Life of Biggie: From obesity and homeless shelters to the big time
For Caleb Swanigan, Purdue’s star power forward, it’s the cheesecake.
It’s always the cheesecake.
“I’m a dessert person,” he told ESPN.com. “I’m not a potato chip [eater]. I can say no to those easy, but desserts are really my thing.”
The sophomore knows one dessert could become two, then three, and over time, unhinge the weight roller coaster he rode to 360 pounds the summer before eighth grade.
Throughout his youth, he floated between unstable housing situations and homeless shelters, back and forth between Indianapolis and Utah, as his mother, Tanya, tried to stabilize her life with six children, all while his father, Carl Swanigan Sr., wrestled with a crack-cocaine addiction. Swanigan developed a complicated relationship with food as he was surrounded by the unhealthy options peddled to those who can’t afford to consider quality — sugary cereal, ice cream, pizza. Today, however, the projected All-American resists the demon that haunted him before he lost more than 100 pounds in high school.
“You think it’s something really small, but it just builds up,” he said. “One meal won’t kill you, but if it becomes three or four meals that are bad in a row, that’s when it starts to hurt your body.”
Things were different in Utah, where he spent a chunk of his childhood and ballooned in his youth. Then, he could not seek advice from Purdue’s strength and conditioning staff, which now designs the day-to-day meal guidelines he consults as he fights to maintain his sculpted, 6-foot-9, 245-pound frame and to avoid the obesity challenges his family endures.
Caleb’s father, who stood 6-foot-8, weighed nearly 500 pounds when he died three years ago, at the age of 50, of complications related to diabetes. Years of drug abuse had affected his health, too.
Before his death, Carl Swanigan Sr. played a minimal role in his son’s life. Caleb was only 16 years old when he lost his father, but his father’s weight challenges became the son’s, too. The Purdue standout visited his father in a Utah nursing home before his death in 2013.
As a child, Swanigan ate according to availability. He did not have an abundance of good choices.
“It is a lot more expensive to eat healthy than it is to eat unhealthy,” Swanigan said. “If you’re in a position to eat right, then you should eat right. Sometimes, financially, it just isn’t right.”
His father’s drug habit created a monsoon of instability. In 1995, a reporter at the Deseret News wrote that Carl Swanigan Sr. knew he “was dragging his family into poverty.” Swanigan recalls staying at five different homeless shelters throughout his youth. Before eighth grade, former Purdue football star Roosevelt Barnes, now a sports agent worth $14 million, according to Forbes.com, adopted a 13-year-old Swanigan and moved the young man to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Swanigan was living with a family friend in Utah when Barnes contacted him. He finally felt anchored to something. Prior to the move, Swanigan had endured a tumultuous education experience, as his mother tried to find a reliable living environment for her children.
“I went to four different middle schools alone, and probably nine elementary schools,” Swanigan said.
When asked how many times he remembers feeling secure about his living situation, Swanigan paused.
“When I moved in with Roosevelt,” he said.
The kid an aunt nicknamed “Biggie” — “She just started singing that ‘Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see?’ song,” says Swanigan’s brother, Carl Swanigan Jr. — transformed his body in high school and earned an invite to the McDonald’s All-American game in 2015 after winning Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award the same year.
He then committed to Michigan State before changing his mind — “I just felt like it was better basketball-wise for me,” he said — and signing with the Boilermakers. On Tuesday, Swanigan and the Boilermakers will make that trip to East Lansing (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), where Swanigan will face a Michigan State crowd sure to remember he was supposed to be playing for them.
At Purdue, the staff turned a soft body into a lean powerhouse, with four 20-point, 20-rebound performances in 2016-17. His new body spawned new dreams.
Perhaps a Big Ten title for Purdue. Possibly an All-American nod. Maybe the Wooden Award. Then … the NBA.
“I think he has a chance if he can improve his jump shot and help defense,” one NBA scout told ESPN.com. “Big-time rebounder, works hard on his own. He’s still more undersized center than power forward, though.”
All far-fetched ideas just six years ago.
He has come so far. He will not go back.
“We feel we can win a Big Ten championship,” he said. “We’re confident. We know it’s been a long time since Purdue has done it. Our biggest enemy is us.”
Hidden snacks and homelessness
Life in homeless shelters included daily rations of bologna sandwiches and soup, along with harrowing scenes a child should not see.
Sometimes, Swanigan would watch men and women shoot heroin in the corridors of the shelters. They’d turn and stare at the boy. He’d stare back, unable to decipher what they were doing but smart enough to know it wasn’t good.
“Yeah, I saw it,” Swanigan said. “All you had to do was walk out and you’d see it. It was just right in front of you. That was just regular, I guess. You just get used to it.”
Per Bleacher Report, the uncertainty of his life began when his mother accidentally dropped him while he was an infant. Swanigan’s mother was concerned with how Swanigan Sr. would react to the bruise on his son’s face, so she loaded the family onto a Greyhound bus bound for Utah.
Carl Swanigan Sr.’s bouts with the law started when he was a teenager. In 1983, an Indianapolis police officer shot him in the thigh when he allegedly tried to hit the officer with a tire iron after he and another man were caught stealing tires, according to the Indianapolis Recorder.
In 1995, he was charged and arrested for the murder of a man at a crack house in Salt Lake City. He spent five months in jail before a jury found him not guilty, citing a lack of physical evidence and questionable witness testimonies.
Carl Swanigan Sr. told the Deseret News that he “got in touch with God” while in jail and kicked his drug habit. That demon, however, returned and led to more havoc for his family in the coming years. Three of Swanigan’s siblings faced criminal charges in their 20s, and all of his brothers and sisters dropped out of high school.
“I really think it did affect him to the point where he knew our dad loved us,” Carl Swanigan Jr. said of the impact his father’s addiction had on his younger brother. “He was just sick. And when I say sick, I mean drugs.”
The same ailment fueled the rage of the man who sometimes spoke to Swanigan’s mother, Tanya, with his fists. When he was younger, Swanigan said he never felt responsible for intervening because he had older siblings. As he grew older, however, he accepted a role as her protector.
“You really don’t know how to process it,” Swanigan said. “You really don’t know how to react to it, because it’s just the first time it’s happening. I didn’t have anyone’s energy to feed off but my mom’s. The few times I maybe did catch glimpses, I really didn’t grasp what was going on until I got older.”
His mother, then jobless, first fled Indianapolis and moved with her six children to Salt Lake City 20 years ago in search of the elusive sense of stability that plagues America’s poor.
Throughout Swanigan’s childhood, the family would return to Indianapolis and then go back to Utah in a ping-pong cycle of relocation. The instability left Swanigan’s family in long stretches of limbo without reliable housing or food. Per the United States Department of Agriculture, 42.2 million people lived in “food-insecure” households in 2015. Swanigan’s family fell into that category. When his mother could not find a stable home, the family would seek beds in a shelter.
“There’s a humbleness about it that you can’t have unless you experience it,” Swanigan said.
His mother always tried to do right by Swanigan and his siblings. And he remains her protector, choosing to highlight the positive experiences of his youth and his mother’s efforts.
“My mom always kept a roof over my head,” he said.
Still, his limited food selection and a genetic disposition toward obesity merged as the boy’s body expanded when he approached his teenage years.
His admitted sweet tooth expedited the weight gain.
“Don’t let Biggie gas you up too much,” Carl Swanigan Jr. said. “Because Biggie would eat. That boy used to eat. You know the FatBoy ice cream sandwiches? He’d eat two of them.”
By the summer before eighth grade, he had entered a dangerous zone at 6-foot-2 and nearly 400 pounds. His father’s health complications toward the end of his life only heightened the fears about Biggie’s future.
Carl Swanigan Jr. knew something had to change for the young man who loved basketball.
“He had the moves, but he just couldn’t move,” he said.
Carl Jr. knew he had missed his chance. He had signed a letter of intent with Ole Miss in 2004 but never competed for the Rebels because he dropped out of high school prior to what would have been his freshman season in college. He enrolled in multiple prep schools as he tried to regain his eligibility to compete at the Division I level, but he got shot in the face by a friend in 2006, he said, an incident that cost Carl Jr. his right eye.
“I think that’s one of the things that stopped me,” he said.
He did not want his little brother to miss his chance, too.
After Swanigan’s mother decided to move from Utah to Texas, again in search of stability, Carl Swanigan Jr. called Roosevelt Barnes, his former AAU coach in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Biggie needed help, he told him.
“My mom was moving to Houston, and to me, I felt this was the best situation,” said Carl Swanigan Jr., who is 12 years older than the Purdue sophomore. “Biggie is spoiled. He’s the only kid that’s been with my mom for years. I knew he would gain more weight if he went to Houston. He just would have gotten bigger.”
Barnes, an influential sports agent who once called Ndamukong Suh a client and was a member of Purdue’s 1980 Final Four squad, agreed to bring Swanigan to Fort Wayne if he could raise him as a son and adopt the 13-year-old. Swanigan moved to live with a man he’d met only a few times as a kid hanging around his older brother. Swanigan told Barnes that he’d never spent more than a year at the same school because of all the moves. He wanted stability. Barnes could grant that wish.
But it did not take long for Barnes to recognize the difficulties ahead.
“The first day he was there, I told him to get up in the morning and eat breakfast,” Barnes said. “When I came downstairs, there was a big, giant box of Wheaties on the table. The whole box was gone, and the whole gallon of milk was gone. I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘You told me to eat.’ I said, ‘I didn’t mean the whole box.'”
Later, Barnes would find a stack of pizza boxes in a utility room he rarely checked.
“I remember that,” Swanigan said. “I just knew sometimes he’d look in the trash can and he would say something [if he found them].”
But Swanigan craved the structure Barnes offered. He just needed time to embrace the new responsibilities with a new guardian in a new home and a new lifestyle.
Barnes, whom Swanigan calls Dad, took him to a cardiologist to gauge his capacity to endure stressful workouts.
After doctors cleared Swanigan, Barnes took him to the gym and challenged him with workouts he used to evolve into a three-sport standout at Purdue (football, basketball and baseball) and a 10th-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 1982. Barnes said he knew Swanigan would rise because he engaged every drill. He never said no. Although the 360-pound teenager needed an extra minute or two to complete each drill, he had the attitude and intellect of a pro, Barnes said.
When they ran 17s — 17 sprints from sideline to sideline — he could see the youngster’s heart.
“When you’re in excellent shape, you can do it in a minute, with a minute’s rest,” Barnes said. “When we first started doing it, it used to take Biggie 3 minutes and 50 seconds to do it. The thing that impressed me was that he never quit.”
Barnes addressed Swanigan’s eating habits. More cooked meals, less fast food. Fewer sweets. The occasional pizza. A bowl of cereal, not the entire box.
The adoption process took three years to complete because the state’s adoption officials could not initially find Swanigan’s mother and father to sign the paperwork. They also wanted proof Barnes, a single man, could care for Swanigan. Barnes said he had to submit a letter from his pastor to complete the adoption.
Today, Barnes resents those who question his initial motives for adopting Swanigan. Barnes is also a sports agent, which only amplified questions about his intentions.
The NCAA cleared Swanigan nine days before Purdue’s first exhibition last season, following interviews with the Purdue star and his guardian about their relationship.
“That’s disturbing, because now people see what he’s doing now,” Barnes said about his critics. “But they were not there when he couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. He couldn’t run up the floor. It was about a young, black child that needed some help.”
As the pounds fell off his frame, Swanigan began to grasp his potential. His experiences with homelessness and domestic violence, however, kept the young man reserved and introverted. Barnes, who also has three adult children, did not adopt Swanigan to baby a 360-pound, middle school kid.
They dreamed of making him the “greatest power forward in the world,” only a fantasy if Swanigan refused discipline. Swanigan said he didn’t mind the discipline. But could he trust Barnes? Could he trust anyone? He nearly returned to Utah his sophomore season in high school.
“Naturally, you just want to build up a wall when something changes,” Swanigan said. “It just became a daily battle with him, with me, until I fully decided I wanted to put all my effort into it. I was just trying to get around it. As a young kid, I didn’t like the sense of being held accountable as much.”
Barnes, however, stayed on him, and Swanigan stuck with him too, as he blossomed into a 260-pound power forward who won Indiana’s Mr. Basketball after leading Homestead High School (Fort Wayne) to a state title in 2015.
After graduating in three years — he reclassified into the 2015 class, overcoming the academic challenges he endured in Utah — the top-10 recruit picked Michigan State before de-committing and joining Matt Painter’s squad. Yes, Barnes wanted Swanigan to attend his alma mater, but the Purdue standout said he de-committed from Michigan State and picked the Boilermakers because he knew he could play power forward with Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons on the roster, and figured Tom Izzo would make him play center.
It’s more complicated than that, Barnes admits. There were rumors Swanigan demanded a personal chef. Not true. Barnes admits he requested a living situation that would allow Swanigan to live off campus and far from the junk food circulating most college dorms.
“I told everyone, ‘How Biggie is going to be used is No. 1,'” Barnes said. “He cannot live in the dorm. There’s too much bad food. He can live with one other roommate. He can’t be living with a bunch of other roommates. … Why tempt him and put him with the general population when the average freshman gains 15 to 20 pounds?”
Barnes said Michigan State did not provide adequate responses to those requests, so Swanigan told him he wanted to reopen his recruitment because those living guidelines followed “the process” they’d imagined since he arrived.
At Purdue, Barnes pays for Swanigan to live alone in his one-bedroom apartment near Mackey Arena.
Today, he’s a 19-year-old pro prospect averaging 18.5 points per game and 12.5 rebounds, while connecting on 78 percent of his free throws and 47 percent of his 3-point attempts. Per KenPom.com, he has grabbed 33.3 percent of the available defensive rebounds when on the floor, No. 3 in the country.
His performances thus far have turned Big Ten Player of the Year talk into chatter about All-American honors for the sophomore who earned a spot on the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list.
All of this for a young man who six years ago bounced around shelters in Salt Lake City and stumbled through the streets with his large frame.
“It really puts things in perspective, because all your players have problems, and I think he kind of looks at their problems like that’s not a problem compared to some of the things that he’s been through,” Painter said.
Focus and avoid the cheesecake
With 4:31 to play in overtime of Purdue’s 91-82 home loss to Minnesota on New Year’s Day, Swanigan set a ball screen for P.J. Thompson before he found space in the paint and asked Vince Edwards for the ball. But Edwards rifled the rock back to Thompson, who hit Dakota Mathias curling off Isaac Haas’ high screen.
Mathias missed the shot, but like a Midwestern twister rolling through the flatlands, Swanigan burst into the play, grabbed the rebound and scored on a putback.
That night, he finished with 28 points and 22 rebounds in 41 minutes of action.
After Swanigan had accepted blame for the upset loss during postgame interviews — “Me and [P.J. Thompson] have played too much to be struggling with ball screen stuff,” he told reporters after the game — the big man looked at Josh Bonhotal, Purdue’s assistant director of sports performance. Bonhotal understood and prepared to open the weight room.
“He said, ‘Josh, I’m coming up,'” Bonhotal recalled. “He went to the Stairmaster. That’s his mindset.”
Swanigan’s grit never wavered as he cut more than 100 pounds off his frame in six years — he has dropped 15 more in college. And he has maintained that work ethic in West Lafayette. Bonhotal watches the big man hit the Stairmaster for an hour or more before he completes a medicine ball conditioning workout. Then they work on explosive drills and lifts.
“He’s doing all this,” Bonhotal said, “before he goes out to practice.”
Bonhotal connects Swanigan’s improvement on the court to the process he underwent years ago. Bonhotal said he has only refined the tools the projected second-round pick had when he arrived and tweaked his physical gifts.
This year, Swanigan has boosted the speed of his hang snatch, where he raises a weighted barbell off the ground and over his head as quickly as possible. He’s also a tenth of a second faster on his box jumps. He sprints harder, too.
“This has allowed him to react much quicker and really take advantage of his length in getting to balls above the rim,” Bonhotal said.
Swanigan knows, however, that he nullifies the work if he fails to eat right.
So he’s consistent.
“I generally just try to eat oatmeal or something like that for breakfast, get the day going.”
“Something really small since we always practice at 2 p.m. I don’t like eating big before practice, so I never really have a lunch. It’s more of just fruit or something like that.”
“I always try to make sure I get protein and just a good range of vegetables. I’m not too big on starches.”
Haas, Purdue’s 7-foot-2, 290-pound center, not only challenges Swanigan in practice, he also blocks him when it’s time to eat. If he catches Swanigan piling an unhealthy entrée onto his plate, he’ll tease him with an “Ahhhhh, Biggie!” and the sophomore will return the favor if he sees Haas gobbling junk. As big men, their bodies demand more care, Haas said. Bad food ruins their oversized engines and extends recovery time.
“You don’t want to put regular gas in a Lamborghini,” Haas said. “As a very fine-tuned machine, you have less room for error as a big guy. Whenever you eat like crap as a big guy, you’re gonna feel like crap when you’re on the court. It’ll last one or two days, so it’s a little different from a 5-10 point guard like P.J. Thompson, who can smash down on [Buffalo Wild Wings] every night and it’ll be no big deal.”
The NBA is a big deal to Swanigan. He never followed college basketball as a kid because he never expected to qualify for college. But he loved the NBA. He followed Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. In a few months, he could join Melo at the next level.
Last summer, in fact, he declared for the NBA draft. League officials told him to work on his body.
He’d lost the weight, but now the big man had to sculpt his frame. He did, and now the Big Ten must deal with the monster in the paint who has made 58 percent of his shots inside the arc and hit 10 of 21 spot-up jumpers, per Synergy data.
“He’s continued to improve his body,” Painter said. “He’s been selective as a perimeter shooter. He was a good defensive rebounder last year. His improvement lies in his ability to go every single time.”
He proved that in the overtime loss to Minnesota and the late-night workout that followed.
Sometimes Swanigan reflects on his journey, which he often omits in conversations with teammates and friends. But he calls his experiences — the eating issues, the stops in shelters, the constant relocation, the family turmoil, the academic woes — “fuel” for his improvement.
There is a difference in Swanigan, however, that the box scores will never capture. They’re the smiles and playful moments evident in practices and games.
After the trials and obstacles, Swanigan discovered the other side of life’s potholes: joy.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m in a good spot right now. I’m trying to enjoy it. Last year they told me I didn’t do that well. I wanted it so much, and I was working so hard, that I didn’t allow myself to enjoy the things around me. I’m trying to be more open with people and not just stay closed off.”
By: Myron Medcalf