ALAMEDA – D.J. Swearinger has worn the No. 36 forever, from his college days into his seventh NFL season. Players get attached to their number and the veteran safety was no different, especially after a decade-plus wearing the same digits.
It was available and given to him upon signing with the Raiders on Nov. 9, but he quickly requested a change.
Swearinger wanted No. 21 and got it. This wasn't just a number switch. It was a symbolic attempt to start fresh with a new team after bouncing around the league more than he'd like.
"My grandmother was the first to suggest it. She said that I had reinvented myself over the last month I have been off [after getting cut by Arizona]," Swearinger said on this week's Raiders Talk podcast. "A few of my homeboys told me the same thing. After that, I talked to my parents about it and they agreed. The only number I felt like I could get into would be 21 because I grew up watching Sean Taylor and Deion Sanders as well. Those were the two guys who inspired me to get that number."
Taylor, in particular, was a role model, an all-gas-no-brakes intimidator that Swearinger believes he can be when playing his best.
Swearinger had to find the proper mindset to find that level of play. That was his goal after the Cardinals cut him early this season. He didn't rush to find a new gig. He went home to his family and did some soul searching, doing everything possible to get right and be ready for his next opportunity.
"It was different, but it was extremely helpful. I got to look at life from a different perspective," Swearinger said. "I had a chance to get my mind, body and spirit right. I spent a lot of time with my family and I spent a lot of time reading. That's something I haven't done in the past, that I wanted to do. I picked up on a couple books that helped me, and I did some mental counseling as well.
"Being away from the game, I was trying to figure it out and help the man and the football player. It helped me a lot. I look at things from a different perspective now, and I think it will only help me and my future."
It's clear from our conversation that Swearinger values this opportunity more than most. He loves working for Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, a coach he believes has the same insatiable desire to win above all else.
"I always wanted to play with a high-energy coach who has the same passion for the game that I have,' Swearinger said. "It was a perfect fit for me."
That's clear after one game. He dove into the scheme – it helped that there were plenty of similarities between the Raiders and Cardinals systems – and was proficient enough to lead the team in tackles eight days later. He hasn't reveled in that moment, choosing instead to delve deeper into the system while preparing to contribute to this Raiders playoff push. Swearing is hellbent on making the postseason, with a drive and hunger that, he says, some have found off-putting in previous stops. Swearinger believes he has found the proper mindset to help this team thrive.
"That has been the knock against me over the past few years," Swearinger said. "I have been so hungry on each team that I've been on that I have been trying to change the culture in a sense, to be hungry and get the guys to be hungry to win. At the end of the day, a lot of guys play this game just for the money. I play this thing for the love of the game and to go to the playoffs and hoist the Lombardi Trophy one day, with my kids in my arms. That's the vision and the focus.
"Sometimes, guys don't see it the same way. In other places I have been, they didn't see it that way. I think a lot of the guys here see it that way. They have that vision and desire to go deep in the playoffs and make a run. There's something special here, with a special team and a special coach. We're going to do our best to make that run."