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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The old Fountainbleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa were typical college housing – low slung and well worn, a humble yet efficient place to lay your head and maybe raise some hell just steps from the campus of the University of Alabama.
In the late 1980s it was a preferred spot for many Crimson Tide football players, which added an extra layer of social life to a complex already teeming with loud music and crowded kegs.
For Dabo Swinney it represented dirt-cheap housing, which still was more he could really afford. He and a friend from back home in Pelham, Ala. each paid $130 a month for Unit 81, a simple two bedroom. He was a sophomore, attempting to become the first member of his family to graduate from college while surviving as a walk-on wide receiver for the vaunted football program.
He was also bringing to college a rather unusual accessory … his mother, Carol, a third roommate in an apartment not exactly designed for parents.
Yes, Dabo Swinney brought his mom to college with him.
"He did," Carol told Yahoo Sports with a smile. "And I wouldn't trade anything for it. I wouldn't. It was really some of the happiest times of my life because we were together, we were safe and we were happy."
Carol was talking on New Year's Eve outside the Clemson locker room at SunLife Stadium, school-colored confetti clinging to her shirt. It was a long, long way from the Fountainbleau. Her son coaches the top-ranked Tigers now. After a dominating victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, they're headed to the national title game to play no less than Alabama, where Dabo eventually earned a football scholarship, played on the 1992 national champions and earned a degree in commerce and business administration.
It's also the place that all those years ago he dared to buck almost every imaginable teenage norm and crowd into a room with his mother.
"I'd feel bad for the other guy, 'I've got a roommate … and his mom,'" Swinney said with a laugh.
It was a move of necessity. His family had no money after his father's business failed when Dabo was in high school. Ervil Swinney quickly plummeted into a cycle of domestic abuse and alcoholism.
"I come from the most screwed-up dysfunctional situation," Swinney said. "You've got violence. Police at your house. Your dad's gone. Nowhere to live."
Dabo and Carol were essentially homeless his senior year of high school, bouncing around from friends' couches, the floor of grandma's public housing unit and sometimes just sleeping side-by-side in their car.
"I was humiliated," Swinney said. "I was prideful. I didn't want people to know we weren't this perfect family. But you reach a point where you just don't care anymore."
Not caring meant not giving up on college no matter what it took. Dad was lost. His older brothers were dealing with similar trouble. He and his mother could hardly afford one place though let alone two. They only owned one bed, which meant they had to share it. They were hustling jobs, milking financial aid and maxing out credit cards that arrived in the mail just to pay tuition.
This was just how it was going to be, the two of them against the world.
"My son and I were always very close," Carol said. "He always looked after me. He was protective. He was like that as a child. He took care of his mom."
So in a bizarro "Old School" way, a petite, devoutly Christian, 40-something woman waded into the Tuscaloosa college scene. She rose at 6 a.m. to drive to an $8 an hour job as a sales clerk at the Parisian department store back in suburban Birmingham before returning at night.
"The times were very hard but you know, we just adapted and we made the best of it," Carol said. "That was our home and that was just where we lived."
Whatever odd looks she first encountered when other kids realized she wasn't just visiting, but there to stay, melted when she'd cook.
"I was the house mother," Carol said. "I'd make chicken and dumplings, that was their favorite. Chili. Chocolate chip cookies. They'd all come over then."
In truth, it was fun. The college kids kept her young. The jokes and stories kept her entertained. For all the juvenile debauchery, there is unmistakable sense of energy and optimism that permeates a college. And as she noted, they were safe and, at least temporarily, settled. Her son was seizing the future. A corner felt turned.
Carol dealt with almost nothing but struggle in her life, stricken with polio at 18 months old. Her body was so mangled her head touched the side of her foot. She was sent away from her family, to the starkly named Birmingham Crippled Children's Hospital, where she was relegated to an iron lung and cycles of surgeries.
For 11 years she was mostly alone. Her own father abandoned the family – she first met him when she was 42. Money was so tight it was rare for her mom to be able to afford the train to visit her. She mostly just lay there, including a 14-month stretch inside a knee-to-neck body cast. She was told repeatedly she'd never walk.
"All of those years of my childhood, I could not participate in activities," Carol said. "I didn't get to do a lot of things. But I was always happy."
She never gave an inch to polio and eventually got out of the hospital, attended a regular high school, even becoming a majorette. In her 70s now, she's active and healthy and moving great.
"That's how tough she was," Swinney said.
Now, in a roundabout way, she was off at college, all these football players as her extended family, her protectors, her inspiration.
And sure, it was, well, a little unusual.
"I mean, talk about cramping your style," Dabo joked. "It's a wonder I ever got married."
In truth, he met his wife, Kathleen, in first grade and they've been together since sixth grade. Carol was part of the crew, the two women driving together to Crimson Tide road games.
"She was my best friend," Carol said.
These days her son is rich and famous and incredibly successful. He can buy all the houses he wants. He's the toast of Clemson and, when Nick Saban's run at Alabama eventually ends, he's the logical first choice as a replacement. (There's no certainty Swinney would take it).
Everything got better though. Carol remarried in 1998 to Larry McIntosh, an insurance broker and they live not far from the Parisian store she used to work at.
Her ex-husband Ervil sobered up, turned his life around and re-established relations with the family until he passed away in the summer of 2015. Her two other sons, one of whom fell so far he spent years homeless in Atlanta, are healthy and sober too.
"All that I have been through, sometimes I don't believe this is true, that it's all a dream," Carol said.
Now comes the biggest game in her son's career, and another stretch of this wild, wonderful Clemson season. And now here come the Tide.
While Carol never attended Alabama, some of the same pull of an alma mater remains. Tuscaloosa represents the restart of everything, the first steps from rock bottom and those days living in Fountainbleau, a mom in a most unlikely place.
"They were good times," she smiled. "Such, such good times."
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