inducted February 18, 2006
There were 30,000 people in the stands that October afternoon in 1947, but five times that many will tell you they were at Baker Field to see Columbia defeat Army, 21-20, ending the Cadets’ 32-game unbeaten streak. And most of those will swear they saw Bill Swiacki catch the winning touchdown pass to overtake the Cadets.
They’ll all be wrong … but not by much. True, Columbia trailed Army, 20-14 late in the fourth quarter (after coming back from a 20-7 deficit) when quarterback Gene Rossides dropped back to pass from the Army 29.
He fired a pass short of the goal line. It was low, and the crowd groaned as it looked like it would hit the ground. But they hadn’t counted on the long arms of the lanky Swiacki.
Both arms outstretched and body horizontal, he reached out and grabbed the pass barely above the ground, a 26-yard gain to the three. Two plays later, Lou Kusserow ran it in from the two and Ventan Yablonski kicked the go-ahead extra point to put Columbia up, 21-20. It still ranks as one of Columbia’s (and college football’s) greatest victories.
Swiacki caught nine passes that day, one for a touchdown. He finished the season with Columbia records for receptions and yards, to go with his 23.6 yards per catch in 1946, still the Lions’ all-time record. His 18.6 career yards per catch also ranks as a Columbia record.
The college football world couldn’t help but notice Bill Swiacki. He was a first team All-American, named to an incredible 16 All-American teams and was eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Swiacki had actually begun his college career at Holy Cross, not far from his Southbridge, Mass., home. After one fine season there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving three and a half years as a second lieutenant and navigator on a B-17. He enrolled in Columbia after his discharge, playing two memorable years for the Lions.
A fine all-around athlete, Swiacki was signed as a catcher by the Boston Red Sox while still an undergraduate. He later went into pro football, playing with the New York Giants from 1948 through 1950,and the Detroit Lions for the next two seasons. His 550 receiving yards in 1948 set a Giants record and he set two new marks in 1949, when he caught 47 passes in 12 games for 652 yards and four touchdowns. He caught 11 passes for Detroit in 1952, helping the Lions to the NFL championship.
He also played Canadian pro football, and spent two seasons as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts. In the States, he was an assistant coach for the Giants and Rams.
After he left professional athletics, Swiacki established a real estate business in Sturbridge, Mass. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. He died tragically that year, at the age of 52, when a rifle he was cleaning in the basement of his home accidentally fired.
Swiacki’s son, Bill, Jr., was a standout three-sport athlete at Amherst College who was drafted by both the football Giants and baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He signed with the Dodgers as a pitcher, reaching the highest minor league level.