Doug Bennett looks down at the football field he built, the one named after him, and watches a young man struggle with an old gang reel mower Bennett bought. That’s Marty Mack mowing the field, and Bennett coached his daddy.
Bennett’s fingerprints are all over the Swansea football program, from Doug Bennett Stadium to the school’s first three state championships. Sitting in the stands, Bennett is getting lost in his memories as he describes how Swansea was integrated back in the ’60s and the role football played in bringing a small southern town together then. It’s his 87th birthday, but he’s transported back 50 years as he recalls his coaching days, back to when this field had not yet been dug out.
Bennett is living Swansea football history, but there was a time even he didn’t want to go to Swansea’s games. No one in town did as the team posted pitiful losing seasons. A program with six state championships became an inadequate reflection of a blue-collar town made up of people that believe in pride.
In his fourth season, Chad Leaphart has given Swansea a team it can be proud of again, a team that is the biggest show in town during Friday night home games. More farmland than booming businesses, not attending the games in the past was almost like a protest. What else would you do in Swansea on a Friday night? But after winning 10 games last season and nine games the year before, the good ole’ days of Swansea football have returned — as has the fan base.
“When I first started playing football, it was all about pride and putting Swansea on the map,” said Johnathon Sutton, a junior linebacker for the Tigers. “My mom never really let me come to the games because she didn’t want to spend her money to watch Swansea get beat.”
Leaphart took over a team that won two games in 2009. His coaching roots connect him to Swansea as he coached under Lee Sawyer at Strom Thurmond High. Sawyer coached with Robert Maddox, who succeeded Bennett at Swansea and led the Tigers to three state championships in the 90s. A product of Gilbert, Leaphart understands the significance of football in a small town, and the first thing he did as the coach of Swansea was remind the players of the Tigers’ storied history.
The team is now trying to expand that history in its second season in 3A. Walking to Sugarbaker’s Corner Cafe a few blocks away from the field after practices in the summer would bring attention to the men wearing Swansea apparel, often asked about how the team was looking. Leaphart remembers beating Silver Bluff early in his second season, a signature win for him, and getting calls from a local car dealership that wanted to know if it could sponsor a player of the week. Then more calls came from citizens wanting to know what they could do to support the team.
“They’re not diving Mercedes and BMWs all around here,” Leaphart said. “It’s a working class town that can appreciate hard work paying off, and they see that with the football team.”
On a Monday afternoon, few local businesses are open. Driving down Highway 321 into Swansea, miles of farmland hugs the road. The agricultural community isn’t what it once was, as farmers across the country took a hit during the recession.
Bennett saw his high school football team bring the town together the through racial tensions of integration, but nowadays, games are where citizens can escape after a long work week, see their friends and neighbors and watch the Tigers (2-1) compete to be a top team like they once were.
As Bennett recounts how Doug Bennett Field used to be clay, he mentions that local volunteer labor helped build the old fieldhouse and other football facilities in past years. The town loved its high school football so much that it became a part of it.
“It was hard to sit up and watch the games,” Bennett said. “But now, I think it helps unify the town. It brings them closer together.”