Black (and Gold) Swannby Chad Bishop
Freshman quarterback AJ Swann molded by family, football and No. 5
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – His older sister, Taylor Brassard, makes sure everyone knows the story. If it wasn’t for her, after all, little brother AJ Swann might never have become a Vanderbilt Commodore in the first place.
Brassard needed to pick up her wedding dress one weekend in Nashville. That weekend just happened to include a Vanderbilt football game against Connecticut. Swann, who was being recruited by Vandy at the time, was convinced to tag along.
“I texted coach (Joey) Lynch to see if I could come up there on a visit and check it out,” Swann said. “(Vanderbilt) won the game and I loved the atmosphere and the locker room after. I trusted coach (Clark) Lea and trusted coach Lynch and just fell in love with what they were saying.
“But (Brassard) reminds me of it all the time. Every time I do an interview or something, she reminds me I need to say her name, I need to bring that up.”
One year later, Swann is preparing to make his fourth collegiate start and play in his sixth game for the Commodores. Moments like the aforementioned anecdote with his older sister have shaped who he is today, as has the game of football and a heartbreaking loss of a dear friend which is constantly at the forefront of his mind.
The Georgia native returns to his home state at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday to face No. 1 Georgia. He’ll take the field inside a venue about 80 miles from where he spent his childhood, looking to score the biggest victory of his young career.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true. I always wanted to play in Sanford Stadium,” Swann said this week. “Obviously, growing up I wished it would be for them, but now I wish to be no place else other than Vanderbilt, and I’m glad I get to go there and showcase my talents on that field along with these guys and nobody else.”
From what Swann has been told, his football career started by happenstance.
During a youth baseball game, a family friend and coach of an opposing team spotted Swann and suggested to Swann’s father that he encourage his athletic son to try playing football as a quarterback. Wearing No. 63, Swann said, his first-ever snap resulted in a safety.
The results have been much better ever since for the 6-foot-3, 225-pound signal caller.
The strong-armed right-hander gave up travel baseball ahead of his 13th birthday to focus on his football career. He had an inkling he had made the right decision when he was picked to play on the Hustle Inc. 7-on-7 team that included current Auburn quarterback Zach Calzada, current UNLV quarterback Harrison Bailey, former Tennessee and Washington State quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and current high-profile recruit Caleb Downs.
Swann received his first scholarship offer ahead of his junior season from Troy. A few games into his penultimate season the offers began to come more frequently. By the time he signed with Vanderbilt in December he had more than a dozen opportunities to play college football.
Swann had become one of the top quarterbacks in the country in the 2022 signing class. He threw for nearly 7,000 yards during his prep career at Cherokee County High School and was named an Under Armour All-American.
In January, Swann moved to Nashville and officially enrolled in Vanderbilt University.
“I planned on enrolling early wherever I went. I was trying to figure out everything before (my senior) year and then it finally came down to taking my first semester classes and second semester classes at the same time. That was big effort. That was a lot during the season, but very happy I did it now.
“The first two months (here) were definitely rough school-wise, trying to adjust to it and the time management. We had workouts every morning and meetings and then I was going to class. The work was huge. I struggled at the beginning. I was coming in here to the academic advisers every day. I’m definitely accustomed to it now.”
A Late Night Before a Trip North
It was a Wednesday, Swann recalls, that he received a text from Vanderbilt associate head coach Justin Lustig. Lustig and the offensive coaching staff wanted to meet with Swann.
But there was one issue, Swann said: He had class until 9 p.m. that night.
“I had an idea that if he wants me to come meet with him at 9:30 p.m., there’s something important going to happen. I had an idea going into the meeting what it was going to be about,” Swann said. “When he told me, I felt my heart rate speed up. ‘It’s finally happening. I’ve been waiting for this moment.’ I was really excited for it going into the game.”
Swann had been told he would start at quarterback Sept. 17 at Northern Illinois. He called his parents immediately to tell them the news, waking up his mother in the process.
A 255-yard, four-touchdown performance highlighted Swann’s debut as Vandy’s starting quarterback. More importantly, he led the Commodores (3-3, 0-2 SEC) to a come-from-behind victory on the road.
Swann is now 69-for-110 (62.7 percent) passing for 848 yards and eight touchdowns. He has yet to throw an interception, and his 848 yards is already the sixth most by a freshman in Vanderbilt football history.
Still looking for his first triumph over an SEC foe, Swann said his immediate focus moving forward is an understanding that he has to raise his game as he and the Commodores continue to face dominant defenses. But he has made a believer of his teammates thus far.
“We just have to understand that he’s young, but it’s going to grow into something really well,” Vandy running back Ray Davis said. “This Commodore Nation should be really excited because he’s going to be the face of this program and he’s going to take us places.”
Playing for No. 5
On Dec. 22, Robbie Roper died. He was one of Swann’s best friends.
“Me and Robbie grew up together. We met each other when we were 5,” Swann said. “Just played together, played sports together, went to school together for a little bit in middle school. All the way through high school we had known each other. Just really good friends, and competitors, too.
“We had a great relationship. Then, obviously, last December was really hard on me and my family.”
Roper, 18, had shoulder surgery eight days before his death. His father revealed months later that Roper had urea cycle disorder, a rare genetic disorder.
The shock of Roper’s death shook Swann and, he said, everyone associated with the star quarterback wearing No. 5 who had led Roswell High School to a top 10 ranking in the state of Georgia. Roper threw for more than 3,000 yards as a senior and was being recruited by some college teams.
Three days before Roper’s death, Swann was contacting all the programs he was connected with in hopes of helping Roper find a college home.
Each time Swann now takes the playing field he paints the No. 5 on his right cheek to honor Roper. His social media channels feature the hashtag LL5 for Long Live No. 5.
Swann knows Roper would be thrilled to see his friend succeeding, just as Swann would have been for Roper.
“It’s because of the passion I have for him and the influence he left on me and my life,” Swann said of his game day tribute to Roper. “Me and him had a great career together and against each other. He pushed me every day to become a better player and person.
“I think he’d be proud of me, and I think he’d still want to compete and also be the starter at wherever he would have ended up.”
Family and the Future
It’s not difficult for Swann to stay grounded. He said he has his older sisters, Taylor and Morgan, to thank for that.
Swann’s father works in landscaping and his mother in insurance. He said the sudden death of Robbie Roper has brought them all that much closer together and that he returns home as much as possible to be with them.
At last Saturday’s loss to No. 9 Ole Miss at FirstBank Stadium, Swann estimated he had nearly 25 friends and family in attendance. This Saturday there will undoubtedly be hundreds more in attendance at Sanford Stadium who watched the young Swann well before he began wearing the black and gold.
Those are colors he plans to wear for a long time while leading the Commodores to new heights.
“I think as Vanderbilt football goes, I go. We’re all one big team,” Swann said. “I don’t think it has to do with one individual player. We can be competitive already and we’re only in the second year of building a new dynasty. I think that helps us build confidence, and that’s just going to continue to grow throughout the years.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.