Walker Valley's Skyler Swafford wears a concussion helmet during the game against Cleveland Thursday, October 1, 2015 at Cleveland High School. (Photo: Angela Lewis Foster - Times Free Press.)
The regular season had ended and it could've been time for Skyler Swafford to surrender his No. 40 jersey for the last time.
Although Walker Valley was in the playoffs after a two-year absence, Swafford sacrificed No. 40, a number he'd worn since the seventh grade, for the good of the Mustangs, and donned No. 60, a number allowed for a middle linebacker but accepted also for an offensive lineman.
The previous Friday, in the regular-season finale against Ooltewah, the Mustangs lost Chris Allen Ogle, the rock and lone senior on their offensive line, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a knee. They had other linemen sidelined by concussions.
Coaches debated a possible replacement when Swafford, Walker Valley's single-season and all-time leading tackler, approached head coach Glen Ryan.
A 4.0 student with designs on an aeronautical engineering career and in his second year of accumulating college credits through dual enrollment, Swafford was smart enough to analyze his coaches' dilemma. He offered another possible solution.
"I told Coach Ryan I would play there if he needed me," said the four-sport and most decorated letter-winner in Walker Valley history.
"He knew the situation. His dad (Eric) is one of our coaches. He said, 'Coach, I can do it,'" Ryan confirmed. "As a staff, we said, 'There you go.' He's not only a good football player but he's very intelligent. We knew that if anybody could pick it up, he could. He's a warrior and will give us everything he had, and that's all you can ask."
The 6-foot, 205-pound Swafford, whose career had zeroed in at middle linebacker, continued on defense but also stepped into the starting offensive line in a 35-27 victory at Oak Ridge, the first postseason win ever for a Walker Valley football team.
"He gave it all he had, and we also had others step up in the Oak Ridge game. When that happens, you can sit back and really take pride in your guys," Ryan said. "Skyler did a good job for us. His performance as an offensive lineman wasn't standout, but it was without question very efficient."
It took Swafford a little longer to get out of bed Saturday morning, and it was more than the ride home following the defeat of the Region 3-5A champion and top seed in the Mustangs' playoff quadrant. There were extra bumps and bruises, although they weren't as debilitating as Swafford had anticipated.
"It wasn't necessarily more tired as I was banged up. They took me off most of the special teams for that game, but there were a lot more bruises," he recalled.
He also learned a lot about offense, stepping into the line after just four days of prep work.
"I've always played linebacker and it's a lot of fun hitting people. For me personally, offensive line isn't as much fun, but I do what they need me to do," Swafford said. "The coaches said I did all right, so I'll take their word for it. We won and I guess that's what matters."
The experience, which likely will continue tonight at Ooltewah, has given Swafford a new perspective.
"I definitely have a lot more respect for the O-line," he said. "For me it was going against guys that are bigger and stronger plus remembering the plans and my assignments and trying to read what the defensive line is doing. It takes a while to get used to it. It's harder than it looks, that's for sure."
But he, sporting No. 60 rather than No. 40, and his teammates surmounted an unenviable task, survived and advanced, securing a hallmark steppingstone for the school's football program.
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Skyler Swafford (40) plays linebacker for Walker Valley. (Photo: Robin Rudd -Times Free Press)