100 in 100: Harnett County’s Eric Swann, All-Pro defensive lineman

The defensive lineman from Harnett County never played college football but still found his way to the pros

Harnett County's Eric Swann played nine NFL seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals then closed his career out playing one year in his home state with the Carolina Panthers. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Harnett County

Eric Swann

Swann is a rare example of someone who made it to the NFL — and stayed there for a decade — without the benefit of having played college football.

It wasn’t by design, of course. The native of Swann Station, a tiny crossroads in rural Harnett County, was all set to attend NC State. But because he suffered from attention deficit disorder and struggled to take tests, he was unable to score high enough on the SAT to qualify academically.


Rather than going to State as a nonqualifer under the NCAA’s Proposition 48, Swann instead chose to attend Wake Tech while working as a maintenance worker at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. He eventually left school to play for a semi-pro team in Massachusetts.

At 6-foot-5, 317 pounds, Swann caught the interest of several NFL teams, especially after posting a 40-yard dash time of 4.8 seconds. Projected to go toward the end of the first round, he became the surprise of the 1991 draft when the Phoenix Cardinals took him with the sixth overall pick.

Although the selection was widely panned by the media, Swann justified it by becoming one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL. Former Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, upon joining the team in 1994, said that Swann “may be the best defensive lineman I’ve ever seen.”

Over his nine years with the Cardinals, along with one final season with the Carolina Panthers, he amassed 46.5 sacks, 463 tackles and a pair of interceptions while twice earning All-Pro recognition. And those numbers might have been even higher had he not been plagued by a series of injuries.

One of those injuries came in 1993 when he suffered a broken ankle. Years later, offensive lineman Brian Baldinger admitted that he injured Swann intentionally as retaliation for a chop block the previous season.

In 1998, Swann signed a five-year contract with the Cardinals worth $25 million and a $7.5 million signing bonus, which at the time was the richest contract in franchise history.