When Black Hills State University junior tight end/receiver Eriq Swiftwater first signed a letter-of-intent to play football for the Yellow Jackets in 2014, it was his goal to inspire young people to do good in their lives.
He’s done that and has been a big part of the Yellow Jacket offense in the meantime.
He’s learned through success and setbacks to keep driving forward, something that he tries to instill not only for young people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but also with his young teammates.
Last year’s game against South Dakota School of Mines in the Battle for the Homestake Trophy was a prime example. Swiftwater had dislocated his elbow the week before and was on the sideline in street clothes watching the Hardrockers run out to a 24-6 halftime lead.
The Jackets would rally for a 25-24 win with Swiftwater cheering them on.
“The comeback victory was nice, but in the first half, I was losing my mind,” he said with a laugh.
He was also determined to come back from the injury better than ever. It never hindered his work ethic.
“There was never a moment that I thought it was over. I was always optimistic about coming back,” he said. “I think my mindset was I was going to come back as strong as I can and as fast as I can. I was in the weight room as much as possible, lifting legs until I could do upper body.”
Last summer Swiftwater hosted a football camp in Pine Ridge. The camp was about football, but it was also about life choices.
“It is one of the more heartwarming things and humbling things that I have had, to have kids look up to me and want to listen to me,” he said. “It took me a while to understand that the spotlight was on me, but once I matured into that, I ran with it.”
Swiftwater tells the youth that home is always going to be there, if you stay or if you leave. The opportunity to go out and experience life away from the reservation and experience the world itself, even if it is just Spearfish, is a new experience.
He said it doesn’t matter if the whole world doesn’t believe in you; it just matters if you believe in yourself.
“The want to change your life and the ones around you have to be bigger than the doubt that fills your head of, ‘I can’t do this.’ If I am able to open that door for kids, I’ll be more than happy to hold it," he said.
On campus, Swiftwater was named to the White House Champion of Change program in 2015. He’s also a leader on the field. It has taken him a couple of years, he admits.
“Coach (John) Reiners helped lead me into that role, helped me be more comfortable talking to the guys, leading the group, especially the receivers,” he said. “My experience and time in the receiving room helps coaching those guys and giving them game tips. It’s a role that I have embodied this year, and the biggest role I wanted to take on.”
On Saturday, Swiftwater will play in his third Black Hills Brawl, although he has been part of four games. The first college football game he watched was in 2012 — his junior season of high school at Oelrichs (he played football for Hot Springs). It was Black Hills State and South Dakota School of Mines at O’Harra Stadium.
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“Being in the stands at that game kind of opened my eyes. To me I thought it was just college football, but once I got to college, it’s Black Hills versus Tech,” he said. “I kind of understood the hype building up to the game, but when you get into the game you can feel the energy their defense is giving you and you feel the energy your offense is giving them.
“You can see the passion and you can see in everyone’s eyes that this game means something, and not just to the teams, but both communities and the alumni. This is a big game for this part of South Dakota."
It’s been a tough season for the Jackets, 0-5 with two three-point losses, including a 41-38 setback to Dixie State in which BHSU battled back from a 21-point deficit to lead by three before giving up the late score to come up short.
What still keeps him optimistic, he says, what makes him work that much harder and stay positive are his teammates.
“One thing that separates this Black Hills team from other teams is everybody talks about being a family and what family means. I have never really felt that until I got here,” he said. “We’re not just playing for coaches, for the fans or for the name across our chest. We play for each other. What keeps us together is through it all, we have each other.”
Reiners said Swiftwater is a player who has stepped up as a leader.
"He got a year back of eligibility based on his injury. He's one of our older kids and he has been around," Reiners said. "The Black Hills Brawl, once you play in it, you know. He knows, he is from around here. He knows how big this game is."
Swiftwater caught 63 passes for 850 yards in his first two seasons, and currently has a team-leading 28 receptions for 299 yards and four touchdowns — all four scores in the last two games.
At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, he’s muscled up from 195 pounds as a freshman, and he now plays somewhat of a hybrid tight end/receiver role. He said he can “get his hands in the dirt and block linebackers,” or go wide and catch passes.
“I like the workload they give me, the task of being able to handle more,” he said.
Against Dixie State, Swiftwater went high for two acrobatic TD catches in the corner of the end zone from redshirt freshman backup quarterback Tyler Hammons. He credits his basketball ability in making those catches.
“I always have that confidence that as soon as we get inside the red zone, I want to be viable option,” he said. “I have proven myself, not only at practice, but in games. I thank my quarterbacks for trusting me so much.”
Swiftwater will graduate a year from December with a double major in psychology and sociology. He is leaning towards being a guidance counselor back home, just to give more insight for those wanting to attend college.
“One thing that I want to do is help get more kids to go to college from my reservation, give them the tools to succeed,” he said.
Although he is pursuing his own dreams and his own goals, he said it is bigger than him in a lot of aspects. Coming to college helped put that in perspective.
“I want to make a difference beyond me, and I want to do something that means more to the community than just for myself,” he said.