LARAMIE – Though he didn’t play in his team’s 38-17 Arizona Bowl win over Georgia State on New Year’s Eve, University of Wyoming sophomore running back Titus Swen got himself the greatest gift of all last December.
The Fort Worth, Texas, product was on pace for a memorable freshman season in Laramie before a knee injury suffered midseason against San Diego State derailed his promising opening campaign. Titus ran for 337 yards and a touchdown in just six games, including a 136-yard effort against UNLV. He was available for the Cowboys in the bowl game, per coach Craig Bohl, but did not play.
While it was admittedly disappointing to watch the action from the sidelines, there is always a silver lining to be found. Swen said he is now feeling “110%” and spent much of his offseason working on his speed and explosiveness.
“That’s always tough, but if you look at it, we’re a team,” Titus said. “If I see my brothers eat, I’m excited for them.”
In addition to being fully healthy, Titus can now add another notch to his résumé: American citizen.
Titus spent part of last December back home in Texas, where he finally took his American citizenship test. While Swen mostly grew up in the United States, his parents fled war-torn Liberia when he was a child and lived in Sierra Leone for several years as refugees before eventually arriving in the United States in October 2004, just before Titus turned 5.
Titus doesn’t remember living in Africa, but he does remember the earliest moments of living in America: Section 8 housing, poverty and, above all else, hope.
“We had to walk to Walmart and get our groceries before we had enough money to get a car,” Swen said. “(My parents) wanted to get us out of the place we were at so bad. … I appreciate everything that they do.”
But Swen’s parents, Christopher and Felicia, knew the struggles they underwent in a new country were nothing compared to what they had been through nearly 6,000 miles away.
In America, there was opportunity for something better, and the Swens were going to stop at nothing to make sure their three children had the best lives possible. Their oldest son, Al, works in Houston while Carolyn (Columbia University) and Titus are currently in college.
“It was a plan between my wife and myself. We were united, we had one goal,” Christopher Swen said. “We made a vow, that we have to make sure we send our kids to school, make sure they get good grades in school, and in five years’ time, we would have a house.”
Swen’s parents became American citizens almost seven years ago to the day, on Aug. 6, 2013. The family was under the impression you had to be 18 years old to become an American citizen, which is why Titus and his older brother and sister all waited until then.
Christopher jokes about Titus thinking he was born in the United States. After all, he left Africa as a toddler. But while Titus was able to enjoy many of the liberties of an American growing up in Texas, he still longed for citizenship, particularly the ability to vote. That’s why he rushed back and forth from Texas to UW football practices last winter as the Cowboys prepared for Georgia State.
Swen’s family worked far too hard to get to this point. He owed it to everyone, including himself, to capture his family’s dream.
“I’m a part of this great nation,” Titus said. “In the midst of all the action, I can still look up and call myself an American.”
To understand why becoming a citizen was so important for the Swens, one must understand the circumstances surrounding Liberia. Civil war in the country started in 1989 and lasted almost consecutively through 2003, killing approximately 250,000 people in the process, per the BBC.
The civil wars began when Charles Taylor, the leader of a revolutionary group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, waged war on the current government, later leading to the assassination of Liberia’s then-president. Taylor eventually became Liberia’s president in 1997.
A new rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, rose up against Taylor in 1999, as did another group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia. War ensued for another four years. According to History.com, Taylor’s rebels “were known to amputate limbs, rape women, enslave survivors of their attacks and force boys into child armies.”
The wars lasted until 2003, when a peace agreement, spearheaded by The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, was signed, and Taylor stepped down. Taylor was found guilty of war crimes in 2012 and is serving a 50-year prison sentence in the United Kingdom.
Christopher remembers having to keep his family indoors nearly all hours of the day, the only exception being to get food.
“It was very scary. It was a war zone. You couldn’t come out. They were killing men, raping women,” he said. “It was only the grace of God that saved our lives. It wasn’t because we were smart enough … it was the grace of God.”
The Swen family fled Liberia for Sierre Leone under a refugee program, though Sierra Leone was war-torn in its own right. In 2001, Christopher and Felicia each applied for refugee status in Canada and the United States, respectively, under the United Nations’ refugee program.
Christopher’s application to Canada was accepted, but the family waited to see if Felicia’s was, as well. The application for the United States was accepted, and they canceled a scheduled move to Canada.
Plans for their American dream were put on hold for three years, though, as after Sept. 11, 2001, the refugee program was shut down. The Swen family stayed in Sierra Leone for another three years, until Oct. 15, 2004, when they arrived in Abilene, Texas.
“I was thinking, ‘We should have accepted Canada,’” Christopher said with a chuckle. “But we just kept our faith.”
On a lot of fronts, moving to Abilene was a shocking experience. For one, the family didn’t know anyone there. Second, it snows in that part of Texas, including in October, when the family moved. Preparing for winter weather was never an issue in Africa. And, without a car, there were times the going got tough.
Christopher recalled a time the family took Titus to the doctor’s office to get routine shots. When they left, it was perfectly sunny. By the time they attempted to return home, the ground was completely covered in snow. Having walked to the doctor’s office, the family frantically ran up and down the street to try to find a bus. Making matters worse was that the bus only came by once an hour.
Christopher, making $6 an hour, worked jobs cleaning the mess hall at the nearby Air Force base, and cleaned cars at Avis Rent-a-Car. Felicia chose to go back to school to become a nursing assistant. The family was on food stamps.
The Swens caught a break when the local Nazarene church they were members of started helping get them food and necessities. Upon walking into church one day, one of the members handed Christopher the keys to a used Ford Windstar van. It’s a moment he will never forget.
As people of deep faith who pray multiple times per day, that van was a sign things were going to be OK.
“That man in Abilene, Texas, who gave us a van, it was God sent,” Christopher said.
After 2½ years, the family moved from Abilene to Arlington, as Felicia found a nursing job there and Christopher was promoted to being an Avis sales clerk. He was laid off, however, and chose to join his wife in her field: he went to school to become a nurse.
It was during this period, in the summer of 2009, that Titus started playing football. It wasn’t a conscious decision by the family for him to become a star. With busy schedules of their own, Felicia wanted to make sure Titus wasn’t on the streets. His parents took him to the Grand Prairie Boys and Girls Club, where there was a football season going.
It was Titus’ first time ever playing football. Naturally, he was named MVP of the league. His football career took a hiatus until the family moved to Fort Worth in 2010, where the Swens were able to build a home and finally feel like their roots were planted. They had made it.
“There was nothing special that we did. … We prayed every day,” Christopher said. “Pray in the morning, pray in the evening. We believe in a higher power.”
Titus’ coach at the Grand Prairie Boys and Girls Club told Christopher and Felicia that Titus was a star in the making and gave them contact information for a league in Fort Worth. Titus’ parents admittedly didn’t know much about football, but they were starting to understand their son was good at it.
Often unable to take him to practice, the team’s coach picked Titus up and dropped him off. Toward the end of middle school, Christopher and Felicia began watching their son’s games.
“The only person I knew on the field was the quarterback and running back,” Christopher admitted.
Titus became a legend at Eaton High, where he accounted for 4,748 all-purpose yards in three seasons on varsity. He was a three-star recruit, according to ESPN and 247Sports, and headed northwest to Laramie to play collegiately.
While his family is still learning the intricacies of the sport their son thrives in, watching Titus play on national television last season was as much of a surreal experience as everything that has taken place in the past two decades.
“It was a proud moment … I couldn’t imagine that,” Christopher said. “A refugee boy from Africa, come from nothing, and now he’s on TV and they’re calling his name. It was amazing.”
The future remains bright for the youngest Swen, who figures to play a large role for a Wyoming team that is among the top contenders to win the Mountain West in 2020. His strength and burst are unlike anything UW offensive coordinator Brent Vigen had seen from a player his age.
“Titus certainly flashed a lot as a true freshman. He broke tackles probably as good as anyone we’ve had since (former UW star) Brian Hill,” Vigen said.
But perhaps giving Titus the most optimism for his future is the fact that, for the first time in his life, he will be able to vote in an election this fall. After everything his family went through, the hardships and strife, Titus finally has the chance to make the sort of impact his family dreamed of having when they fled Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The first time Christopher and Felicia were able to vote, Titus actually asked his parents if he could have an absentee ballot, Christopher reminisced with a laugh.
“Many African-Americans fought for that right (to vote). I’m excited that I get to use it finally,” Titus said. “I just want to get my two cents out there.”
As proud as they are of Titus for becoming a football star, Christopher and Felicia are more proud of the person he’s become and his desire to better himself. From 2004 to now, the Swens have gone through turmoil most Americans could never imagine. In 2020, with things being as tough as they are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, the family can’t help but look at the glass as being half full.
The Swen family has firmly grasped the American dream and doesn’t plan on letting it go.
“We had a peace of mind when we became citizens. When you’re born here, you take it for granted,” Christopher said. “When you come from another place … you accomplished something. … It’s important for every one of us.
“Becoming a citizen … the sky is the limit. A lot of opportunity opens for you.”