By Dr. Ken 


On the eve of the start of the Presidential Candidate Debates of 2016, current events that have highlighted the cultural, political, and social turmoil of our times have no doubt stimulated wistful thoughts of a simpler and more genteel era for those who enjoyed their adolescence during the 1950s and ‘60s. My teen years came in the late ‘50s to mid-1960s and few would call the last half of the Sixties “simpler and more genteel” as anti-war protests, civil rights unrest, and social, political, and cultural upheaval highlighted what seemed to be every day’s news. Yet the “psychological environment” produced by the game of football seemed to have a calming if not stabilizing effect on much of the nation, in part reflecting the relative innocence of the1950s. By the end of the Sixties, football itself would be a bit of a battleground with some college campuses hosting heated debates about the sport’s perceived brutality, relevance, war-like analogies, and “dehumanization.” Without meaning to sound insensitive, and expressing opinions that are solely those of this author and not necessarily reflective of HELMET HUT or other staff members, recalling and re-reading numerous accounts of college campus and football related protests and their underlying reasoning and specific complaints make one think, or at least make me think, “What a waste!” To know that careers were ruined and choices were made to forfeit scholarship money and the loss of being able to play a game every involved athlete no doubt loved because they believed that their “personal freedom was violated” when asked to insure that their hair did not protrude beyond the bottom of their helmet, or that their “civil rights were violated and cultural traditions disrespected” because the team rule forbade facial hair seems short-sighted from the perspective of one of my age. I can recall that even in the late 1960s, feeling as if there were many aspects of athletics and “just life” that were forever altered from the dominant tenure of the previous decade.


If ever a reminder of “all that was right” about 1950s football was needed, Jim Swink is the embodiment of that construct. He grew up in Sacul, Texas, the son of a logger and his wife who both fell to illness when Jim was thirteen years of age. He moved in with a couple in the nearby East Texas town of Rusk where his athletic abilities became apparent. He was an All State football player and All District in both football and basketball. He was chosen for the Texas High School All-Star Basketball Team his senior year and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.


Swink vs  Jim Brown in the January 1, 1957 Cotton Bowl. It isn’t often that two great College Football Hall of Fame members get to face off


He entered Texas Christian University in part because of a relationship he developed with head football coach Abe Martin, a folksy, country gentleman with whom Swink felt very comfortable. The lean 6’1”, 185 pound back had obvious speed but ran with deceptive power that was obvious in his 1954 sophomore season when TCU made the decision to play a sophomore laden team and finished at 4-6. Martin parlayed the experience gained by those youngsters into a 9-1 regular season finish in 1955, a close and heartbreaking 14-13 loss to Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl, and a number five end-of-season ranking. There were a number of excellent players on the squad including future New York Giants back-up quarterback and Texas high school coaching great Charles “Chuck” Curtis but it was Swink that was the team’s engine. On but 157 carries the “Rusk Rambler” rushed for 1,283 yards, an impressive 8.2 yards per carry, and scored twenty touchdowns while contributing to the Frogs overall total offense that was ranked second in the nation. He was a Consensus All American and second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Ohio State’s Howard Cassady. In a big game against Texas, Swink ran for 235 yards and four touchdowns, one of which became legendary in Lone Star State football lore. On his sixty-two yard jaunt he swept left, cut right, went back to the left, stopped short as two Texas defenders literally overran him, and completely befuddled the defense. Teammate Vernon Uecker stated, “Don Cooper and I were supposed to be blocking but Jim ran by us so many times we finally just stayed on the ground and watched the show.”




1956 was similar to ’55 for both Swink and TCU as the All American led the Frogs to an 8-3 slate and a hard-fought 28-27 Cotton Bowl win over Jim Brown and Syracuse. Despite having every team key on him, he still led the Southwest Conference in rushing and completed his college career with 2,618 yards. Described as “an elusive, courageous runner with amazing balance and timing” Swink elevated the excitement level for every fan in the stadium. His head coach described him as “…just a little ol’ rubber-legged outfit nobody can tackle” and every opponent saw Swink as the difference maker when it was time to play the Frogs. An eventual member of the College Football and Texas Sports Halls Of Fame, winner of the Pricewaterhousecoopers Doak Walker Legends Award, and the 1956 recipient of the Swede Nelson Award for sportsmanship, Swink was most proud of being a NCAA Silver Anniversary honoree for combined achievements in athletics and professional life, and his membership into GTE’s Academic Hall Of Fame. It was the emphasis on scholarship that allowed him to ignore a professional football career after being drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bears and instead begin his medical school studies. Swink said “The Bears drafted me and it was tempting. 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.” While hard to believe, his schedule of medical school study followed by internship and a residency just did not leave time for football. While at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, he signed with the Dallas Texans inaugural 1960 American Football League team but after five games, made the decision to focus on his medical career, again citing an inability to make football a full-time endeavor. Swink said, “I just couldn’t do it full time. I probably would have played longer if it were possible.”




He established himself as a respected surgeon and to this point perhaps his story does not differ from many other outstanding scholar-athletes. Swink however, in keeping with the 1950’s dictum of trying to do “everything the right way” served a tour in Vietnam where he was known as “a hell of a Battalion Surgeon.” He always understated his military service and the medals won, just as his modesty and quiet demeanor would rarely allow him to mention his All American glory days at TCU unless it was first brought up by others. Serving as an Army medic, he eventually was in the field with the 1st Infantry and often ignored the fighting that raged around him while treating the wounded. He described his service as “just a matter of trying to make the best of a bad situation. We had a few medics, but I was the only doctor in the battalion…I made twenty-five helicopter flights and every one was bad. I finally got hit by shrapnel just trying to dodge bullets.” Dr. Swink neglected to mention in this specific interview but as reported by General Jim Shelton, a Major at the time, who witnessed the battle site, that there was a bit more to the explanation. Shelton noted, “After this battle I was to learn that he was the same Jim Swink who was an All American tailback at Texas Christian University in the early ‘50s when I was playing in college at Delaware. His picture had been on the cover of every football magazine in the country. He had gone to medical school after TCU and was serving his time in the Army when he was sent to Vietnam. He had gone immediately to treat the wounded that night and had been shot in the shoulder himself. He continued to treat the wounded, although when I had called to him he was bleeding from a wound of his own. He received a Silver Star for his cool actions that night, working with the wounded though wounded himself.”


James Swink, reluctant combat hero but a true hero

When his Army commitment was completed, Swink returned from Vietnam as a Captain, receiving the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star, Air Medal, the Combat Medic Badge, the Army Commendation, and the Vietnamese Crown of Gallantry. He entered civilian life and practiced orthopedics in Fort Worth. He returned to Rusk, Texas and in 2006, again had the opportunity to display his uncommon courage, humility, and devotion to service after suffering a stroke, yet continuing to treat his patients. James Perkins, a lifelong friend and Rusk High School teammate summed Swink up well, “Jim Swink is an American hero and a role model for our entire country, he’s proof that in America, the opportunities are unlimited if you are willing to work. His ability to continue working with the serious disabling handicaps is as much an inspiration as his All-American athletic accomplishments, Purple Heart and distinguished medical career.”  When he passed away on December 3, 2014, Swink’s wife stated the obvious and repeated what everyone said about her husband, “He was a darn good man.” Jim Swink was all that we no longer see often enough within the fabric of life and athletics in our nation. He didn’t believe that anything he accomplished was “a big deal” even describing his celebrated football career with the explanation “All that stuff was the work of ten guys out there on the field with me. I just happened to play a position where you got a lot of credit.” He battled back from his stroke to continue his practice in his former home town because his services were needed and he needed to serve. He said little or nothing about being an All American or the winner of multiple combat awards. Swink was a man of his time and most of all, everything a man should be.