Gary Swanson didn't get a chance to shine until his senior year, but his tenacity produced one of the best seasons in school history

In more ways than one, Gary Swanson was difficult to see coming.

A linebacker for Forest Grove High School in the late 1970s, Swanson rode an unusual stance and a fervent work ethic to rise from relative obscurity to senior-year stardom for the Vikings in 1978.

For his accomplishments, Swanson will be inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame this fall. The six-member class will be honored in a ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 28 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

“When I look at this and the award and the honor ... what I think about more than anything else, is how blessed to have a coach like coach (Jeff) Durham and to be in a situation where I had so much support,” said Swanson, also noting the roles former coach Jeff Basinski and Durham’s son, Brad, a teammate on defense, played in his inclusion in the hall.

Growing up in the greater Forest Grove area, Swanson played a number of sports, including track, basketball and tennis. Football, though, was what was truly in his heart.

In junior high, Swanson played quarterback and some defense. But he was not the top quarterback among his peers, so he forsook offense for defense going into high school. Back then, ninth grade was still in junior high, so for Swanson and a number of classmates, the goal was to make the varsity squad in their first year at the high school, as sophomores.

At least for young Swanson, that did not happen, but the setback would reap major dividends down the road.

“That was still, to date, probably one of the biggest disappointments in my life, was (that) I failed to make that team,” said Swanson, who now lives in Aurora with his wife, Amy. “When I failed to make that team, I swore that there would never be an opportunity for me to fail like that again, so it really lit a fire under my ass to get myself prepared and get into a position where I could compete as I needed to the next couple years.”

That failure fueled in him an unceasing work ethic. Swanson prepared hour upon hour and not just during football seasons. As he matured into a 6-foot-1 frame, he lifted weights — a relatively unusual practice at the time — in the offseason. He ran, and did speedwork and conditioning, meeting up some of his teammates to run routes and sprints.

However, Swanson still had to bide his time as a junior. For the most part that season, he played on special teams, playing defense only sparingly. So few likely had Swanson on their radar for his senior year, when his door of opportunity finally opened. And Swanson did not just walk through it — he blew it off of its hinges.

“It was quite the transformation,” Brad Durham recalled, “from somebody that just didn’t get to play much, to out of the blue like, ‘Where does he come from?’”

As a middle linebacker, teammate Geoff Faris recollected, Swanson “would not stop. He was just relentless, really.”

Swanson credits his play in part to the “killer instinct” he said he did not develop until his junior year.

“Having failed to make the varsity team that 10th-grade season made that chip (on my shoulder) even bigger, and so I played pretty damn mean,” he said.

Not only was he mean — a perfect attitude for a linebacker — but he also was, as he described it, cerebral. A lesson Swanson learned early, he said, was the value of studying the game, so he spent considerable time watching film and thinking about plays and formations. And then there was that stance. Recognizing that dodging would-be blockers was more effective than hitting them, Swanson would squat as low to the ground as he could before snaps.

His unorthodoxy worked.

“He would not let the blockers get to his body,” Faris recalled. “He was able to outmaneuver and ... just keep them off his body, so he could bounce off and fill the hole.

“He would come up and just anticipate where that ballcarrier was coming and just fill that hole. He had kind of an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time.”

Swanson was a driving force and a leader on that 1978 squad. He guided the Vikings to the Coast Valley League championship and an undefeated 9-0 regular-season record. Forest Grove then won first-round and quarterfinal Class AAA state playoff games before falling 35-14 to Roseburg in the semifinals.

No Forest Grove football team has gone as deep in the playoffs since.

For his outstanding play, Swanson reaped in awards, including first team all-league, all-Metro Area and all-state honors. He was named the Metro Area and state defensive player of the year by The Oregonian and played on the winning North team in the 1979 Oregon Shrine Game, now known as the Les Schwab Bowl.

Playing under the legendary Ad Rutschman and a young Mike Riley, Swanson had to wait for his chance to shine at Linfield College, just as he had at Forest Grove.

But he went out with a bang as a senior in 1982, when the Wildcats went a perfect 12-0 and knocked off William Jewell (Mo.) 33-15 in McMinnville to claim the NAIA Division II national championship. That fall, Swanson set a single-season school record for total tackles (119) that still stands.

In 2002, he was inducted into the Linfield Athletics Hall of Fame as a member of that title-winning team.

After graduating with degrees in history and business, Swanson worked in technology and medical distribution sales before opening his own business, Enchanted Gardens Landscape Services, about 12 years ago. His son, Mac, and daughter, Riley, are both in college.

Though Swanson had just one season of brilliance at Forest Grove, he left a much longer lasting impression. While Jeff Durham battled Alzheimer’s disease before his death in 2008, Swanson was one of the players he remembered.

“God, that Gary Swanson, he was just so amazing,” Brad Durham recalled his dad saying. “I wish everybody practiced like him and worked that hard.”

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