MEDIAPOLIS — Brennan Swafford has always been an independent thinker, always wanting to zig when everyone else was zagging.
While his three older brothers all pursued wrestling after graduating from Mediapolis High School, the youngest Swafford is headed to Graceland University to play football.
While many of his teammates on the Mediapolis wrestling team were busy racking up points with takedown after takedown, Swafford preferred to pin his opponent and get off the mat as fast as possible.
And since Swafford enjoys playing video games and is a very talented artist, he figured he might as well combine the two and pursue a degree in graphic design.
So yes, Swafford is an independent thinker. But no one can argue with the success it has brought him, whether on the football field, on the wrestling mat, on the track or, where it matters most, in the classroom.
All of which earned Swafford the distinction of being The Hawk Eye's Senior Male Athlete of the Year.
"I wouldn't change anything that I did. It was a really good experience. It would be awesome if everybody could experience something like that, like winning a state title as a freshman in wrestling. It's experiences like that that some people don't get to experience. I feel like I am lucky for that," Swafford said.
"Brennan was never a guy who would be over on the sideline warming up for a match and be jumping around, slapping himself, trying to get amped-up like a lot of guys," said Mediapolis wrestling coach Jason Payne, himself a two-time state champion and an All-American at the University of Northern Iowa. "The process of going out and getting his hand raised was all the motivation he needed. He's not one to be pacing around and jumping up and down. He was a dynamic wrestler. When he went out on the mat, he knew what he wanted to do and he went out and did it."
"It was a lot of fun coaching him," said Brian Borrison, who coached Swafford in football and track. "Two things really stand out about Brennan. First was his competitiveness, which was off the charts. He was so competitive that it led him to work so, so hard to succeed. Second was his perspective on things. He was pretty laid back. He never let the moment grow too big. He never psyched himself out, never got too tense. That allowed him to perform better and better."
Swafford, like his father, Mark, his uncles Brian and Kevin and his brothers Josh, Justin and Shea, hit the wrestling mat at an early age. In fact, the first time his father took him to wrestling practice, Brennan wasn't sure what was going on. He had watched Josh and Justin wrestle, but he just went with the flow. It didn't take long for him to catch on and get hooked on the sport.
"I started like when I was four years old. One day my dad was like, 'OK, we're going to wrestling practice.' I didn't even know what it was. I had never even been in the wrestling room before. Then I was just wrestling all of a sudden, like 'boom!' I remember watching wrestling, but I never had wrestled a match. It was like, 'OK, here we go. We're going.' I was like, 'OK.' I was hooked from there," Swafford said. "I caught on earlier because I was winning state titles as a little kid, like Super Pee Wee state. I won a bunch of state titles when I was a little kid. It picks up a little bit in high school. You have to start taking it really serious. Sometimes things just don't go your way in high school. You have to learn."
Swafford racked up some impressive numbers in his four years of wrestling for the Bulldogs. He placed at state all four years, finishing sixth as a freshman, fifth as a sophomore and was a state runner-up his final two seasons. He was a three-time conference champion and finished his career with a 188-22 record, including a school-record 126 pins.
His strength and athleticism surprised his opponents in the finals the last two years.
"It was a little intimidating going against him," said Zach Axmear of English Valleys, who beat Swafford, 7-4, in the Class 1A 152-pound state title match in 2017 and now wrestles for Iowa. "He was strong and very athletic. The next year I watched him in the finals on TV in the dorms and I was rooting for him. I wanted to see him do good and be successful. I have nothing but respect for him."
"I thought he was really well prepared. He had a game plan and he forced me to do stuff other than what I wanted to do," said Akron-Westfield's John Henrich, who rallied for an 8-7 win over Swafford in the Class 1A 160-pound championship match this year. "It's hard to be pushed. He definitely challenged me to adjust and make some tweaks in my style to be able to win."
As successful as Swafford was in his four seasons as an individual, his greatest accomplishment may have come his freshman year when he helped Mediapolis win the Class 2A state team title. That season, Swafford cut to 120 pounds, where he placed sixth. He was one of seven Bulldogs to bring home medals, joining Shea Swafford, Mason Buster, Cole and Luke Erickson, Ethan Timmerman and Steven Holloway in the Bulldogs' best lineup ever.
"We had a lot of pieces fall into place that year, and having Brennan and his brother place were two big pieces," said Hall of Fame coach Dan Cummings, who coached Swafford his freshman and sophomore years at Mediapolis. "We needed all the points we could get and he scored some big points for us. My best memory of him was from that same season when he had defending state champion Brock Rathbun on his back in the semifinals at state and the crowd was just going crazy. Brennan was always a very dangerous young man on the mat. He was big risk, big reward. He was one heck of a scrambler. He was much stronger than he looked."
For all the big moments Swafford had in sports, it was a talk with Borrison his freshman year that may have had the most profound impact on the path he chose. Coming off a disappointing freshman year in football and the big season in wrestling, Swafford was going to skip track and not play football the following year, preferring to stick to wrestling. That little pep talk turned Swafford's career — and life — in a whole different direction.
"I wasn't even supposed to (run track) my freshman year. I said, 'Nah, screw that. I'm just going to focus on wrestling.' Borrison talked to me and said, 'You need to do track.' I was like, 'Well, I'm not even doing football next year, so why would I care?' He was like, 'Here's the thing: if you do track, we'll get you some varsity snaps and we think you will develop.' I was like, 'All right, I'll do it,'" Swafford said. "I would probably be wrestling somewhere. I'm glad he talked to me because my confidence was down my freshman year because I didn't really play much. Borrison brought me up on that. Him and (Darren) Steffener saw my talent and said, 'Do track. You are athletic.'"
"He was discouraged after his freshman year of football and we told him, 'You are a good athlete. You are going to be successful,'" Borrison said. "He had the athletic ability and work ethic to be great. We told him he had a chance to make some great memories with his teammates in track and football. He just got better and better at those two sports every year."
Swafford had plenty of success on the track, qualifying for state in three events as a junior and four as a senior. He placed sixth in the 400 as a senior and helped the Bulldogs finish third in the sprint medley relay and seventh in the 4x400 relay.
But it was football which Swafford ultimately chose to pursue at the college level.
It was after a game against top-ranked Williamsburg his senior year that Swafford began to seriously consider playing college football. He earned first team all-state honors as a senior, racking up 33 1/2 tackles, 23 for loss, and 11 quarterback sacks. He also led the state, returning two fumbles for touchdowns. He also scored 16 rushing touchdowns, further solidifying his decision to continue playing football.
"Probably about halfway through this past football season. Before I wasn't really sure because I like all the sports. I was just going to see which one I had the most success in and which one I liked the most. I fell in love with the football thing. It's always been my favorite sport," Swafford said. "I like the team aspect of it. Not everything is on you. It's cool to be with a team. It's more fun. Wrestling can be kind of gritty. It's not for some people. It's for me, but I like football more. It's cool to be with a team and have fun with all your buddies."
"That was kind of a surprise to us. I think he can do great things at the collegiate level, but you have to really want to do that. It's a big commitment," Borrison said. "Defensively we decided to move him to defensive end this past year because he has such great athleticism and he's so explosive. He made a ton of athletic plays. He's got a lot of talent, that's for sure."
"He was a great teammate for multiple sports, tremendous worker, and always found ways to be successful," Graceland University head football coach Marc Kolb said. "When you watch him on film you see a determined young man who played multiple positions during his high school career. We think now that he will be focusing on football that he will be able to add weight during his college career. This year in recruiting we put a premium on multiple sport athletes who had shown leadership skills as a part of different teams. In addition, we wanted physically tough players who had played multiple positions in football. We found all of that with Brennan. He checked off all the boxes."