In one of its best football seasons, TCU has lost one of its football legends.
Jim Swink, who as a swift, lanky East Texas teen-ager helped the Horned Frogs win the Southwest Conference championship in 1955, died Wednesday at his home in Rusk. He was 78.
Because of his swerving, evasive running style, Dr. Swink was known as “The Rusk Rambler.”
Despite being an All-American running back as a junior and senior and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1955, he opted out of an NFL career. His 8.2 yards-per-carry average in 1955 led the nation and is still the school record. His 2,618 career yards rank ninth on the school list.
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“He was a guy basically, with Davey O’Brien and Sammy Baugh, that put TCU on the map,” said current Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, whose team could win a share of the Big 12 championship Saturday. “The thing about Jim Swink and others that have been in our past is they are our past, they are our history, and you have to be proud of it.”
Dr. Swink was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2000. He won the Doak Walker Legends Award in 2005.
“He was one of the five best players in TCU history and should have won the Heisman,” said Dan Jenkins, a TCU alum, football historian and writer when Swink won the Walker award.
But he opted out of the NFL and went to medical school. He was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served in Vietnam as a medic, returning in 1968 as a captain with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
He was an orthopedic surgeon for 35 years in Fort Worth, practicing mainly at Huguley Memorial Medical Center. In 2006 after a stroke, he returned to Rusk, where he grew up, and continued to practice.
Dr. Swink told the Star-Telegram he did not expect to win the Walker Award.
“Some people have said I’ve always been a legend in my own mind,” he said. “This is a surprise. I thought my days of getting awards had come and gone.”
Dr. Swink led the nation in rushing in 1955 with 1,283 yards on just 157 carries, and he scored 18 touchdowns as the Horned Frogs went 9-2 and finished with a No. 5 national ranking.
Over five seasons starting in 1955, TCU won or shared three Southwest Conference titles, played in three Cotton Bowls and one Bluebonnet Bowl, and posted three top-10 finishes. Its record included a victory against Syracuse and Jim Brown in 1957 as Dr. Swink, recruited by Abe Martin, helped usher in one of the most successful eras in Horned Frogs history.
“Much of what we accomplished didn’t seem such a big deal at the time,” Swink told the Star-Telegram in 2000 before his induction into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. “It was just a part of the overall experience of getting a college education. It was also a more innocent time, and we were mostly kids from small towns who hadn’t seen much of the world. It was also the one-platoon era, where you could build a competitive program with a lot fewer people than it takes today.”
His wife, Jeannie Swink, said her husband was proud of one accomplishment more than others.
“He was most proud of being an Academic All-American,” she told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “He was proud of all of his accomplishments, but he was especially proud of that.”
It makes sense that academic determination kept Swink from pursuing an NFL career. Rather than put his time into becoming a pro player, the pre-med student stuck with his med-school studies and residency.
“The Bears drafted me, and it was tempting,” he told the Star-Telegram. “George Halas used to call me up and talk for an hour. He’d say, ‘I need someone up here who doesn’t fumble the ball.’ But I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule.’
He did try pro football for a year, signing with the Dallas Texans in 1960. But it only confirmed what he feared.
“I just couldn’t do it full time,” he said. “I probably would have played longer if it were possible, but it just wouldn’t work.”
Born March 14, 1936, in Sacul, he moved to Rusk at age 13 to live with Obie and Grace Walker after his mother became ill with tuberculosis. He was a standout athlete in high school and chose TCU in part because the school would let him play both football and basketball.
He never lost his allegiance to TCU football, although his health prevented him from traveling to recent games.
“He religiously followed them,” Jeannie Swink said. “He watched the Rose Bowl on television. His chair was right in front of the television, and Jim was always someone who didn’t set in one place for very long. But when TCU was playing, especially if they were playing good, he didn’t move.”
Dr. Swink certainly would have been watching on Saturday, when the Horned Frogs take on Iowa State with a chance to share a Big 12 title and reach the first College Football Playoff. TCU is ranked third, and the top four teams qualify.
“All those people, they all become friends,” Patterson said. “Everybody’s invested, whether they’re close to you here or far. They’re invested. His family, like anybody else, they’ve been very excited about everything that’s been going on here.”
This report includes material from the Tyler Morning Telegraph.