belonged.
A John Reid 5-yard sack on fourth down gave Prep the ball at its own 43 with less than 8 minutes remaining.
Swift took a draw and burst through scrimmage with a linebacker bearing down . . .
"I know exactly what play you're talking about," he said. "When the hole opened I saw him coming so I kind of leaned to the right and cut left. I knew he wouldn't be able to get me because I saw him out of the corner of my eye."
The sharp change of direction buckled the defender, who was left seated on his wallet. Swift was eventually caught after an 11-yard gain.
No matter, three plays later the 5-7, 176-pounder ran for a 35 touchdown to help the Hawks gain their first AAAA football title.
For the season, Swift finished with 635 yards on 113 carries (5.6 per) plus another 424 on 33 catches (12.8 per). Six times in 15 games he led the team in rushing. Add nine TDs (four rushing, five receiving) and you have one reliable youngster.
"Just for the coaches to trust me with everything is a great feeling," Swift said.
Maybe it was just reciprocated faith after his parents Darren and Ayanna sent D'Andre, somewhat against his wishes, to the Prep after meeting with head coach Gabe Infante and assistant coach Keita Crespina.
"I didn't want to go," Swift said. "I wanted to go to La Salle."
The Northeast native said he was more accustomed to the Explorers after going to most of their games and shadowing at the school. He knew very little about the Prep.
"I'm so glad we made that decision now," Swift said. "I just think it was a better fit all around."
It wasn't a slap at the Explorers, but a respectful nod to mom and dad, who apparently knew best.