The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A sports agent took in a 360-pound teenager. He became Caleb Swanigan.

(Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports)
Placeholder while article actions load

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hidden in an ancient Final Four box score, there’s a name. It tends to turn up seventh or eighth under the team name “Purdue,” depending on whose box score one studies. It shows that the last time Purdue reached a men’s basketball Final Four, 37 years and three Indianapolis Final Four venues ago at bygone Market Square Arena, in came a sub named Barnes.

He played five minutes, scored two points and committed one foul in Purdue’s 67-62 loss to Larry Brown’s UCLA in a 1980 national semifinal. The thing is, as Purdue reaches its seventh Sweet 16 since then, the same Barnes gets one gigantic assist, owing largely to a quotation he uttered by telephone on Wednesday.

“If you eat a salad and you train your taste buds to come off all that sugar, salt and fat, vegetables are sweet,” Roosevelt Barnes said. “Romaine lettuce is sweet. Iceberg lettuce is sweet. Spinach is sweet. Cherry tomatoes are sweet.”

Soon, he said, “And you’ll find that broccoli, it’s sweet.”

He’s not a nutritionist, but he is a prominent sports agent, and he did play four NFL seasons (1982-85) as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions, so he does know his way around the food groups. Six years ago, at his home in Fort Wayne, Ind., he took in a 13-year-old boy whose brother he knew, and began an adoption process that would require three years. The boy’s family had bounced mostly between Indiana and Utah, as his mother tried to find a way. They couldn’t afford a healthy diet. The boy’s father would die at 50 at almost 500 pounds. Barnes reckons the 13-year-old, the youngest of six children, weighed 360 pounds or so.

On Thursday night, that same human, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Caleb Swanigan, will lead No. 4 seed Purdue against No. 1 seed Kansas in the second semifinal here in the Midwest Region semifinals. He will do so as the Big Ten player of the year. He averages 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and three assists and has made 43 percent of his three-point attempts, so that Kansas Coach Bill Self said, “He’s a challenge all the way around no matter how you choose to guard him because if you double him, he’s got over 100 assists.”

Everything you need to know ahead of the Sweet 16

On Wednesday after practice, Swanigan fielded questions about the advantage of having teammates who can shoot three-pointers, about whether he would try to get a not-deep Kansas team into foul trouble (“I don’t make moves to get fouled”), about what makes Kansas effective in transition (“playmakers at four positions”), and finally about how he got clear to here.

“Just have to have a resilience about you,” he said.

Back at his locker, he sounded like someone twice his age, which until April will remain 19, when he said: “It’s definitely easy to backtrack, things like that, but even when you do backtrack, sometimes, you just can’t dwell on that. You’ve got to just keep doing what you’re doing. Something might not work for a couple of weeks. You may gain weight sometimes. But just knowing that it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to keep going to get back to where you were, back to where you were.”

He spoke in a low, unassuming monotone, as if maybe even unaware he might be the most remarkable story in the NCAA tournament, a guy who weighed 360 pounds six years ago, and now walks through the hallways, stopping off to greet Oregon Coach Dana Altman for a brief chat, maneuvering past the mass of cameras waiting outside the Kansas locker room.

Svrluga: Are refs really better than ever? Seems like a tough call.

On Wednesday, Barnes, 58, recalled his first action once he agreed to take in young Caleb. Barnes immediately removed all the sugar, salt and bread from the house. He confirmed the story he told in 2015 to Jason King of Bleacher Report and this past January to Myron Medcalf at, that Barnes reached the kitchen the first day to find that Caleb had eaten an entire box of Wheaties with an entire gallon of milk.

Barnes distilled this familiar matter of humanity to wee villains, the taste buds, even if he didn’t necessarily speak of taste buds in the house back then.

“The first thing to do is make an assessment of what kids are eating,” Barnes said. “You’ve got sugar, salt and fat, and it all tastes good. So that was the first thing we had to adjust for his eating habits, was his taste buds.” Barnes did not operate as some drill sergeant. He knew “cheating” would occur. He knew gradual change was essential. “Yeah, there were times when he would cheat, but the thing is you have to have more days when you win than when you lose,” he said.

So: “He was used to eating a lot of processed food.” He thinks the 13-year-old knew full well this didn’t help but, as Barnes reminded: “When you are in a situation where you don’t have the finances, it costs to eat healthy. And when you don’t have very many choices, you eat what you eat. You have to eat what’s provided for you.” He said, “When you are used to eating that way your whole life, it can take some time.”

Eventually, there came developed a ritual. Each Saturday, Swanigan would come downstairs to Barnes’s room and step onto the scale. Barnes said he recorded numbers. They lived knowingly alongside the “slippery slope,” as Barnes put it, of, “It can turn into everybody’s telling you how good you look and stuff, and you’ve got a long way to go, and you think, ‘I do look good,’ and the next thing you know you’re eating pizza.”

They aimed toward that point where the taste buds tilted, the cravings ebbed and the sugar kind of sucked. “Primarily,” Barnes said, “you have to make a decision: ‘Is this going to help me, or is this going to hurt me?’ ” He said, “There’s no secret to it, and there’s no magic to it.”

They had a cook here and there, but not a mainstay, Barnes said. He was single. His three older children had grown up. Sometimes friends would cook for them, but most of the time, they made good restaurant choices. They ate in the time-honored way so many prescribe: fish, chicken, turkey, beef only occasionally. Said Barnes, “He had to learn to eat stuff that’s green.” Water came to reign over all its peers. “No pop,” Barnes said. “No Gatorade.” And: “If it wasn’t fresh juice, we wouldn’t drink it.” And: “I didn’t even have milk in the house.” Breads needed whole grains to get through the door. Salads went dressed with olive oil only.

“I don’t even have salad dressing in the house,” Barnes said.

All along, they had one major component going for them: “He’s one of the most focused kids I’ve ever been around,” Barnes said. Even though Swanigan pruned himself into shape that Purdue’s staff has hardened still more, and even though he became Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2015 and helped Homestead High to its first state title, and even as that occurred in Indianapolis, four-tenths of a mile from where Barnes once scored a field goal in a Final Four, Barnes couldn’t remember stopping off to feel any awe.

“I don’t think there was any one point that I looked and I said, ‘Well, wow,’ he said. “I still don’t feel that way. I just knew that he was different because he was determined … I’m not surprised at what he’s doing. I expect him to do what he does. And I think about, what I usually think about is how much better he’s going to be. He has not scratched the surface of how good he’s going to be, how good he will be.”

Then: “He will soon be the best power forward in the world.”