LOUISE SWOPE WAS GETTING NERVOUS. IT HAD BEEN MORE THAN A MINUTE SINCE HER SON Ryan had fallen to the turf in the middle of Kyle Field, the result of being hit head-on by Oklahoma State safety Markelle Martin after snagging a 25-yard reception last September. "You could hear the hit," recalls Louise. Finally, with the help of the Texas A&M training staff, the 6-foot, 206-pound Swope sat up and eventually jogged gingerly to the sideline.
Getting his bones rattled is just one of the hazards of Swope's job as A&M's slot receiver. "I don't know if I enjoy going across the middle, but it's one of those things—you've got to take one for the team," says Swope, a senior who last year broke the school's single-season records for reception yards (1,207) and catches (89) and also holds the career reception mark (180).
Growing up in Austin with two sisters and a brother (Louie, who's now a redshirt sophomore defensive back for the Aggies), Swope was the kid who was always wearing a basketball or football jersey. "Literally I could barely get it off of him to get it washed before he'd have it back on," laments Louise. One of the shirts he loved most was a replica of the one worn by Ricky Williams, 1998 Heisman Trophy winner for Texas, alma mater of Ryan's dad, Paul.
Ryan's local Pop Warner team practiced and played on the Westlake High home field. "Both of my boys could not wait to put on a Westlake football uniform," says Paul. Once Ryan did get on the field for the Chaparrals, that pent-up eagerness translated to stardom. As a sophomore he played running back and defensive back; then, as a junior playing strictly on offense, he had 1,875 total yards and 21 touchdowns. In Swope's senior season, Westlake opened an uncharacteristic 0--3, but in the first district game, he scored all five of the Chaparrals' touchdowns to give his team its first win. Two months later, he prolonged their playoff run by returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the regional semifinal. "He just took the team on his shoulders," says retired Westlake coach Derek Long. Swope had 1,826 yards rushing and 443 yards receiving as a senior and ended his high school career having scored 200 points.
Swope seemed destined, if only by paternal bond, for his dad's alma mater. That was before he went to a game at Kyle Field. "That's what got me hooked," he says. His choice converted the allegiances of Paul and Louise (a Texas Tech alum). Now "they don't have any problem with throwing on maroon gear," says Ryan.
At A&M he slowly made the transition into being a receiver. After grabbing 19 passes as a freshman, he broke out as a sophomore, setting the record for single-season receptions (72). He's now the leader of a receiving corps learning a new offense and breaking in a new quarterback. "He's fearless, and you can see these young quarterbacks—when they need a play, they're looking to him," says coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. "I don't think people understand how fast he is, his flat-out speed once he catches the ball. And he just has a feel for finding space and getting open."
And Ryan is not one to shy away from his go-to routes. "You're one of the smaller guys out on the field and you have to go across the middle against 240-pound linebackers," says Swope. "It's part of the game, though. It's a physical game. That's why I play it."