Mentor Guides Hoops Star to March Madness and Beyond

Weighing in at nearly 400 at age 13, Purdue University's Caleb Swanigan got off to a rough start, but his older brother made a call that changed his life.

by
Mar 31, 2017

Purdue University power forward Caleb "Biggie" Swanigan

Any 19-year-old would be proud to be named the Big 10 Player of the Year and to lead his college hoops squad to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, but those stellar accomplishments don't stand as the highlights of Caleb Swanigan's young life.

And it's not because his Purdue Boilermakers squad fell to the Kansas Jayhawks in the round of sixteen. It's because Caleb has faced stiffer battles in his life and defeated tougher opponents.

Caleb didn’t have an easy childhood. His father struggled with substance abuse and obesity—he weighed nearly 500 pounds when he died at age 50 in 2013—and as a result, he played a limited role in Caleb's life. Caleb's mother, essentially a single mom, did her best to care for her six children, but an unending search for stability and a lack of housing options—the family spent time in five different homeless shelters as they shuttled between Utah and Indianapolis—were difficult to overcome.

BROWSE OUR COLLECTION OF BOOKS ON PERSONAL GROWTH

Add to those obstacles the fact that her husband, who stood 6-foot-8, often physically abused her, and you understand the challenges that she and her children faced. 

Caleb chooses to focus on the positive, however. "My mom always kept a roof over our heads," he told ESPN.com.

The ongoing search for lodging and the unstable nature of their existence too often meant that Caleb and his siblings, like millions of other Americans who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms "food-insecure" households, ate what they could get their hands on: bologna sandwiches at homeless shelters, processed foods, too many sweets. 

"It is a lot more expensive to eat healthy than it is to eat unhealthy," Swanigan told ESPN.com. "If you're in a position to eat right, then you should eat right. Sometimes, financially, it just isn't right."

When he was 13 years old, Caleb stood 6-foot-2 but he weighed nearly 400 pounds. His mother was preparing to move the family once again--to Houston, Texas, this time—and Caleb's brother, Carl, 12 years his senior, felt something had to be done. Three of Caleb's older siblings had gotten in trouble with the law and none had graduated from high school.

“We only knew what was right in front of us,” Caleb told Sports Illustrated. “We didn’t know how big the world was, how much better it could be.”

Carl himself had once given a chance at an athletic scholarship. He signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Mississippi, but he dropped out of high school, and his attempts to recover his eligibility ended when he was shot in the face and lost his right eye.

Carl wanted a better life for his kid brother, so he contacted Roosevelt Barnes, his former AAU coach in Indiana. Barnes, a former three-sport star at Purdue University and now a successful sports agent, agreed to take in Caleb and help to put him on a more productive path, but only if he could fully commit to his new role: He wanted to legally adopt Caleb.

Caleb, who had never spent more than a year at one school and craved the stability that Barnes could offer him, agreed. 

Barnes immediately set out to help Caleb improve his eating habits. It wasn't easy. Barnes shares the story of telling Caleb, on his first morning after moving in, to help himself to some breakfast. Barnes came downstairs to discover that Caleb had opted for Wheaties. He'd eaten not a bowl of the breakfast flakes, however, but an entire box. 

Over time, though, Caleb embraced the dietary guidance Barnes offered and a new physical regime, too. After taking Caleb to a cardiologist to make sure he was fit to begin strenuous workouts, Barnes began to work his new charge out on a regular basis. His performance wasn't stellar at first, Barnes admits, but Caleb exhibited an athlete's grit and determination from the beginning.

It took three years for the adoption to be finalized, but the bond between Caleb and his new father figure was cemented long before that. The state was careful to ensure that Barnes, a single man, was suited to care for Caleb, but a letter from his pastor helped to convince them.

By high school, Caleb was an athletic 260 pounds. He was named Mr. Basketball for the hoops-crazy state of Indiana after leading his high school team to a state title. He also graduated from high school in just three years.

Today, Caleb stands 6-foot-9 and weighs in at 245 pounds. His sophomore season at Purdue was a standout one, earning him consensus All-American honors. His next goal is his biggest yet: a career in the NBA. In the meantime, Caleb is living in the moment, enjoying collegiate life.

"I'm having a lot of fun," Caleb told ESPN.com. "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."

For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.

View Comments