The young man lived a life filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
We heard the story over and over again. Anytime Purdue basketball played between the years of 2015 and 2017 we heard it. And that was fine, because it was a good story. It was the story of a young man who grew up in a difficult environment that included homeless shelters, moving back and forth between Utah and Indiana with a mother trying to do her best with six children and a father who had fallen victim to drug addiction. It was the story of a young man who loved dessert, cheesecake especially, who seemingly used food to comfort himself in these awful situations. Ultimately he reached 360 pounds before he even set foot in high school. But then, something changed.
Caleb Swanigan was just 13 years old when former Purdue football player Roosevelt Barnes, at the behest of Caleb’s older brother, took him under his wing, ultimately adopting him, and bringing him to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barnes understood what it took to excel both on the field and off and hoped to instill that drive in young Caleb. Unlike his adopted father though football was not the game for Swanigan. No, his game was basketball. Despite being 300+ pounds there was something to his game. Something that Barnes saw that he believed could change Swanigan’s life.
And so the work began. When you’re 6’2 and 360 pounds in the 8th grade you’re likely the biggest amongst your classmates in more ways than one. Hence the nickname, Biggie. For anyone out there who has tried to lose weight you know how hard it can be. It takes dedication to not just exercise but also eat right. The eating right is so important. And for someone who lived with food insecurity and an incomprehensible situation it can be extremely difficult. In a story posted to ESPN In January 2017 Swanigan himself pointed out the challenges of eating right:
“You think it’s something really small, but it just builds up,” he said. “One meal won’t kill you, but if it becomes three or four meals that are bad in a row, that’s when it starts to hurt your body.”
And so with the help of Harrison Barnes, Caleb ‘Biggie’ Swanigan began to get a little less, well, biggie. Swanigan worked his way into a high school basketball star and a highly sought after college recruit. After initialing committing to play for the Michigan State Spartans he flipped his commitment and chose to play for the Purdue Boilermakers. Swanigan would go on to be invited to the McDonald’s All-American game and be named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. Incredible achievements that would have seemed impossible to the Caleb Swanigan from just five years earlier.
At Purdue Swanigan was an immediate impact player. His greatest skill was probably his rebounding. No one wanted the ball after it came off that rim more than him and if you thought you wanted it you were going to have to go through him. He was a proficient scorer as well but nothing compared to the rebounding. In his very first college game he finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds. He would go on to have 40 double digit rebound games out of a total of 69 games played in college. He would grab 20 or more rebounds four times during his sophomore season. That sophomore season was even more special if we look at it by itself. Forget those 40 double digit rebound games I mentioned above. Instead, just look at his sophomore season and you realize he had 29 double digit rebound games that season out of just 35 games. That’s 6 times over an entire season that he didn’t have double digit rebounds. It’s unlike anything I’d ever seen or am likely to see again. He had a nose for the ball that was unparalleled. Rebounding at the collegiate level is all about effort. And for a guy who changed his entire body and his entire life effort was never in short supply.
Following this incredible season for Swanigan he was named a consensus All-American becoming the first Purdue player to do so in six seasons. The Purdue sports release on this achievement spells out just how incredible this sophomore season was:
Swanigan recorded one of the top statistical seasons in not only Purdue history, but NCAA history, en route to first-team honors. Swanigan averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 44.7 percent from 3-point range and 78.1 percent from the free throw line.
He is the only major-college player (and one of two players total) to record 600 points, 400 rebounds and 100 assists in a season (Towson’s Jerrelle Benimon in 2013-14). He joins legendary Tim Duncan of Wake Forest (1996-97 season) as the only players in the last 25 years to average at least 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in a season.
Swanigan is the only player in the last 31 years (since the 1985-86 season) with at least 640 points, 430 rebounds and 100 assists.
His 28 double-doubles are the most for a player in Big Ten history and 13th most for a player in NCAA history, leading the country in that category. He set Purdue’s single-season rebounds record by almost 100 rebounds (436; Joe Barry Carroll is second with 352) and recorded 10 more double-doubles than any player in Purdue history.
Following this season he did the smart thing and declared for the NBA Draft. He was selected in the first round, 26th overall, by the Portland Trailblazers. He had done the unthinkable. The young man who weighed in at nearly 400 pounds had transformed his body and his mind and became a first round NBA Draft pick. It’s a fairytale. It’s something that you almost wouldn’t believe if you hadn’t seen it happen with your own eyes. Something that truly seemed too good to be true. I suppose now we know that in a way it was.
You and I weren’t there when it happened. We don’t know what led Caleb Swanigan down the dark path that he had seemingly escaped from. I won’t try to speculate but instead will only say that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. Swanigan seemed to thrive under the structure provided by Roosevelt Barnes, Purdue Basketball, and an NBA system. We first saw a change when the NBA Bubble happened. Despite the Trailblazers heading to the bubble Caleb Swanigan opted not to join them citing personal reasons.
From there you likely know the story. You heard about the arrest, you saw the mugshot that showed the tremendous weight gain and you wished it wasn’t true. Unfortunately though, it was all true. Caleb Swanigan, the young man who fought so hard and sacrificed so much in order to find stability away from a life of drugs and overeating had found himself in the position that many had long feared was his destiny. With a father who weighed over 500 pounds, who used drugs, and had diabetes there must have been a dark shadow plaguing him his whole life. For a number of years he had outrun it. He’d risen above the challenges of his upbringing to become what most of us could only dream of. He was an NBA player, he was an All-American, he had his jersey retired at a major university. Sadly, it wasn’t enough.
Addiction has been the scourge of this country for many years. It’s taken many lives far too young with no end in sight. Invariably when these things happen questions come up about why someone would do this to themselves, what hurt were they trying to forget, what pain were they trying to numb. It’s apparent that in Caleb Swanigan’s life there was much to try and forget, much pain to numb, and a family history to try and outrun. History has shown us that even the fastest runners lose a step and even the best amongst us can struggle.
For Caleb Swanigan the race is over. News broke early this morning that he had passed away at age 25. Details are still emerging but initial reports show a death of natural causes. It’s tragic no matter the cause. His teammates from his time at Purdue began tweeting about it this morning. The young man who overcame so much and put it all out on the floor each and every night was gone.
Caleb Swanigan’s life was a great story with so many highs. Following his arrest I had hoped for Swanigan to do what he did best, to rebound once more. To see the next move and go up and grab it. That wasn’t to be. Now, the life that had all the hallmarks of an uplifting tale ends not with cheers but with tears.