KINGSPORT --- Ultimately, if not almost instantly, the battles became must-see entertainment.
When Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford began to solicit help to wage their one-on-one skills battles on the turf at powerhouse Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School, they quickly found plenty of interested viewers.
"Yeah, it's fun stuff to watch. It really is," said Indians assistant coach Michael Holt. "You talk about guys wanting to play with their best friends and these guys really are best friends, but the competitiveness when these guys go out there is a college-level competitiveness. You want to watch kids get jammed off the football and put hands on people and jam them off the football, it's these two."
Foreman doesn't say who's won the most of these competitions. Swafford is equally coy, though he recalls a 10-rep battle in which the loser was forced to do the driving the next time. And Swafford enjoyed the view from the passenger's seat when the battles concluded.
"We do those one-on-ones, and we're battling. It's about even right now," Swafford said. "We did like best 7 out of 10, and I was like on this last one, whoever wins, the other one has to drive. He did a stop-and-go, and I swatted it down. And I was just like, 'Yeah, you're driving.'"
Added Foreman, "We go at it down on the field. We get our quarterback Chris to throw some routes and we just want to compete. It helps a lot. Last summer, we were doing the same thing and over the season when I was at wideout. My mindset was that no corner out here could stop me, and that was kind of the mindset I had every single time I went on the field."
These competitions have been commonplace for the two childhood friends, both of whom recently pledged to the University of Tennessee and first-year coach Butch Jones. Foreman will sign with the Vols next month on national signing day; Swafford might 'grayshirt' until the 2014 class, though he's working toward being a factor for Tennessee much sooner.
Either way, these two All-State standouts aren't doing anything less than push each other daily.
"If I'm not calling or texting him, he's calling me," Foreman said. "We push each other every day. We know somebody's always working."
They pushed the Indians back to familiar success the previous three seasons, with Swafford even garnering plenty of action his freshman campaign. This year, D-B won its first 12 games and reached the third round of the playoffs for the first time in several seasons, an important step, Holt said, for the program.
Foreman passed and ran and caught and tackled and turned over opponents. Swafford did much the same, minus the passing. Holt, a former assistant coach at Knoxville's Fulton High School where he helped coach former Vol Dennis Rogan, said the Foreman-Swafford duo long ago erased any doubts about their abilities to transition to the next level.
"It's not your typical high school work ethic. We see kids come in here all the time with good work ethic; it's expected here. There's a lot of expectations for this program. But their drive is to a different level," Holt said. "They hold themselves to those standards. They don't need that motivation, and the consistency of it is always there. I've never seen where they've taken a play off, much less a day off.
"I know both these guys can play at the next level. I've been coaching eight, nine years and I would be willing to put everything I've got on it. They can play with anybody. With Malik, it's speed like you don't see. And with Devaun, it's not taking anything away from either one, but he's the moves. Devaun's got the crazy moves. Just stuff like where you're like, 'Really?'"
Now as Foreman and Swafford prepare for the next phase of their careers, not to mention their upcoming senior seasons of track, they are pushing and pulling each other to improve. It has been that way since they first longed to beat each other in youth football and grew then when they became teammates in middle school at John Sevier, where Foreman threw Swafford passes after first passing basketballs to each other on an AAU squad.
The 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Foreman first began to dream college thoughts barely a month into his junior year of high school. Game-breaking moments against an arch-nemesis can do that for a player. Especially when Foreman's feat was a fourth-and-goal touchdown against Sullivan South. It came after the Indians' offense had backtracked past the 20-yard line.
"I think it was Week 4, and it was like fourth-and-26 on our first drive. We needed to get the first down, and we ended up throwing a streak to me. I went up over this dude and caught it and everybody went crazy," Foreman said. "That's when I think I realized I can do this."
Thrown into the hottest of Tennessee football fires with a freshman debut against Maryville in the playoffs, the 5-11, 180-pound Swafford who can bench press some 315 pounds and works out with nearly 350 pounds on his squat reps recalls his first varsity touchdown the ensuing season in the opener against Farragut as when he started to uncork his college football dreams.
"Probably my sophomore year. I came from freshman, and on freshman I had one game, kind of threw me into first round of playoffs versus Maryville. They threw me into that game, and I was a freshman and just did a little bit," said Swafford, underselling his nearly 80 rushing yards against the Rebels in that playoff tilt. "Sophomore year I came in and I helped the team. So I just kept working and working. It was probably my sophomore year, first game, first touchdown run, I think I broke maybe five tackles and scored against Farragut in my first game. I just kept moving forward after that."
Eventually, their forward movement carried them to Knoxville in mid-December for an unofficial visit to Tennessee. Running backs coach Jay Graham long had been intrigued; new coach Butch Jones quickly showed an interest.
Both players left Knoxville captivated by Jones' essence.
"He stressed a family atmosphere and said he was going to change the culture at UT," Foreman said of Jones. "I don't know; I just believe him. He just had some spark that you see in a coach that you like."
Swafford picked up on the personality traits that have formed Jones' reputation as a players' coach.
"His personality, the way he welcomed us and respected us. It made me feel very good," Swafford said. "I love players' coach like that. They're willing to do whatever for their players as long as their players are giving it their all."
Foreman and Swafford are ever giving it their all. Christmas-break workouts on the freezing field in blustery conditions. An increased load on the D-B track squad in the coming season. The understanding that much more will be demanded at the college level.
"There's so many people in this country, and somebody's working while you're sleeping and somebody's sleeping while you're working," Foreman said. "You've got to make sure you're taking advantage of every opportunity, because somebody might be taking your scholarship or spot or whatever. That's kind of my mindset whenever I'm working out."
Said Swafford, "I'm in either the gym or on the field every day, doing something just to get ahead because I know there's other people out there doing the same thing so I've got to stay on top of it. That opportunity, man, that's on my mind all the time, really. Once I saw I could get the opportunity, I just knew in my mind I had to make the most of it. So every time I work out I think about it. That's what really pushes me, to be honest."
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